# These travel time maps show how well, or badly, British cities are connected by rail

How distant from Hull is the rest of the UK? On the left is physical distance, on the right is travel time by train. Image: Tom Forth/CityMetric.

There are two different ways of measuring distance. (Actually, there are more, perhaps infinitely more, but for the purposes of this story we shall go with two.)

You can do it as-the-crow-flies, drawing a straight line to find the shortest distance between two points; or you can consider how long it would actually take you to get from point A to point B. Of these two methods, the former has the advantage of being objective, scientific and accurate; but it's the latter that actually chimes with human experience of the world.

Which brings us to this rather clever map we found on the website of entrepreneur, occasional CityMetric contributor and professional Yorkshireman Tom Forth.

The map shows how well connected 22 British cities are by rail. Click on any one of them, and you can toggle between one map showing physical distance, and another showing how long it’ll actually take you to travel to other cities by train. (This is something called an “isochrones” map.)

To make things even cooler, the travel time map overlays a warped, pink version of the British isles. By comparing it to the geographically accurate white one beneath it, you can get a very rough idea of which bits of the country take longer to get to than you'd expect them to.

All that's probably a bit difficult to visualise, though, so let's actually try it out.

Let's start with London. Despite being tucked away in one corner of the British isles, the capital is the centre of Britain's rail network, with direct trains to basically everywhere. Consequently, it doesn't warp the map too much:

How far from London is the rest of the UK? On the left is physical distance, on the right is travel time by train.

A few places in the flung corners of the British isles – Plymouh, Norwich, Inverness – are slightly further from that capital than one might expect. A few areas (lowland Scotland, Devon) take a surprisingly long while to traverse by train.

But other cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow – are pulled slightly closer on the isochronal map. That's a measure of the fact that both the East Coast Main Line into King's Cross, and the West Coast version into Euston, are actually pretty nippy.

Generally speaking, though, the travel time map is a pretty similar shape to the geographical one. This isn't going to last, so enjoy it while you can.

Now let's look at what happens when we click on Birmingham. It may not be at the centre of Britain's rail network, but it is in the middle of the country, so you'd expect the map to look pretty accurate, right?

Distances from Birmingham. On the left is physical distance, on the right is travel time by train.

You can instantly see that it takes longer to get to almost anywhere if you're starting from Brum than it does if you're starting from London. The pink overlay is waaaaaay bigger than the map underneath.

For a good example, look at Norwich: only 150 miles from Birmingham, but a good four hours away by train. That's an average speed of less than 40mph.

We can keep playing this game for hours. Plymouth is so far west that it takes two hours just to get to Bristol; on the isochronal map, Norwich is practically on Dogger Bank, and, as for Scotland, forget it.

Distances from Plymouth. On the left is physical distance, on the right is travel time by train.

From Norwich it takes at least three hours to get basically anywhere:

Distances from Norwich. On the left is physical distance, on the right is travel time by train.

Ditto Inverness.

Distances from Inv- oh, you know the drill by now.

And don't even get me started on Hull.

Same again.

It's probably risky to draw too many conclusions from all this: we're only looking at one form of transport, so it’s a bit premature to argue that Norwich, say, is isolated from other cities.

But we can say a few things. It seems pretty clear that the cities best connected to Britain’s railway network are those that are on a few major arteries (most important, the East and West coast main lines). Hull's relative isolation stems from the fact that it's on what is in effect a branch line.

It also helps to have fast trains in more than one direction. It doesn't take that long to get from Norwich to London, but that's not that helpful when most of Britain's cities are in the other direction – and trains out of Norwich to the west are distinctly plodding.

Anyway. If you're the sort of person who likes playing with these things, and why wouldn't you be, then you can do so on Tom's website here. You should also, since he’s been kind enough to let us nick his maps, follow him on Twitter.

# How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest.

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere.

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips.

## Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step.

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says.

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island.

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

## Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists.

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.”

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

## Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen.

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead.

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes.

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives.

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek.

## Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people.

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

## Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea.

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.”

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.