Bicycles put people together

Interview with Henk Cor van der Kwast, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Slovakia

How are you today?
Very well. It´s a gorgeous day, we are in the nice city. I’ve been in Trnava several times, I really like it here.

Do you like cycling?
Yes. (Laughter…)

Do you ride a bicycle also here in Slovakia?
Yes, regularly, four – five times a week. I do it for a fun and a little bit for a training, to remain fit.

Do you like to ride a bike in Bratislava?
Absolutely. I think the overall roads and possibilities for cycling are quite good. There are many cycling paths, so partly we use a main roads, but there are many paths along Danube. What I like, you have special ways for bikes on all three bridges. They go under the traffic, which is excellent and very safe, well designed. So we do that, we make a tour either in the direction to the Budapest along the Danube, or you can go over the border to the Austria. There is Hainburg, where you can make a tour with some castle on the way and you enter again Slovakia at Devin Castle. This trip I do quite regularly and I also cycle very often in Železná Studienka.

What are the main differences between cycling in Slovakia and in Holland?
In Holland cars are more used to bikes. Car drivers are usually more careful when they see a bike, they give it preference or that sort of thing. That is a big advantage, we also have a protection by the law which says that car driver is more responsible than bike driver in case of accident. Bike driver is also responsible, but because we are more vulnerable as bike drivers it´s expected from car drivers that they take it to account. I find in Slovakia more and more people are cycling maybe because of example of Peter Sagan. You can see in the Sunday morning hundreds of people cycling around Bratislava. Cars get more used to it. Before I came here I lived four years in Geneva and if I compare cycling in Geneva and Bratislava, then your capital city is much safer than Geneva is. This is partly due to drivers who are a bit more careful and partly because of the fact that you have more cycling paths here than in Geneva. Slovakia is really active in this, more can be done, surely, but it´s active.

What about an interaction between pedestrians and cyclists?
That is a good point. In Holland we have very strict difference between cycling paths and pedestrianʻs paths. It is less developed in Slovakia, but I think it is a question of time because it is important of course for pedestrians to have a clear way you can use.

When you mentioned that cycling paths on the banks of Danube, it is one of examples how pedestrians and cyclists have to coexist in one public space. There were not cycling paths years before and for many pedestrians take time to use to it, to tolerate it.
I agree, your point on time, that is very important. Partly it´s a mentality question and people have to learn it. It´s not because I am Dutch, but cycling is healthy for you if you do it every day, it´s better for the environment, and it is better for contact with people. If we are all sitting in cars we donʻt speak to each other. If you and I cycle every day to work we meet each other on the bike, we can talk, so socially it has many advantages. And of course, cycling actually is cheap, much cheaper than cars. It has many advantages, people have to discover that and government and local authorities as well. People have to get used to it.

Holland is very experienced and skilled in this area. Are there some points to learn from Holland?
If think first is infrastructure – separate paths, that is very important to do that. Other thing which is important is safety. We have the rule, I have mentioned already, that if you hit bicycle with your car you are always about 50 percent guilty. You are considered to drive very responsible when bikes are around. People know that a thatʻs why they are careful, otherwise they can get fined. People understand it very well because very often you yourself are on the bike. If you ride a bike regularly and then you drive a car you very much aware of the risk, because you know both sides. My son is taking driving lessons here in Slovakia and I was very positive that his teacher pointed how to deal with cyclists. I think if everybody does that it would be very helpful.

Bikes have changed very much in last five years because of electric parts, they can achieve higher speeds, but for car drivers it became harder to predict where that bike move and when. How to deal with these things?
Itʻs very important issue an itʻs also an issue in Holland. We have had several campaigns by the government which were going two ways. One was for cyclists: if you take electric bike, you are much faster, take it to the account. For car drivers: be aware that these bikes are very fast and etc. We donʻt have a new law or something similar but we have awareness campaign around those electrical bikes. On the one hand they are good because they are suitable for elder people who canʻt do normal cycling anymore, but you have think of safety also.

Mobility is a part of broader issue in urbanism called Smart Cities concept. What is your experience with dutch cities and firms in this area, how developed are they?
Some towns are quite far, some towns are only at the beginning. In general, there is an awareness campaign, they have to see it. Companies – this is a good point, because particularly companies are seeking the advantages of it. What happened in Netherlands with number of cities was that less and less people go to the city to shop, to spend a time, because they do it either online or they donʻt like it because parking cost are too high, it takes you a lot of time, there are the traffic jams… The risk of that is that cities become less popular which isn’t good for businesses in the city. Something you can do is the development of smart cities and they become are more attractive to live in.  Trnava wasn’t built for cars and buses centuries ago. It was built for horses, carriages and for walking. If you make such a city more of a smart city itʻs more human city, itʻs more pleasant to walk around. If there are cars itʻs not that pleasant. In Holland we have parking on the outskirts of the city, you park your car there and inner part is car free or with limited access for cars. With this evolution companies started to realize there are big advantages to it.

Have you found some good examples in smart cities area in Slovakia?
Yes. Free bikes you have it here, we have it now since month in Bratislava and itʻs big success. We talked about riding along the Danube, they have those bikes there. We go there regularly and almost all the time all bikes are gone. A lot of people take them for shopping, tourists for pleasure. One example I havenʻt seen in Holland and itʻs very nice. On Železná Studienka, this amenity you can find in the middle of the park. Here you can repair your bike – there is a pump, keys, you can hang your bike there. This is fantastic thing I have never seen in Holland and I said back home itʻs good idea. When you bike around Bratislava, there are always signs, you know where to go, how far itʻs.

You collaborate with Smart Cities Klub, do you plan to deepen this cooperation?
Absolutely. This is first we do it and we will do it in nine Slovak cities. We plant tulips to Slovakia and we will do cycling in those cities. From Trnava we will move to Prešov and then to Košice and to next towns.


The interviewer: Juraj Kantorík