Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Of six new bridges in Assen, three are only for cyclists and pedestrians. But they're not good enough. I'll only cheer about new infrastructure when it is an improvement.

Locations of the six new bridges
In the past, Het Kanaal ("the canal") was an important trade route for barges which went close to the centre of Assen. It was cut off last century during the period when emphasis was on motor vehicles and much commercial shipping moved from the canals onto roads. The Blauwe As (Blue Axis) project in Assen seeks to re-open Het Kanaal for recreational use. Six new bridges are being built. Three bridges are for bicycles and pedestrians only, the other three also accommodate cars. Each of the bicycle bridges has replaced a previously existing bicycle bridge while the bicycle and car bridges will replace junctions where the canal had been entirely filled in. It's a very well funded project, a €50M part of the Florijn As project which in total will cost €1.5 billion.

When I first heard of this project I hoped that by this date I would be writing about impressive new cycling facilities which resulted from the new investment. Unfortunately, the planning process has been rather opaque so far as the public is concerned. We've seen flashy videos but not a lot of detail. thus far it has been could have written about six new wonderful bridges. It would have been dishonest to write about the new proposals based on nothing but the flashy plans presented and very little information was made available before building.  At best, this could have been a chance to improve conditions for cyclists. It could also have been a sideways move for cyclists. However while these works bring obvious benefits for drivers, the outcome appears to be to make conditions slightly worse for both cyclists and pedestrians in Assen. The three bicycle bridges were completed first, at the end of 2014, and I won't gloss over the problems that they cause.

Bike Bridge 1
The old bridge has been relocated to a
quiet location in a suburb where its
5.3 m width and separate provision
for cyclists and pedestrians is far
more than adequate.
The bridge shown at (1: Vaart / Het Kanaal) on the map above featured on my blog four years ago. It had previously been moved as a part of a large and successful project from another position nearby to this location in order to complete a high quality direct route for cyclists. The bridge combined a 3.5 metre wide cycle-path with a 1.8 metre wide pedestrian path, allowing both cyclists and pedestrians to access the city centre without conflict. While this bridge was 5.3 m wide in total, that still made this the narrowest part of a very high quality route from a new suburb to the city centre. At the time when the route was re-constructed, it was considered to be important that cycle journey times should so short as possible in order to make cycling into the most attractive mode of transport from the new suburb to the city.

The 4 m wide replacement will
inevitably cause conflict between
cyclists and pedestrians.
Unfortunately, some of that good work from seven years ago has been un-done. The replacement bridge is much narrower at just four metres wide in total. There is no separate surface for pedestrians. Conflict occurs between pedestrians and cyclists required to "share" because pedestrians are much slower than cyclists and they meander while cyclists travel somewhat faster and need to maintain their momentum.

Conflict is particularly a problem where paths are busy (the three locations highlighted in this blog post can be very busy) and at narrow points such as bridges . Everywhere in the world where shared use paths have been built this same problem occurs. That shared use paths didn't work well was understood in the Netherlands at least a decade ago and planners in this country were once careful to avoid creating these problems. Lessons from the past appear to have been forgotten. The new bridge is to be "shared" by cyclists and pedestrians together, meaning that people who attempt to use the cycling route as it was intended to be used - i.e. as an efficient route to the city centre - will now be delayed whenever pedestrians are crossing the bridge and those pedestrians will experience the same discomfort due to cyclists being "too fast" as is experienced in other countries.

Bike Bridge 2
The old bridge was obviously ready
for replacement in 2008. I expected the
new one to be an improvement
The second bicycle bridge is number three on the plans above. The Venebrug, This is the only one of the three which is a small improvement over the old. The original bridge at this location was already much too narrow, just 3.5 m wide. It never had a separate path for pedestrians and this bridge was therefore one of very few places near the centre of Assen which demonstrated the problems caused by shared use. Luckily the problems were only on the bridge itself and the bridge is quite short. At either side of the bridge there was separate infrastructure for walking so the problem was at least on a very small scale.

Very slightly wider than the obviously
inadequate bridge which came before.
The replacement bridge in this second location is fractionally wider at 3.8 m, so can be seen as a slight improvement over the old, but this is so only because the original was so inadequate. A mere 30 cm improvement in width when the older bridge was so obviously inadequate and should always have provided separately for pedestrians isn't something to get excited about. A chance to upgrade the experience for both cyclists and pedestrians has been missed.

Bike Bridge 3

There is a very obvious difference in width between the old bridge and the new bridge in this location. The separate pedestrian crossing which was designed for the older bridge now lines up with nothing at all. This video demonstrates how minor conflicts arise even at quiet times.

The old bridge was 5.5 - 6 m wide
A separate path for pedestrians
prevented conflict.
The third cycling bridge is shown as bridge 4 on the plans above. The Molenbrug is on a main cycling route which has always been far busier than the Venebrug. That is probably why this bridge always was considerably wider. This bridge had a separate path for pedestrians. I never measured this bridge. Estimating from Google Earth it appears that it was around 5.5 m wide.

Architectural drawings made the new
bridge look wide, showing just two
people at a time crossing.
The replacement for this bridge is the biggest disappointment of the three. At just 3.8 metres wide, this is the biggest percentage reduction in width. Even on a relatively quiet winter afternoon, as shown in the video above, you can see the problems caused by the new bridge. It is very obvious that pedestrians need a separate path. Again, how did Assen make such a mistake as to build this inadequate infrastructure to replace an existing and successful bridge ?

A local campaigner asked a councillor why the bridge had been built more narrow. The reason given was one of "bezuinigingen" - budget cuts. In this project which is being funded with a total of €1.5 billion and which will lead to much more convenience for drivers elsewhere in the city, we are being asked to believe that a slightly too narrow bridge for cyclists is the item on which savings must be made.

A view of the new bridge with the original crossing shows how the pedestrian crossing built to line up with the old bridge now leads into the water because the new bridge isn't nearly so wide as the old. Note the pedestrian in front of a cyclist approaching a bollard, which creates a dangerous pinch point for the cyclist and leads to close passing which makes the pedestrian feel uneasy. This photo was taken just a day after the new bridge opened. The conflict was visible immediately. It's just as you'd expect in any place where cyclists and pedestrians are supposed to "share".

Path alongside Het Kanaal
Not all pedestrians will be able to use
their new path because there are steps.
The Venebrug is linked by a path to the Venestraat. In 2008, this link consisted of a 3 m wide cycle path and a separate parallel 2 m wide pedestrian path. The old cycle-path was of smooth asphalt and no conflict occurred here because of the separate paths.

The replacement path does not have a parallel pedestrian path so there is now conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. The new path has the same three metre width as the old cycle-only path, but it is surfaced with bricks which give a less smooth ride to cyclists than the old asphalt.

It is planned that a separate path for pedestrians will be built, but rather than taking the same line as the old pedestrian path, this will take a less convenient route alongside the water. There are several reasons why pedestrians won't want to use this new path: It's a board-walk so will be rough to walk on, it doubles as mooring space for boats, and it also requires use of steps, so will not be accessible to all pedestrians. Pedestrians will continue to use the cycle-path because they are not being provided with a usable alternative.

Car bridges
The three other bridges are for driving cars over as well as for cycling. In each case there is no bridge in the current situation as the canal was filled in some years ago. Details of the car bridges are not public. The only information easily available is in the form of pictures from the architects which feature no cyclists at all.

The bridge at location (6) is to look like this. It appears to be neutral so far as its effect on cyclists is concerned but we don't have much to go on. There is already a signalized crossing in this location for bikes. The cycle-path shown along the side of the canal doesn't exist at present so this could be one small gain.

(5) Many of those cyclists will turn
left. In future they'll have to cross
straight over and then wait again to
make a left turn.
The bridge which I'm most concerned about is that on Groningerstraat, shown at (5) above. This is currently a very efficient Simultaneous Green traffic light junction. I use it often to head home from the centre of the city, turning left diagonally across the junction in order to make a quick journey.

The only publicly available picture
of the new bridge at (5). We can't see
what is happening here.
From what we've been able to make out, this junction will no longer have simultaneous green traffic lights. A representative of the company behind these works talked about getting rid of the diagonal crossing. The impression I was given at the meeting is that cyclists will in future be required to stop twice in order to make a left turn: If so, then this is another step backwards from good design.

Existing arrangement at Nobellaan (2)
The last bridge for cars is that on Nobellaan, shown at (2) above. This is part of our most direct route from home into the city centre so we use it often. Behind the viewpoint of the camera in this photo there are rather good cycle-paths. It is from this point onwards that the quality of our current route to the city centre drops. It was my assumption when I wrote about this location at the start of 2012 that the old low quality infrastructure would be improved upon by lengthening the cycle-paths which lead to this location until they eventually took cyclists safely to the city centre. That has not happened and it appears that nothing will improve with the new bridge. What's on offer here is low quality provision for cyclists:  on-road cycle-lanes with all their attendant problems. A few hundred metres onwards from this location we reach the bad example cycling infrastructure design in a new development which I covered in my last blog post.

The only publicly available picture
representing the new bridge at (2)
You'll note from the map at the blog post that there is supposed to be a walking and cycling route between (1) and (3) which crosses the road at this point. Unfortunately, there is no good way of crossing the road at this point now and this will actually get slightly worse in the future if the available pictures which represent the route are accurate. The existing partial central reservation in this location offers a modicum of safety for cyclists and pedestrians when crossing because it separates the two opposing flows of motor traffic, but this does not exist with the new situation.

Crossing the road safely here will become more difficult because there will be two lanes of cycle traffic and three lanes of motorized traffic to cross in one go without anywhere to stop in the centre. A few years ago, Assen was demonstrating very well how building central reservations could make crossing easier in far less busy locations than this, but the ambition to make crossing easier and safer appears to have been forgotten about.

Ahead of the bridge are these on-road cycle-lanes, Newly built in 2012, they force cyclists to ride next to buses and trucks (which do not keep to the 30 km/h speed limit). There is no reason for this low quality infrastructure. There is no lack of space here. The pavements have been built extremely wide and space has been found for plants in the middle of the street. Almost all cyclists make a left turn across the road next to the tall building. It's been known to be dangerous since at least 2005 but this street redesign did nothing to improve the situation.
A short history: The last ten years in Assen
"Assen Cycles". In 2005, there was
a real ambition to increase cycling
in Assen.
By 2005, well over 30% of all trips within Assen were by bicycle yet the ambitious "Fietsverkeer nota" document from that year was modest and talked only about how Assen had "the potential to become a real cycling city". At that time, just €4.5 Million could be allocated for the work on cycling infrastructure but this was spent wisely, an enormous number of improvements were made and the cycling modal share increased as a result.

When we first arrived in Assen, many
cycle-paths were surfaced with tiles.
Almost all were upgraded to asphalt
by 2010. With the new projects we
now see asphalt replaced by bricks.
The 2005 document discussed such things as how important it was to improve links to areas for shopping, employment, schools, entertainment and the railway station. It was recognized that cyclists needed smooth asphalt or concrete surfaces in place of tiles or bricks, that a fine grid of high quality facilities were required to make cycling attractive to all destinations, that cycle-paths needed to be wide in order to reduce conflict, that cycle-routes should be direct, that cyclists should have the shortest possible waiting times at traffic lights, or none at all, and that the Simultaneous Green traffic light design with two greens for cyclists in each cycle of the traffic lights was desirable. There were many other recommendations in this excellent document.

We moved to Assen in 2007 because we were impressed both with the existing infrastructure and also the ambition for more cycling. In 2011 I wrote about how things would continue to get better. An official document said that "By 2015, so many journeys as possible must be by bike. Bikes must more frequently take priority over cars". Sadly, I don't see much of that ambition in the new plans. Assen now has an enormous amount of money to spend on infrastructure, but the new proposals include few improvements for cyclists and several off them are actively hostile to cycling. Funding is being found for expensive projects which look great in architectural drawings but which are not thought through from the point of view of a cyclist. Much is being spent to create huge areas of concrete which no-one will use, simply to satisfy an architectural trend. By blindly following this trend, the city risks undoing much of the good that was achieved in the past.

What you read about above is not something unique to these bridges (there are other plans which I may well write about later) or even just to Assen. Across the Netherlands there is now far too much emphasis being placed on appearance of projects and not enough on their functionality.

No country and no city is immune from declines in cycling. No place gets a free pass, no place has cycling so embedded in its culture that people won't stop cycling if it becomes unpleasant or dangerous. Cycling already declined declined across the Netherlands when policy favoured motoring in the mid 20th century. When Assen was an unpleasant city for cycling, cycling declined in Assen too. Cycling is a very fragile mode of transport. It will only remain at a high level or grow if facilities for cycling are kept to a very high standard.

Other newly built problem areas in Assen
Other examples of where Assen has made recent planning mistakes include:
  1. The unpopular and dangerous Kerkplein Shared Space
  2. A new shopping centre built with no provision for bicycles in a city where most shopping is by bicycle
  3. The area outside the new cultural centre.
The view from overseas
Most of my readers are from outside the Netherlands, and having read many positive stories from Assen in the past I suspect some will be surprised at my sentiment in this blog post. No place is perfect. I try not to present an unrealistic picture of the Netherlands and that is why I have written about problems in Assen and elsewhere in the Netherlands many times before. I don't write blog posts about the newest infrastructure or regurgitate press releases which claim improvements in safety which are not confirmed by actual data. It's why I caution about assuming that everything Dutch is worth emulating. It is only worth copying from the best examples in the Netherlands. Increasingly, the best examples are not necessarily the newest, and they are usually not the most well publicized either.

Some of these bad examples have been part of our study tours for the last few years. We will be running study tours again this year and again they will offer an honest and independent appraisal of what works and what does not work in the Netherlands, with no commercial reason to push one solution over another.

Good infrastructure in Assen
Assen also has much very good cycling infrastructure. Read more about the best examples of infrastructure in Assen.

Monday, 12 January 2015

How poor design creates conflict: An inconvenient and dangerous junction in Assen.

Poor infrastructure design causes conflict wherever it exists. This is just as true in the Netherlands as in other countries. It should not be assumed that employment of Dutch architects is enough to produce good results for cycling. We can't even guarantee that in the Netherlands...

Just over two years ago, a huge new cultural centre, De Nieuwe Kolk, opened in Assen to accommodate the library, cinema, theatre and other arts related facilities. It's a very impressive looking building and it provides some great facilities for local people.

Whether it makes sense for a city of just 70000 people to spend €100M on such a facility is not a subject for this blog. However the quality of design of the newly built road outside the new building, and the problems which it causes for cyclists most certainly is a subject for this blog:

How poor design leads to conflict and danger
All the problems shown in the video and the photos below occur within a 100 metre long stretch of new road. Not only the road but the large building next to it is also completely new. It is situated on top of an entirely new under-ground car-park which goes down several floors and required disturbing everything which already existed (plumbing, drainage, electricity etc.). There was a very good opportunity to improve conditions for cycling here as part of this work. To have done so would have cost a tiny fraction of the cost of the development as a whole. Sadly, that opportunity was not taken.

The enormous space between buildings on either side of the road (at its widest about 60 metres) has been used in order to create a specific look and to cater for the needs of motorists. It has not been used for the maximum benefit of pedestrians and cyclists.

The pavements (sidewalks) for pedestrians are incredibly generous even though the number of people who walk on them is low. Decorative steps to reach the main entrance of the new building take up a huge amount of space and a central reservation which accommodates a small number of plants is also several metres in width. Buses have functional bus-stops, taxis have a taxi-rank and there's a large loading area opposite the building.

Motor vehicles were very clearly the main priority of the designers. This road works well enough by car, providing a direct through route which is part of the busy inner ring-road. There are two pedestrian crossings to look out for, but apart from that, motorists rarely have to slow or stop.

That leaves one mode of transport which has to be fitted in around the others: Cycling is important in Assen. Assen residents make an average of nearly 1.2 journeys per day by bike and more shopping takes place in the city centre by bicycle than by other means. City centre businesses rely upon people being able to ride bikes to the city in order to survive. Sadly, making cycling safer and more convenient was not at the top of the agenda for this design. On this route to the city centre, cyclists have been provided with nothing more than on-road cycle-lanes. No attempt at all was made to improve on the inadequate previous layout. It has been known for many years that merely lowering speed limits limited effectiveness for improving cyclist safety but that's the only positive step which was taken. While a 30 km/h speed limit applies to this section of road, many people drive their cars faster because the road clearly can be driven along at a higher speed.

The result is that within this short length of road, cyclists experience the wide range of problems as shown in the video above and the photos below.

Architect's dream
Before starting with my photos, showing how the area really looks in daily use, here's one of the photos used by the architects to publicize their work on the new building. My vantage point for making most of the video was amongst the light sculpture on the steps, coloured purple in this photo:
Note that the architect's photo, taken soon after construction of the building. This emphasizes the appearance of the area, de-emphasizes conflict due to its design, doesn't give any hints as to how cyclists should behave here. Note that it shows no outdoor cycle-parking. This was retro-fitted at a later date after people realised how inconvenient it was to access the new building by bicycle. Note the line taken by the car headlights. Even in the best photo that the architects could take, cars consistently enter the cycle-lane when going around the corner. These points are expanded on below.
Cycle-lanes on bends encourage drivers to cut corners
There are many perpetual problems with on-road cycle-lanes, one of which is that drivers have a natural tendency to encroach on these lanes as they go around corners. This happens regularly on both sides of the road in this location. You can see it even in the architects' photo above. The white tracks left by the headlights of a passing car show that this car also entered the cycle-lane when going around the corner. Good cycling infrastructure should keep cyclists away from motor vehicles.
Drivers everywhere have a tendency to enter cycle-lanes where they go around corners. The Netherlands is no different. This is one of the reasons why use of on-road cycle-lanes erodes the safety of cyclists.
U-turns cause motor vehicles to enter cycle-lane
Because there is a designed in space for drivers to make U-turns, they do this regularly. However, the lanes for motor vehicles are not wide enough to avoid problems so nearly every car or van which makes a U-turn enters the cycle-lane in order to do so.
A still from the video above. Cars which are about to U-turn pull into the cycle-lane in just the same way as cars which are parking. In the video I was overtaken by this car which then pulled to the right and slowed down. I pulled out slightly to pass but the car then turned left across my path.

Note that bollards are used in an attempt to prevent cyclists or drivers from encroaching on the wide and usually empty pavement at this point, but nothing protects cyclists within the cycle-lane.

Taxi rank / loading bay entrance
Not only do drivers make U-turns, but they also turn across the cycle-lane to enter a taxi tank and loading area.

Take note not only of where the car is turning into but also the following danger just a few metres further along - a bus-stop which requires buses to cross the cycle-lane.
Bus-stops without bypasses
Assen has many good examples of how cycling infrastructure can be designed to avoid conflict with buses at bus-stops, but none of them served as examples for this busy street. Instead, cyclists on this short stretch of road experience all the same problems as cyclists anywhere else in the world where proper bus-stop bypasses are a rarity. Cyclists are endangered by buses overtaken by buses which then pull into the cycle-lane across their path and buses have a tendency to pull out of bus-stops while cyclists are riding past.

In the past, the east-bound bus-stop was before the corner where at least there were reasonably good sight lines. It has now been moved to after the corner.
A view in the opposite direction from the photo above. A bus-stop immediately around a bend. Assen has many bus-stop bypasses which remove conflict between buses and cyclists. Almost all of them are located on roads which are less busy than this one. Neither bus-stop built as part of this new development includes a proper bus-stop bypass to keep cyclists safe so there are clashes between cyclists and buses pulling in and out of the bus-stops.

Cyclists can't turn left to cross easily to the city centre
Many cyclists from the west of the city turn left at this point to enter the city centre. Turning left from a cycle-lane in a country where the convention is to drive on the right requires taking a good look over one's shoulder while also judging what is happening in front. This is increasingly difficult with age. Many older people cannot look around so easily as they could when they were young.

Making a left turn also often requires a cyclist to accelerate to pull out in front of a car. This is another factor which discriminates against those who are less able and it requires a level of confidence that the driver behind is paying attention.

At this location there are additional problems due to design:

  1. The left turn takes place on a bend where motorists often cut the corner.
  2. It happens at the same point as where pedestrians may cross the road and where motorists may (or may not) slow down or stop due to those pedestrians.
  3. It's almost exactly at the point where motorists can make U-turns, which leads to unpredictable behaviour as drivers swerve right into the cycle-lane before they making a sharp left turn.
  4. Drivers never turn left at this point so any motor vehicle which manages to pull alongside and begin to overtake very effectively blocks cyclists from being able to make their turn.

This is a very busy cycle-route. Most cyclists need to make a left turn here to enter the city centre. This is difficult because they are encouraged to ride on the right side of motor vehicles and because the pedestrian crossing is located exactly where cyclists also need to cross. Note that again someone has chosen to use the pavement rather than cycle-lane (disability buggies have the status of bicycles in the Netherlands). Any bus in this position is likely to swerve right immediately after the pedestrian crossing in order to enter the bus-stop.
Cycle-parking design inadequate
When the new building opened, an indoor cycle-park opened with it. This initially looked quite good, but it was not well thought through. Access was relatively difficult in comparison with parking outside the building, and the double layer stands used are of a poor design which does not support bicycles well (it's possible for a bicycle to fall out from them and land on the floor). What's more, the architects got some of the details very wrong. For instance, the indoor cycle-parking is not at ground level but requires going down some steps for access and while there is a wheeling gutter, this doesn't reach ground level but requires that people lift their bicycles. As a result of these problems, local people refused to use the cycle-parking and the council was forced to provide additional cycle-parking where it always should have existed - close to the front door of the building. Because of the planners' obsession with huge empty spaces, it was easy to find room for the cycle-parking but unfortunately, there is no good way of accessing this parking without cycling on the pavement:
The most convenient cycle-parking for the new building was retro-fitted outdoors in this location after local people objected to having to use a less convenient indoor cycle-park. This was intended by the architect as a huge empty space beside the building. Note also the pavement cyclist. Many people prefer to cycle on the pavement here rather than the road.
Cycle-lanes not wide enough for passing
These cycle-lanes measure 1.9 m wide, meeting recommended widths for cycle-lanes, but at busy times there are often too many cyclists here and people who wish to overtake must use the main traffic lanes. This of course brings another potential conflict - between cyclists and motorists.

At busy times these cycle-lanes are not really wide enough.
Lack of pedestrian crossing points
Not only cyclists but also pedestrians are inconvenienced by the new road layout. There are crossings only at either end of the building while many people have a reason to cross at points in-between.
No matter what planners might hope, pedestrians simply won't walk long detours to cross the road. This photo also gives another view of the popular conveniently placed outdoor cycle-parking which the planners thought cyclists didn't need.
A lot of people cross the road while pushing their bikes because there is no other way to make a left turn into the cycle-lane on the other side of the road and ride away from the camera on the correct side of the road.
Neither pedestrians nor cyclists can cross the road except at either end of the long building. The distance is simply too great.
Pavement cycling
In any place where cycling on the road does not feel safe, people will cycle on the pavement (sidewalk) instead. Pavement cycling is actually quite rare in the Netherlands because in most locations cycle-paths are provided which make people feel safe enough not to use the pavement or motor through traffic is removed making it safe enough to use the roads. However, where the infrastructure does not support safe cycling (such as in Shared Space areas or places like this) many people vote with their wheels and take to the pavement. The solution to pavement cycling is good cycling infrastructure:

Many people prefer to cycle on the pavement here rather than the road. The sight of cyclists on the pavement should be seen as a flag which indicates that road and cycle infrastructure design is not adequate. Children do it.
Cyclists should not be forced to break the law in order to achieve safety. Women also cycle on the pavement here.
And the cycle-lane is unattractive enough that a significant number of men cycle on the pavement here too.

Parking in cycle-lanes
Another of the perpetual problems with on-road cycle-lanes is that drivers just can't seem to avoid parking in them. That happens here too, and it usually takes place right at the point where it is most dangerous - i.e. right on the bend and where U-turns, cyclist left turns and a pedestrian crossing collide:
Cycle-lane parking is a problem everywhere that cycle-lanes exist. When drivers park in the cycle-lane this makes the already difficult situation around this junction even worse.
Google Maps immortalized another of the cycle-lane parkers.
Why now ?
You may wonder why I have waited until 2015 to publish a blog post about problems caused by infrastructure which was completed in 2012. This area has already featured as examples of "what not to do" on our study tours but it took time to get around to writing about these problems.

I held off at first with public criticism because the situation here had not really been made significantly worse than it was before. It's not realistic to expect that all steps taken will progress cycling. There will always be occasional mis-steps. Almost everything that changed between 2007 when we moved to the city and 2012 was good.

When I wrote in 2013 about what had been achieved in the last six years, I briefly mentioned the problems with the indoor cycle-parking at this location but was otherwise positive about almost everything except a new shopping centre and the road outside, which I was surprised to find were designed as if cyclists didn't matter at all. This has turned out to be part of a destructive trend. Current plans for Assen are simply not so good as those from ten years ago. More again on this soon.

The 2005 fietsverkeernota showed three
locations where cycling safety should
be improved which were close to the
new development above. (Highlighted
in yellow). An opportunity missed.
We moved here in 2007. We decided upon Assen after exploring much of the Netherlands and finding that this city combined the sort of life-style that we wanted with some of the best cycling infrastructure that we'd seen anywhere. What's more, Assen was not only already good but also had a huge ambition, expressed in an official document, to improve itself further for cycling.

Elsewhere in Assen: An old
but wide cycle-path which
was obviously intended to be
continued has instead been
cut off. Current plans are
to remove it altogether,
making a bad situation worse.
Improve or decline
Unfortunately, this no longer seems to be the case. Assen's ambitions are no longer what they were.

No country and no city is immune from declines in cycling. No place gets a free pass, no place has cycling so embedded in its culture that people won't stop cycling if it becomes unpleasant or dangerous. Cycling declined right across the Netherlands when policy favoured motoring and when Assen was an unpleasant city for cycling it declined in Assen too. Cycling is a very fragile mode of transport.

Where the cycle-path should have
continued: cyclists now ride on the
pavement even when there's a truck
parked on it. Few use the road.
Cycling can only be maintained and grown by investing in ever better conditions for cyclists. That is precisely what the Netherlands did from the 1970s until very recently and this successfully reversed the decline up until the 1970s. Stopping investment now, on the grounds that the cycling infrastructure is "finished" (an expression used by a councillor in a recent meeting at which I spoke about problems with another new design for Assen) will lead not to a constant level of cycling despite changes elsewhere to favour driving, but to a decline in cycling. This is doubly true when current plans in many cases will degrade conditions for cycling.

There will be more on the problems with the new plans in subsequent blog posts.

Overseas readers: Don't copy anything just because it's Dutch
The Netherlands has not turned against cycling, but across the Netherlands it seems that many of the principles on which the high cycling modal share of this country was built are now being pulled apart by people making change for the sake of change. Cycling is taken for granted by planners and architects. New plans fit cyclists around the edges of currently fashionable things deemed to be more important, such as the extra wide pavements shown above or nice lights.

The Netherlands still leads the world on cycling, but that doesn't mean that everything in this country is good for cyclists, nor that every Dutch designer or architect has any real understanding about how to design good infrastructure which encourages cycling.

It is important to be skeptical about claims any made by any architect or urban designer from any country. With the rise of interest in Dutch cycling infrastructure it's especially important that you don't approve of anything just because it's described as Dutch, but instead seek to build infrastructure which emulates the best of what they Dutch have achieved.

We are interested in what works, not what is currently most fashionable. In our independent study tours we show you not only the very best and most effective cycling infrastructure but also the mistakes which the Dutch are currently making and which you can learn not to make.

Other examples of where Assen has made recent planning mistakes include the unpopular and dangerous Shared Space at Kerkplein and a new shopping centre built with no provision for bicycles

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The devastating effect of Shared Space on the blind.

Shared Space represents a return of "might is right" to roads which could instead have been transformed to favour cycling and walking.

I've long been opposed to Shared Space because of its effect on all vulnerable road users. In 2008 I quoted the UK Guide Dog's association who said that "All of the participants reported greater difficulty" in Shared Space areas. The video below, produced in the UK, further shows the effect of Shared Space on blind people:

In the past I've visited many Shared Spaces in the Netherlands and well as in the UK. This includes Exhibition Road in London and the Shared Spaces in Southend-on-Sea.

Another UK example mentioned in the video is Poynton. Many claims were made for the safety of the new arrangement in Poynton before and just after its conversion to Shared Space, but now that a few years have passed we can see that the new layout in Poynton has proven to be ten times more dangerous for pedestrians in the period after conversion to Shared Space when compared with the period before.

Shared Space in Assen. Able-bodied
cyclists don't like it either. Note also
how well "place-making" worked out.
It's become one of very few places in
Assen with a fly-tipping problem.
Not just a problem in Britain
One participant in the video makes a point that it is British planners who don't understand Shared Space. There's a suggestion in the video that it somehow works better in the Netherlands but this is not really so. In reality, Shared Space doesn't work well in the Netherlands either and we see exactly the same problems in this country as are seen in the UK. Vulnerable road users are disenfranchised by Shared Space in just the same in the Netherlands as in the UK.

Hans Monderman's own pet schemes are not excluded from this criticism (see previous posts about Haren and Drachten).

Real statistics
Advocates of Shared Space continue to make claims of safety without any supporting statistics. Earlier this year, I revealed how the claims of safety are not backed up by Dutch road traffic crash statistics, which actually show quite bad safety records for many Shared Spaces compared with their surrounding area.

Counter the hype
Shared Space is a hype. This was acknowledged even by Hans Monderman during his lifetime. I would like think that had he remained alive, Hans could have countered some of the myths which grew up around his idea and slowed down its adoption. Sadly he is no longer here to do that.

Shared Space has become a deception which everyone needs to counter. It's not good for blind people or those with difficulty in moving, not good for people who are aged, not good for pedestrians and not good for cyclists. It's not even particularly great for car drivers who feel pushed into making strange manoeuvres.

People with disabilities can benefit from cycling infrastructure
While Shared Space creates problems for people with disabilities, good road and cycle path design can make conditions better for people with disabilities. Campaigners for cycling and for disabled rights should be allies. Read more about this subject.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Shared Use Paths create conflict and cause complaints about "speed"

Many countries build combined infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Wherever these shared-use (aka multi-use) paths exist, there are complaints due to the conflicts which occur. Many of the complaints are from pedestrians who find the speed of cyclists unacceptable on paths which they use for walking. This is a wholly avoidable problem.

The cyclists in the video above demonstrate well how most take extraordinary care around pedestrians. Every cyclist in the video has his or her journey made inconvenient by the presence of the pedestrians but they all slow down, even slowing so far as slowing to walking pace to climb an incline, a situation where cyclists naturally would like to keep their momentum as it requires less effort to climb without braking first.

What you see in the video is quite typical behaviour for cyclists anywhere in the world when they encounter pedestrians, but taking care in this way isn't enough to stop there being complaints. Cyclists are still likely to be regarded as a problem because their behaviour is different to that of pedestrians. Cyclists appear to invade personal space around pedestrians, to "squeeze past", to wobble and to swerve in and out. Even when taking care, their behaviour seems aggressive and unpredictable to many pedestrians. Complaints about excessive speed of cyclists on shared paths are often a result of perception by pedestrians rather than being due to cyclists riding past pedestrians at genuinely high speeds.

A short distance away from the location
in the video there is separate
infrastructure for pedestrians, but
unfortunately not yet for cyclists.
A few metres away from the bridge there are roads much like those in many countries on which motor vehicles routinely and legally travel at considerably higher speed than any cyclists in the video. Pedestrians rarely complain about excessive speed of motor vehicles on roads like this because those vehicles are driven on infrastructure segregated from pedestrians. Unless drivers leave the road and drive on the pavement (sidewalk), there is no invasion of pedestrian space and no close passing. Conflict between pedestrians and motorists is reduced by separating them.

Pedestrian zone in the centre of Assen
with a "road" for cyclists. A language
which everyone understands. This
design reduces conflict and complaints
All countries seem to understand how to build roads to cope with the speeds of motor vehicles and also how to build separate infrastructure for pedestrians to reduce conflict. The benefit of giving different and incompatible modes of transport their own space and not expecting them to share are understood widely. Why is there a blind spot when it comes to cycling infrastructure ? The aim is the same. Cyclists are neither car drivers nor pedestrians and should not be treated as if they were identical to either of these other two groups.

The only place with "sharing" in Assen
city centre is a central square. It's a
destination not a through route.
And its size .
The requirements for cycling infrastructure are not even particularly difficult to meet. Even the fastest of cyclists make their journeys at a fraction of the speed which can be reached by a car and the much lower mass combined with that speed presents a fraction of the danger of motor vehicles. Cycle-paths do not need to be so wide as roads for cars and infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels do not need to cater for such large vehicles or large weights as equivalent infrastructure for motor vehicles.

Where conflict between cyclists and pedestrians occurs, it is almost always due to cyclists being forced to use infrastructure which is not designed for them at all.

Infrastructure on which cyclists and pedestrians are expected to share equally does not properly take the requirements of either group of users into account and creates conflict situations.

The Jeremy Vine incident

A Royal Parks spokesman suggested
later that the speed limit perhaps
should not be applied to bikes
An incident this week in London gave a good example of what happens where there is a pretense that pedestrian infrastructure can also be used by bicycle. Radio presenter Jeremy Vine was stopped by police for speeding when cycling. How did he come to be stopped ? He was exceeding a speed limit of just 5 mph (8 km/h) on a path through a London park. The police saw this as a high enough priority that police officers were in the park to stop errant cyclists.

Despite considerably hype from the city, London is still a very difficult and dangerous place for cycling. Paths within parks in the city are well used by cyclists because they offer a rare opportunity for cyclists to make part of their journeys away from traffic. They also can offer relatively direct routes. Extremely low speeds might be acceptable for some cyclists making recreational trips but anyone trying to get somewhere at a speed competitive with other modes of transport needs to travel at more than jogging pace. 5 mph is much slower than a normal cycling speed. Almost anyone on a bicycle will exceed that speed without trying. It's clear that such a limit makes no sense for cyclists.

There followed some debate about whether or not the law applies in this specific case, but that's not really the point. Whether or not it's legal to cycle here at above 5 mph, there's still a problem: Infrastructure in parks in London which supposedly allows cycling is not good enough to make for safe and convenient journeys at normal cycling speeds. The shared nature of paths like this is itself a very large part of the reason why there is conflict. Police were present to stop cyclists in this park because there have been complaints in the past due to previous conflicts. Trying to impose an extremely low speed limit on one of the slowest means of transport is not a solution to the problem. What needs to happen is that proper consideration is made of why conflict occurs and action taken to improve infrastructure to the point that the conflict is reduced. In a city there will almost always be too many pedestrians and cyclists to allow them to share paths without conflict. Shared-use paths don't make sense in crowded cities.

Blaming victims of bad design
The idea that "speeding cyclists" are a problem which needs addressing is not new. Low speed limits to control cyclists are also remarkably common. Glasgow, for instance, wanted a 5 mph limit like that in London "to ensure other parks users’ safety" while allowing motor vehicles to travel at twice the speed. San Francisco discussed a 10 mph limit for cyclists crossing the Golden Gate bridge (the speed limit for motorists is higher of course), Sydney has a 10 km/h "advisory" speed limit over a bridge. Christchurch is planning for 15 km/h on "major cycleways".

The video from Sydney is worth watching. Note first that the bridge really is very wide. It could easily allow for normal cycling speeds if only there was a separate area marked for cyclists to reduce conflict (this should preferably look like a road as in the Assen photo above to reduce confusion). Also note that the fastest cyclist was travelling at just 23 km/h. 23 km/h is not fast at all for a regular cyclist. It's well within the range of normal speeds for cycling, a speed which in my experience is exceeded by many Dutch people on standard town bikes when going shopping. Participants on one of our study tours earlier this year may remember following a young student in Groningen who was applying her make-up while cycling at a consistent 27 km/h on a normal upright Dutch bike. I don't actually believe that speeds above 10 km/h are considered to be high speeds in Sydney except when the people under observation are cyclists. Perhaps Sydney residents can tell me whether there is any place at all within the city where drivers of cars are expected to observe a 10 km/h speed limit on one of their main through routes.

Ignoring the real danger
Each year, there are more than 1.2 million deaths across the world due to crashes involving motor vehicles and tens of millions more people are injured. Cyclists and pedestrians are often the victims of such crashes. There are no similar figures for deaths and injuries due to cyclists because the scale of the problem is infinitesimally smaller. Despite this, it is cyclists who are emphasized as a risk. You may wonder where these attitudes come from. What type of organisations would support such a notion as that cyclists go "too fast" and cause danger when it's so clear that morgues and hospitals the world are full of the victims of motor vehicle crashes, not of bicycle crashes.

A code of conduct for cyclists
consisting almost entirely
of asking the users of paths to
compensate for the problems
caused by low quality design
of those very same paths
Sustrans. For 'cycling' but against cyclists ?
Sustrans is a British organisation which claims to be interested in "enabling people to choose healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys" and which is behind the UK's "National Cycle Network". Unfortunately, in a scramble to be able to claim to have a large quantity of cycling facilities they long ago forgot about the importance of quality and as a result they are now in the position of defending inadequately designed shared-use paths which make up a significant proportion of their network. Many people, including myself, have criticised the inept designs of infrastructure which Sustrans still approves of, pointing out that they create conflict and danger. Sustrans' reaction to conflicts caused by the design of their infrastructure has been to publish a "code of conduct" for cyclists.

In their code of conduct, Sustrans point out themselves that their paths "aren’t suitable for high speeds" and suggest that "if you wish to travel quickly [...] this is better done on quiet roads". For all their claims about having provided a network of cycling infrastructure, they're actually admitting that this network is not suitable for cycling. All the emphasis is on cyclists being told to modify their behaviour except for just one clause each regarding dog walkers and pedestrians. When not telling cyclists to go elsewhere than to ride on the cycling infrastructure, Sustrans tell them to "slow down", "be patient" or use a "sensible speed" in order to work around the needs of other path users.

But what is a "sensible speed" for cycling ? That rather depends on one's perspective. If Sustrans were genuinely building routes for "SUStainable TRANSport" then these routes would be usable at normal cycling speeds. If Sustrans' National Cycle Network already truly met "the highest possible standards" then there would be no complaints, no reasons for Sustrans to tell cyclists to go elsewhere and no reason to impose limits.

Cyclist speeds cannot compete with motor vehicle speeds. The speed of cyclists is naturally limited by the limited power available from a human body. The highest speeds achieved by cyclists are comparable with the lowest speed limits imposed on motor vehicles. Countries which have no difficulty in building an extensive network of roads on which motor vehicles travel at 50-120 km/h shouldn't have any difficulty at all in building cycle-paths which can cope with cycling speeds which on the flat are seldom consistently above 30 km/h and peak speeds rarely above 50 km/h.

It's an absurdity for cycling infrastructure to be designed such that it is unable to cope with the relatively modest speeds which even fit cyclists achieve on their everyday journeys.

A photo chosen by Sustrans to illustrate
their National Cycling Network shows
why there are problems with it. The
cyclist has to ride on the wrong side
of a narrow path facing any oncoming
cyclists because the path is narrow
and full of pedestrians. Any path with
that many pedestrians on it is not a
cycle-path. This pattern of usage
guarantees that conflict will occur.
Sack-cloth and ashes
Sadly, Sustrans representatives have been repeatedly vocal about cyclists being "a menace that needs taming".

You might wonder how other cycling organisations in the UK reacted to an organisation which puts such a point of view and publishes a code of conflict which puts emphasis firmly on their members, fellow cyclists, as being a cause of trouble rather than pointing out that planners had done an inadequate job. Surprisingly, the answer is that many other organisations joined in. British Cycling gave its support and CTC endorsed the Sustrans code of conduct.

What's more, spokespeople from CTC and Sustrans got together to ask other cyclists to pick on an "anti-social minority", requesting that people "take action by pointing the finger" at other riders. It seems they'd all rather encourage a minor form of vigilantism and create an out-group of cyclists to blame instead of addressing head-on the problem of inadequate infrastructure which causes the conflicts to occur. It's hardly a secret that Sustrans' shared use paths are inadequate as even the photos chosen by Sustrans to illustrate their network actually demonstrate the problems with it.

With friends like this...

A meandering network
There's nothing wrong with building a network of meandering walking routes for people to enjoy by foot. But call it what it is. That's not how you create a network of convenient cycling routes which provide a realistic alternative to driving a car to make journeys. There's something very wrong indeed with pretending to have created cycling infrastructure or indeed an entire cycling network if actually cyclists are only welcome to use this network at a pace which makes cycling inconvenient.

If your cycling infrastructure can't cope with the speed of bicycles then it's simply not of high enough quality. A bridge which divides instead of connecting is not a success.

Racing cyclists, children, pensioners,
we all need the same efficient grid of
go-everywhere infrastructure
What's really required
To encourage people to cycle, cycling must be fast. It is important that cycling journeys are made efficient and safe as otherwise cycling does not compete with other modes of transport. The Sustrans representative draws false equivalences with the Netherlands and Denmark as being places where people cycle slower, but it's simply not true. No-one has time to waste on inadequate infrastructure which slows them down. There is no demographic group in this country or any other which wants their journeys to take longer than they have to and no excuse whatsoever for building infrastructure which has that result.

Infrastructure which requires cyclists and pedestrians to use the same paths can be acceptable where there will be almost no usage by one of the groups but it will always leads to conflicts in any place where numbers of users are high, especially when there are large numbers of pedestrians. Normal Dutch practice is to build cycle-paths without separate pedestrian paths between towns where distances are relatively large and there will be few pedestrians, but paths inside villages and towns should almost always have separate paths for pedestrians. This avoids the need to built a separate pedestrian path in places where there will be little if any conflict due to the low numbers of users, but also avoids conflict where we know there will be many users.

The first video was made in Norway a few weeks back but the problems demonstrated by it are are common to anywhere that cyclists and pedestrians are forced to mix.

Sadly, the main Dutch campaigning organisation has also fallen into the trap of campaigning against cyclists rather than concentrating on where real danger comes from.