Thursday, 12 February 2015

Street design hostile to cycling. Jan Fabriciusstraat in Assen is an example of a greater Dutch malaise

The enormous and extremely expensive Florijn As project is changing Assen. While there are many benefits for drivers due to the Florijn As project, there are few changes which are good for cycling. There is plenty of glossy publicity material available on the website of the project but actual detailed plans have not been easy to access. In this case, I had a chance to view the plan on the right only on two half morning open days late last year.

I was surprised to find that the works being presented as part of the Blauwe As segment of the project extended beyond Het Kanaal and also involved changes to nearby Jan Fabriciusstraat. It was also a surprise to find out how hostile to cycling the plans for "improvements" to this street are.

Jan Fabriciusstraat 2010 vs. 2014. Rather than
continue the cycle-path to provide a safe route
for cycling, as was obviously once intended, the
entire area ahead was turned into pavement.
It is now planned to remove the res of this
cycle-path and for cyclists to ride in a far
more dangerous position left of the bus-stop.
Jan Fabriciustraat is extremely wide. There is no problem at all with providing well for cyclists in this location, as is demonstrated by the current arrangement in the northern part of the street. Next to the road there is currently a 4.5 m verge, a 3.6 m cycle-path and a 4.5 m pavement. The area is wide enough that a bus-stop built as part of the verge has ample space for bus passengers to stand as well as for the cycle-path and a generously wide pavement. This cycle-path has existed in a half finished state for several years, having been built to serve relatively new buildings on the Northern part of the street. It was clearly the intention of planners at that time that the cycle-path would be extended to the south when the next "block" was re-built.

Unfortunately, when the new Citadel development was built, the architects choose to ignore the good design of the existing infrastructure and instead send cyclists onto this busy through road. Rather than bikes crossing a side-road 5 metres from the road at 90 degrees and with maximum visibility of cyclists by drivers and visa-versa, a dangerous junction was created where drivers are required to turn their heads 180 degrees and look through their cars to see cyclists and where cyclists find it hard to judge what drivers will do next.
The photos above show a view pointing towards the south of the cycle-path shown on the left here. If there is space for trees with the redevelopment, surely there is also space for cyclists. Moving cyclists from a safe wide (3.6 m) cycle-path onto a narrow (1.3 m wide) on-road lane on a road which policy has recently made even more busy will not improve cycling safety.
On-road cycle-lanes do not work well. The problems that they cause are well known and can be observed across the world and all across the Netherlands. But we don't need to go far to see the problems because they can already be seen on the short section of Jan Fabriciusstraat already transformed, as demonstrated in my video above, and in a very similarly designed street a short distance away within Assen.

That this is an inadequate design has already been demonstrated quite comprehensively so why is the same mistake being repeated ?

What are standards for ?
The designer of these lanes in this location hasn't even tried to make the best possible job of them.
  1. Current Dutch recommendations call for a 2 to 2.5 metre width for on-road cycle-lanes, and an absolute minimum when space is tight of 1.7 metres. But these lanes on a very wide road with much traffic are just 1.3 metres in width.
  2. Good practice calls for bus-stops to be bypassed so that conflict between buses and cyclists is reduced but that has also not been done in this instance. Indeed, it is proposed to remove a bus-stop bypass and push cyclists in the cycle-lane into conflict with buses.
  3. The problems which result from drivers turning across cyclists in on-road lanes at side-road junctions are well known but have been ignored even though there are good examples right here in Assen of how these junctions should be designed.
As a result of the hostile conditions for cycling, most people who cycle here already use the pavement and not the on-road lanes. Where the cycle-path should have been continued there is now a ten metre wide pavement. Cyclists have been provided with a narrow 1.3 m wide on-road cycle-lane. The architects may have thought that this empty pavement outside their new building (Citadel) would look nice, but it's of no practical purpose whatsoever. On-road cycle-lanes in the Netherlands are supposed to be an absolute minimum of 1.7 m wide if space is tight. On this road, just 1.3 metres has been allocated for cyclists. Poor design which didn't take account of how real people behave has created a de-facto shared use path with the inevitable accompanying conflict between cyclists and pedestrians.

Citadel / Cite. Misleading impressions.
The developers "impression" of what the Southern end of Jan
Fabriciusstraat would look like. No cars, no bikes, no trucks
making deliveries, but lots of confident pedestrians walking
care-free across what is in reality a busy road. See photos and
videos above for what this really looks like.
I wrote about the problems with the Citadel centre shortly after it opened because somehow the developers had not only rebuilt this road with the narrow on-road lanes shown above but also forgotten to include proper cycle parking for this new shopping centre in a city where most shopping is by bicycle. It was an absurd thing to have happened and at the time I assumed that the problems would somehow be resolved. That has not happened. Cyclists still have to use a temporary indoor cycle-park in the car garage.

We're now facing the situation where rather than the problems caused by this new development being tackled, they are to be spread further along the same street.

Another impression, of the situation shown at the start of this
blog post. Note that no cars are shown, no bicycles either. Lots
of pedestrians standing around doing nothing at all. This is
not at all how it looks in reality.
It's important to learn from history in order not to repeat it.

Rather than progress, what is being proposed here is a return to the policy of 50 years ago when cycle-paths were being removed from Dutch cities to make space for more cars. Like most cities, Assen fought these mistakes in the 1970s and 1980s and recovered from this mistake.

But in this case we need look no further than the misleading architect's impressions from the existing development. These images never did represent reality. Why are we continuing to develop the city based on images like this which are designed to mislead ?

What the street really looks like. It's no accident that deliveries happen here as that's what the architect designed. It's also no accident that people cycle on the pavement here because the cycle-lanes on the road are inadequate and unsafe. The difference between the architects imagination and real life is due to the designer not having taken into account actual usage.
On the other side of the road, a dangerous bus-stop has already been built. Children use this route to get to and from school. Have the designers of the Florijnas project forgotten about stop de kindermoord ?
This design doesn't work anywhere
There are complaints about similar road designs across the world. e.g. Perth in Australia

Why is Assen following a trend which has proven to be a mistake elsewhere ?

"Assen Cycles". As recently as 2005,
Assen had a real ambition to increase
cycling Where's that ambition now?
Other recent mistakes in Assen, and across the country
Other examples of where Assen has made recent planning mistakes include the unpopular and dangerous Shared Space at Kerkplein, the construction of inadequate new bicycle bridges across Het Kanaal,  and the area outside the new cultural centre. In each of these cases, just like Jan Fabriciusstraat, architects produced imaginary impressions of what the areas would look like in the future which were not grounded in reality and which absolutely do not represent the reality of what happened after their designs were built.

A fifteen year old photo of good cycling
infrastructure. We became interested in
the Netherlands because of good
designs like this, which are now taken
for granted. No-one can make a career
of proposing slight improvements of
what already exists so we are seeing
change for the sake of change rather
than real improvements.
The Netherlands led the world in cycling between the mid 1970s and just a few years ago because the people involved quietly got on with engineering excellent solutions to the problems which cyclists faced. The result was more, safer, cycling. It was engineering, not architecture or marketing, which grew cycling in the Netherlands. The same problems remain now and the same solutions are required but we're not seeing the same solutions. Unfortunately, the people who did the very good groundwork decades ago have now mostly retired and their contribution is being forgotten by the new generation of planners, who are far more interested in promotion of their ideas than in taking on the problems that they are causing. "Innovations" should not be praised until the results have been evaluated.

It's important to note that this problem is not localised to Assen. This is a national problem. The Netherlands is unfortunately repeating the same mistakes as caused a decline in cycling 50 years ago and the likely outcome is that cycling will again start to decline again.

We first became interested in moving to the Netherlands around 20 years ago. What impressed me then was that this nation was very quietly getting on with building ever better cycling infrastructure and the results were plain to see everywhere: Cycling was growing, cycling was becoming safer. The Dutch saying "Meten is weten" (Measuring is knowing) was very much in vogue. The country wasn't making much noise about what was happening, they were getting on with engineering a better world for Dutch people and this most certainly involved improvements for cyclists.

In Groningen, the latest innovation is a
logo for traffic lights. The city stopped
properly in cycling ten years
ago. This is most certainly not a return
to real progress.
This has changed. It seems now that marketing is being substituted for engineering. Rather than genuinely but quietly making things better, the country has started to boast about achievements with a view to exporting the services of Dutch companies. Unfortunately, what they've been offering is not nearly so high in quality as what was being built here, and now we're seeing the same low quality design taking over in the Netherlands as well.

The view from overseas
We have hosted hundreds of visitors from outside the Netherlands on cycling infrastructure study tours here in Assen. Given the content of my last few blog posts, readers may wonder whether there is anything worth seeing. First of all, as I emphasized at the end of the last section, it's important to note that the problems which I write about are not confined to this one city. Other cities in the Netherlands are making the same mistakes as Assen, but it seems that almost no-one is writing about these mistakes.

The Netherlands still leads the world in cycling and Assen still has better infrastructure on average than most other Dutch cities. That's why we live here. There are plenty of good examples of infrastructure here as well as the less good and we show both of these on the study tours.

There is nothing at all for us to gain from presenting a fairy-tale view of a perfect cycling environment. We are not employed to represent the city, and we certainly do not engage in city marketing. We present the reality, "warts and all".

I don't write blog posts about the newest unproven infrastructure or regurgitate press releases which claim improvements in safety which are not confirmed by actual data. I caution against assuming that everything Dutch is worth emulating because it is only by copying from and improving on the best examples in the Netherlands that real progress can be made elsewhere. The best examples are not necessarily the newest, and they are usually not the most well publicized either.

Come and see
Click right here for more details.
This year is our tenth of running study tours. We again 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.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The end of free car parking in Assen and how this has caused problems for cyclists

Veemarktterrein a few years ago. Not full, but quite a lot of cars were parked here.
For many years, the Veemarktterrein a few hundred metres east of Assen city centre offered free car parking. Anyone could park their car here for as long as they wanted free of charge. The attraction of free parking wasn't enough to make people drive when they had a better alternative so though it was free of charge, this car park almost always had spaces in it. This area on the edge of the city had a valuable benefit for cyclists because it helped to keep cars out of the city centre streets.
The same car-park this week on market day. The cars haven't disappeared - they are now driven further into the city causing consequences for cyclists.
The policy on car parking changed at the beginning of this year. A charge of €1.30 per hour was imposed for parking in this previously free car park, with a limit of €5 per day. At the same, car parks in the city centre which were already the cheapest in the Netherlands had their maximum charge halved to just €6 per day. The result of this policy is that the out of town centre car park is no longer attractive to drivers so they continue right into the city and use multi-storey car parks which were previously often largely empty.

The result is many more cars are driven into the centre of Assen and this causes more conflict between motorists and cyclists.

The crossing of Het Kanaal at the Venebrug is not signalled and is shared with pedestrians. This is one of the locations where there are now more problems due to more cars

The inner ring road is shown as a red line. The previously
free of charge car park is the green area on the right. Blue
squares show the locations of car parks which have
been made more popular by the change in policy.
Note how these are close to red spots: points identified
as dangerous to cyclists in the Fietsverkeernota 2005.
The Inner Ring Road has been made more dangerous
Because the city centre car parks are reached by driving along the inner ring-road, extra motor traffic is being generated along the streets which make up the ring.

Locations along this route have long been known to be problematic for cyclists. Several of them were pointed out as being dangerous to cyclists and in need of improvement by the Fietsverkeernota of 2005.

Locations where there are now more cars and more danger for cyclists include the following. Where there are links below, further information can be found about problems in those locations:
  1. The Kerkplein Shared Space
  2. Weierstraat outside De Nieuwe Kolk
  3. The difficult left turn from Weierstraat into Minervalaan
  4. The crossing of Nobellaan by Het Kanaal
  5. Crossings of Het Kanaal
  6. Jan Fabriciusstraat
  7. The junction of Stationstraat and Oostersingel
  8. Zuidersingel

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).
There is no island in the middle to
help with crossing the road.
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.

Update February 18
Our local newspaper carried this article today:
Building of the new bridge at location 2 on the map at the top of this page is starting in two days. The short meeting to which people are invited to see the plans doesn't take place until an afternoon 13 days from now. Therefore there is no chance for anyone to say "no" because building will start before those who might object to the plans have seen what is on offer. So much for democracy.

Let us remember that this bridge will make worse an already bad situation for cyclists following a primary cycle route along the North side of Het Kanaal. In the future there will be no crossing point. In a few days time, a primary cycling route is to be severed by the new bridge.

The existing space in the middle of the road is long enough that one can wait with a bicycle in the middle and therefore it is not necessary to cross all three lanes of motorized traffic at once.

Children use this on their way to and from school. How will it be possible for them to cross safely when the new bridge is built ? Have the designers of the Florijnas project forgotten about Stop De Kindermoord ?
Further along the road
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. There's
now a blog post about this location.
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