Wednesday 28 July 2010

Sometimes people get very confused

On the way home tonight, just 5 km from Assen, I passed a guy who I thought looked like a tourist on a bike. He was riding a mountain bike and carrying a huge rucksack on his back (a very uncomfortable way to carry weight on a bike).

A short distance further on I stopped to buy vegetables from a roadside stall (50 cm long marrows for 40 cents each - I put one either side in the back of the Mango) and while I was doing this, the tourist passed me.

As I came into Assen I could see him approaching a junction that I ride through every day, and which I've featured before on the blog.

The traffic light for bicycles was green, as it usually is because the light defaults to green for bikes and only switches to red if a car has approached the junction and (either from the side road or in lanes which lead this way on the main road). The light for pedestrians was red. Again, this is as usual. Those don't switch unless you press the pedestrian button. The tourist stopped, looking at the lights for pedestrians.

Even though the timing of this light is set up to favour bikes, there is also a loop under the cycle path as you approach the junction, and as a final backup just in case nothing else works there is also a button for cyclists to press. The tourist was pressing the button. And waiting. And waiting some more. If he'd pressed the separate button for pedestrians, that would have had an instant effect on the pedestrian lights. However, as he was pressing the button for cyclists, and the light was already green, it did nothing at all.

As I reached the traffic light, it was still green for bikes, so I rode straight over the junction. In my rear view mirror I could see the tourist was still waiting, and perhaps also nodding his head at me disapprovingly for "going through a red light."

So, why write this ? Well, sometimes people find what we have here in the Netherlands a bit confusing. This chap obviously did. One of the reasons why we organise study tours is to show how things really work as I've noticed that sometimes people simply don't understand. I've occasionally read some utter nonsense in the past from people who did things as extreme as not finding out in advance that "fietspad" means cycle path and not footpath, or from people who are outraged at the number of "wrong way cyclists" on one way streets because they don't know what "uitgezonderd" means.

I have a fear that this chap will return from his holiday with tales of how he visited the Netherlands, and even Assen which that David Hembrow bloke goes on so much about, and "found out" that traffic lights there were hopeless for cyclists and that the locals have to ride through on red because the lights never go green for cyclists.

Anyway, here's the same junction, in a video I made a couple of years back, heading in the opposite direction. You can clearly see the red pedestrian lights as well as the green cycle lights in the video:

The same traffic light also featured in another blog post. And if you're wondering, given that this one has now cropped up three times, it's not the only traffic light in Assen, and it's not the only one which defaults to green for bikes either.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame that you didn't reach out to this chap and relieve him of his confusion.

Or, maybe you were not too concerned about how this "tourist" would report his findings on bike accommodations in Holland.

Jon Bendtsen said...

or maybe he is going to read your blog and think you are rude for not telling him.

christhebull said...

Colourblind? Did he expect the light to change and not notice it was already green? You should have pointed out to him what a plonker he is.

Frits B said...

Oh, but sometimes, just sometimes, things do go wrong. I live next to a crossing (Overcingellaan/Spoorstraat-to-Jollesstraat) which provides a direct route from Assen-East to the town centre for bicycles and pedestrians only. Now Overcingellaan is a busy road, and crossing traffic has to give way. Over the years several cyclists have been killed there, so there were calls for traffic lights. The council said things weren't bad enough to justify the expense (correctly, as when you just waited your turn for a few seconds you could always cross, plus there is a divider in the middle of the road where you can wait). What they agreed to do was to cut down a tree which might obstruct the view, and change the pedestrian crossing to a real zebra crossing, with priority over cars. Politicians happy, the traffic people at town hall not quite as much. Because what we have now is a very safe crossing for pedestrians (two in fact, as the crossing is repeated 30 metres further on) and right next to it a bicycle crossing where cyclists still have to give way to cars - unless of course they do a few steps aside and use the pedestrian crossing. I saw a narrow escape just a few days ago as a motorist had stopped for a pedestrian and then simply drove on across the bicycle crossing, causing a cyclist to make a very hasty retreat. Photos of the situation can be seen here: It is in fact more dangerous for cyclists now than it was before.

Things will change, however, as Overcingellaan will be redesigned shortly. It will get even wider cycle paths (for which several office buildings across the street from my side will be curtailed - London take notice) and the railway crossing on Spoorstraat will be closed. There's another crossing further on which will get a tunnel (Port Natalweg to Assen-Oost) for all traffic; cyclists will have to travel a bit further but at least in complete safety. Mistakes of this kind tend to be corrected in the end.

David Hembrow said...

To those thinking I might have been rude not helping the guy on the bike: It didn't occur to me how confused he was until after I'd passed him. And who knows, maybe he is actually local, but had stopped to, er, admire the view of the industrial estate, or something ?

Frits: It's not perfect at that spot, but... I've seen so much worse in the past. The improvements are to look forward to, though.

The developments in Assen-Oost look very interesting. A lot is going to happen in the next few years. I also think it's a good thing as it will mean improvements around the railway station, which greats many visitors to Assen, but really is not the best spot.

christhebull said...

Something I notice about Dutch traffic lights, for both motorists and cyclists, is the lack of far side repeaters - which means you have to crane your neck to see the light. So based on your video he could have been looking at the (flashing red) pedestrian symbol.

David Hembrow said...

Chris: I think that was exactly it. He was looking across the road.

You don't have to crane your neck because there is a low down light and a high up light for cyclists, but both are on the post before the road.

Cyclists don't need repeaters because once you get a green you can cross the whole way, even if it's six lanes across.

Frits B said...

David - What annoyed me most is that a relatively safe situation was turned into a confusing spot for cyclists for no other reason than that the politician in charge, Jaap Kuin, thought it necessary to earn brownie points with his voters despite rumblings from the experts who all said why interfere now when the whole situation will be changed in a year. And when I asked the neighbourhood association (or whatever you might call it) if this was what they really wanted, all I got were blank stares. It could have been so easy: a few litres of red paint and removal of the triangles on the bike path, and the bike crossing would have had equal status to the pedestrian crossing. The warning sign was already there.

As for the tourist: my father used to have "etalagebenen" (:-). The tourist may have suffered from the same affliction.

Anonymous said...

The post highlights the difference between the road system in the Netherlands compared to many other countries. On my first visit by bicycle I continued to give way to car drivers where I had priority, just because the same situation here in the UK would put me in hospital. Even with reading some very good webpages about cycle touring in the Netherlands it was still going to take me time to understand the details and the mindset of the natives. I might add reading the “rough guide” was a waste of time.
Many people stop at a set of traffic lights once in a while due to disorientation, they simply cannot understand what they are seeing. The mind goes into a panic and fails to give an answer, probably a good indicator that a rest is due.
Mark Garrett, Bristol UK

Anonymous said...

You did state that you thought he was a tourist by the looks of him when you passed therefore I also believe you could've reached out to him to help him out of his confusion. You made a point of mentioning that he was riding a mountain bike and wore a rucksack (horror of horrors!)
"Sometimes people get very confused" ...
and could use a kind, helpful local to clear things up for them.

I highly enjoy your blog, David, but I think this one was a tad beneath you.
I would hope you'd've been more charitable and asked if he needed assistance rather than going home and writing up a post which in effect ridiculed his ignorance.

David Hembrow said...

Anonymous: What a strange view of events you seem to have. The first time I was riding along as I usually do on the way home and passed him at 45 km/h. I noticed his odd choice of bike and luggage and thought about his sweaty aching back. In my view this is a bad choice, but I'm not his Mum to tell him what to do - he can make himself uncomfortable if he wants to. What was I supposed to "reach out to him" about at this point ?

The second time I was doing about 38 km/h and I was surprised to see him completely stop ahead of me. In your judgement, was I to also stop at the green light just in case I could help him ? Should I do this every time someone stops at a green light ?

If I thought someone really needed help, I'd help them. However, I'm not employed to stand on street corners and give pointers to wayward tourists.

Related to this, I've also had quite enough of the sort of people who think that as I write a blog and we together run a small cycle holiday business, we're some kind of free information service who will happily hand out free advice to anyone who wants to call us.

We have plenty of real customers, but we also have people from all sorts of professions who will phone us up wanting to talk at length about their options for organising their own holiday in the Netherlands. Guess how often such people offer their services free of charge in return. We don't do free advice. It's one of the things we do for a living.

Nick said...

Free criticism, but no free advice, eh David? Understandable, I suppose, but - as Anonymous says, perhaps not very kind (a bit like this comment, I suppose, but there you go, perfection is maybe beyond both of us).

tOM Trottier said...

Wouldn't it have taken less time to explain to the tourist than to blog about it?

Maybe Holland needs to start using icons rather than words.


David Hembrow said...

Tom: I'm not "Holland." This is a personal blog written in my own time, it's not a state sponsored service to find confused people who haven't even decided if they need help and set them on their ways.

In Ottawa, where you live, do you roam the streets actively seeking out people who may or may not be confused in order to offer help that they may or may not want ? If you don't, do other people ? If not, why not ? That's precisely what you are asking me to do, and loaded with the "superior" attitude of the non-existent perfect person.

You seem to have lost sight of the fact that this man didn't even ask. If he needed help, he had a very good opportunity to ask for it as I was buying my veg and he rode by silently. If he had asked a question, he'd have got an answer.

What's more, you're all missing the point of what the blog post is actually about. It's not about one individual, who may or may not have been confused. It's about the many people who visit the country, wander around a bit aimlessly, make assumptions which are not correct, and return home with false impressions. It's also about the even more confused people, such as Forester, who don't even bother to visit before thinking they know all about the country.

A vast team of experts in pointing such people in the right direction could not find more than a small percentage of them.

This blog exists to give the "free advice" that Nick seems to think is lacking. I started it originally to illustrate things which I'd shown on study tours, both for people who had come on the tours, and for those who would never be able to. The blog attempts to explain how things work, and why. It's the result of many hours work. Read it, or don't read it. That's your choice.

None of you people who are complaining about what I'm offering have ever paid me a cent for anything. But seemingly you think you're not getting enough from me. How much of a sense of entitlement do you have ?