Thursday 25 November 2010

Reality vs. Myth: The "dangers" of Dutch cycle paths

"Vehicular Cycling" is a survival technique where cyclists are a small minority without proper infrastructure. It's widely practised in the UK and USA. Indeed, when I lived in the UK, I also cycled according to such principles. In its own context, in a country with a minority cycling culture and no real government support to enhance infrastructure so that cycling can grow to its full potential, it makes sense.

However, if cycling is to become "normalized" - i.e. something that the majority of the population sees as a part of their life, which parents encourage their children to do, and spouses encourage their partners to do, then it needs something different. All three types of safety become important. Dutch cyclists are the safest in the world due to infrastructure which keeps them apart from what is the greatest danger to any road user: motor vehicles. They also feel the safest due to street designs which emphasize both social and subjective safety, and this leads to a very high degree of participation.

Dutch cyclists are not only the safest in the world, but also the Dutch cycle more than people of any other nation. Almost the whole population (93%) rides a bike at least once a week. Every type of person cycles. During weekdays, more than a million journeys are made by bike every hour. The infrastructure is the reason why.

Unfortunately, some cyclists from minority cycling countries still don't understand this, and some campaign aggressively against the very infrastructure which could help to bring a higher cycling rate due to improvements in subjective safety. This video from Mark Wagenbuur shows some of the commonly repeated mantras of the more aggressive anti-cyclepath "vehicular cyclists" and demonstrates how they are misleading and wrong, at least when applied to properly designed infrastructure as shown in the video, and as is the norm in the Netherlands.

Well designed cycle paths, and streets designed to prioritize cycling over driving, increase both the safety and speed of cyclists.

Some people may question whether cycle paths as in the Netherlands are necessary to achieve mass cycling. My answer to this is very simple: There are no counter-examples. Mass cycling has not been achieved anywhere in the modern world without cycle paths. The more money spent on cycling, the better the result. Luckily, even the best infrastructure in the world isn't actually that expensive, and cycling is something that any country can afford to do properly.


Unknown said...

This is an issue we face on a regular basis here in Canada (Ontario at least).

I hear far to often from fellow cyclists that they would be dead against proper bike lanes.
Complaining about "slow cyclists" is a common occurrence by the lyrca crowd.

I'm surprised at how against some cyclists are. Whenever I blog on the subject, I receive emails and comments on how people would actually protest separate cycle paths, purely because they "are traffic" and shouldn't be separated.

This is probably a reason as to why Canada's youth obesity rates are rising so fast. It's far too dangerous for kids to ride on our on-street bike lanes (painted lines), and pedestrians complain when anyone of any age rides on the sidewalk, so kids simply don't bother cycling.

Fortunately with the addition of on-street bike lanes, we have seen an increase in adults cycling.

My city dropped the ball when they re-did all the roads. Instead of putting in separate cycle paths, they opted for 4-6 metre wide patches of grass.
Here is an example:

Stewart C. Russell said...

I'd like facilities like that. Instead, here in Toronto we've just elected a mayor and several councillors whose plan is to remove what bike lanes we have.

Bicilenta said...

I absolutely agree with you. I live in a no cyclist infraestructure country and I'm eager to ride on cycle-paths. I've cycled in the Netherlands and I really envy you. Feel safe is a great deal. I really don't understand the "dissident" voices. It may be that they haven't try that kind of safety.

Edward said...

This film is amazing. The frustrating thing for me is that roads here in Australia are easily that wide and could accommodate cycling infrastructure like that without a problem.

Thank you for posting it. It is a great advocacy resource.

Anonymous said...

I think you misrepresent the people who don't like using cyclepaths. I'm from Germany and prefer to use the driveway. But I'm not absolutely against cyclepaths, I am against being forced to use them. A good cyclepath does not need to be enforced.

The trouble is that German cyclepaths simply are not like those in the Netherlands, and also car drivers, pedestrians behave differently. Cyclepaths are too narrow to overtake safely, there is no good separation to the driveway and to the sidewalk, so conflicts with cars and pedestrians are common.

Planners here don't think properly about the cyclepaths, and no money is invested for a proper infrastructure. That makes poor cyclepaths that are worse than the driveways.

freewheeler said...

Sadly, where I live in London, very wide roads on strategic cycling routes which could have accommodated segregated cycle paths on the Dutch model are instead having road space re-allocated for free car parking bays.

This guarantees that the existing very low modal share for cycling will continue into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile the latest cycle count figures at a junction at the heart of my outer London borough show a steady fall in cyclists using it, down from 335 cyclists over the period 7am - 7pm in 1998 to just 228 cyclists in the same period in 2010. This is in a borough of 223,200 people.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out the obvious again. :D But some people will probably never get it.


WestfieldWanderer said...

To be fair it isn't the Dutch model cycle facilities that the "vehicular cyclists" object to, it's all the others.

David Hembrow said...

Anonymous from Germany: In my view, poor cycle paths can be worse than none at all. While the German network is extensive, and actually is of high enough quality to have contributed to a relatively high cycling rate, in many cases the quality is not high enough.

You may be interested in a video which I made which compares German and Dutch cycle paths.

David Hembrow said...

WestfieldWanderer: Amazingly, some people actually do object to the very idea of Dutch infrastructure. Most of them have not seen and used it.

Fonant said...

In the UK I'm more of a "vehicular cyclist" not because I'm against segregated facilities, but because I'm strongly against the sub-standard, DANGEROUS, segregated facilities that we almost always get in the UK. I would love to see Dutch style cycle facilities here, BUT ONLY IF THEY ARE DESIGNED PROPERLY!

In my mind there is no argument between on-road and off-road cycle provision, the argument is against safe and non-safe cycle provision, whether on-road or off.

Sadly in the UK, off-road cycle provision almost always means some white lines painted on a pedestrian footway, with no priority at any junctions, no decent sight lines at any junctions, and no space to pass cyclists that might happen to be riding the other way. That's the sort of thing I campaign against: I also strongly campaign for proper off-road cycle facilities (although the cycling facility budget for West Sussex for the next two years is zero, so these are unlikely to happen any time soon).

David Hembrow said...

Fonant: If you've not seen them before, take a look at our comparison photos of British and Dutch streets. There's plenty of room in Britain to do it properly. The problem is merely a lack of desire to do so.

Even in times of austerity, it still makes sense to build good quality cycling provision.

Fonant said...

Another quick comment: your video doesn't show "cycle paths" like we have in the UK, it shows "cycle roads". The comments in blue about cycle paths are all true in the UK, your answers in green are only true when the cycle facilities are designed just like half-scale roads (as they are in the Netherlands).

So, in a way, the Dutch cycle facilities in your video are ON-ROAD: they are on ROADS designed specifically for cyclists, using exactly the same principles of motor vehicle ROAD design, just at half scale.

Fonant said...

Yes, I know we COULD have cycle roads like you have in the Netherlands here in the UK. But not while we have a government that's clearly addicted to promoting motor car use, and local authorities that think that cycling is only for children and a few mad enthusiasts.

The problem is a political one, not a lack of space or technology. Councils won't provide expensive cycle facilities because hardly anyone cycles. Hardly anyone cycles because there aren't any decent cycle facilities.

At least vehicular cyclists who brave the roads are doing a tiny bit to demonstrate demand!

David Hembrow said...

Fonant: I understand what you mean. These cycle paths are absolutely nothing at all like what British cyclists are used to being fobbed off with. They're properly designed and they go everywhere. But, cycle paths is "all" they are. This is what properly designed cycle paths look like. Actually, some of them in this video are a bit lacking compared with more recent Dutch infrastructure. Those in a new housing estate near us look like this.

There is also such a thing as a bicycle road, but that's a bit different.

I agree with every word of your third comment.

Ladia-skladaci-kola said...

I live in Prague and main problem with bike path here is that only one street this wide in prague is interstate highway. Our cities were founded 500 not 50 years ago and we must integrate in current space all kind of traffic.

David Hembrow said...

Ladia: 500 year old cities were not built to accommodate cars either.

The city I live in, Assen, is 750 years old but provides excellent infrastructure for cycling.

Dutch cities have just the same challenges regarding space as cities in any other country.

My last blog post featured another of Mark's videos showing how both old and new cities make more direct routes for cyclists than for drivers.

Fonant said...

David: "They're properly designed and they go everywhere. But, cycle paths is "all" they are."

The terminology is a problem!

What I meant was that your cycle "paths" are DESIGNED just like ROADS are: careful thought is given to junction design, traffic lights work for cyclists as well as cars, routes are continuous and have priority over side roads, litter is cleared away, they're gritted and snow-ploughed in winter, etc. The result is that cycling along them is no less convenient, and is quite a lot safer, than cycling on the motor roads.

In the UK cycle paths are not designed anything like our roads are. They are designed like our FOOTPATHS are (in fact they're often the same thing!). The result is that cycling along them is MUCH less convenient, and quite a bit more dangerous the cycling on motor roads.

My follow-up point was that your "off-road" cycle paths feel like cycling ON a road (without motor cars!), which is what "vehicular cyclists" are so keen to protect. As a vehicular cyclist I'd be very happy cycling on your cycle paths, ideally in a Mango!

Anonymous said...

t=10m0s what is that bollard doing right there in the cyclepath? How am I supposed to get by with my velomobile, bakfiets or childtrailer?

David Hembrow said...

Jon: The Netherlands is not perfect. There are some errors, and that looks like one of them. However, I don't think that bollard would cause a huge problem in practice. It looks to me as if the kerb has been ridden over on many occasions...

Taliesin said...

""Vehicular Cycling" is a survival technique where cyclists are a small minority without proper infrastructure. It's widely practised in the UK and USA."

I suppose it depends on how you define VC. I'd say that many UK cyclist don't practice VC because they do things like ride on footpaths or too close to the gutter. There is a case to be made that vehicular cyclists are a minority within a minority.

r s thompson said...

the objections to cycle paths brought up in the video are probably fake.

they paths seem to work quite well.

r s thompson said...

well...race car driving isnt allowed on streets. so the race car crowd has to slow down a bit on the streets. i expect there are many times during the day that fast cyclists can open it up on the bike lanes and many paths are probably rather lightly traveled.

hagen said...

While I concur with the political side of your thesis that there is no place with high cycling share, I don't think it is actually true. Cities like Freiburg have had the cyclist long before they started to pick up on it and improve facilities and infrastructure. If there are many cyclists on the road it actually tames traffic and consequentially encourages more poeple to cycle. In the end there is such a demand that some administration picks up the slack. But it is essentially a cultural movement, not a top-to-bottom thing.

Regarding the scepticism for seperated traffic. I really think this is a german issue, for here cyclists are basically marginalised by bad seperated bike lanes that are only safe to use slowly. Especially fast riders get really frustrated by this, and badly designed bike lanes are far more dangerous than shared roads, especially roads where there is enough cycle traffic so that car drivers expect them anyways.

So if you build bike lanes, build them so they are convenient to use and not a punishment, cyclists will use them and no one will complain. Just don't marginalise cycle traffic.

r s thompson said...

" A good cyclepath does not need to be enforced."

does that include roads too?? yards?? driveways??? handicapped ramps???

velolondres said...

Don't think anyone objects to well designed bike lanes . Problem for us in UK is that what provision we have is often badly designed and in some cases actually dangerous. We also have a very strong motoring lobby who want cyclists off the road so they dont get in way of cars. Consequently lot ofbus want to see a proper network of segregated paths but don't want to be forced to usbitbif we don't want to. For someone like me doing a 40k a day round trip to work keeping up a high average speed makes a big difference to journey time so the road is preferable while for someone doing a shorter journey or with more time a path is better option what we want being the right to choose.

For a London cyclist riding in Amsterdam can be frustrating as we are used to passing cats stuck in traffic rather than being stuck in bike jams and passed by cars . However proper segregated provision would be great though I suspect sadly won't happen in my lifetime as long as doesn't mean we are forced off road to let cars go faster

Anonymous said...

I know it is not perfect, I still wonder why they put a board there in the first place? What where they thinking?

Frits B said...

@Jon - Bollards are necessary sometimes to keep intruders away. Like David, I live in Assen, in a 1920s neighbourhood with narrow streets that are all 30 km/h and mostly one-way nowadays. There is a direct cycle path from my front door to the town centre: 3 minutes by bike, 7 minutes to walk. A car needs 10 minutes of criss-crossing (and then some more to find a parking space). The cycle path is part 4+1 metre (1m sidewalk), part 5m wide. There are removable bollards at both ends and at two crossings - removable as the path needs to be swept once in a while. The bollards are also removed during winter because of gritting. So what happens when the bollards are gone? People in cars take a shortcut. That's why - nobody is perfect.

David J said...

Nice post David.
This debate about cycle paths is quite a frustrating one. We all want a safer environment to ride in but the problems cycle advocates in many countries face is a combination of un sympathetic government and a divisiions within our own ranks due to the fact that we have to fight tooth and nail for the simplest of improvements and often find ourselves compromising at every step of the way for the sake of receiving any considderation from town or road planners.

We are then threatened with over regulation and left pointing the finger at each other. For example, our town combines bicyle paths with footpaths and gives a 20kmh limit to speed. This is way too fast for cyclists to be riding on footpaths and can create conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. However riders who want to go fast complain that pedestrians get in their way.
On the other hand those who wish to ride on the road are persecuted by drivers because the drivers think cyclists should only be riding on the bicycle paths...
Bicycle paths merge with both roads and footpaths and are often designed in ways that cause confusion and ultimately put the cyclist in considderable danger.
The Government/Local counil are not held responsible for creating inadeqet infrastructure because the general public tend to think that any roadwork that incorporates cycle ways is some kind of charity for a vocal minority group and have very little interest in seeing cycleways as part of the general road infrastructure. (They don't want to pay for that sort of thing)

In the end it's cyclists and the presence of bicycles that are blamed for the problem. As a persecuted group rather than join forces to argue for a thaughtfull well considdered and safe road plan, divisions rise amongst cyclists. We know that there are negative attitudes towards us and so we become slightly paranoid. The pressures of unsympathetic policy makers causes us to fragment and form more specific subcultures of cycing than would have otherwise occurred. In a hostile environment we define our possition (because cycling has become a political issue) We construct ideologies and find ourselves arguing with our alies over minor variations on what should be our common interest.

It's just like 'The Life of Brian' all over again!

Shiroi と Kiroi said...

the last comment about bikes passing cars and not wanting to be stuck at lights with other cyclists waiting for cars is very telling.I have recently taken up cycling for transport in sydney ,australia.There is a push on to build separated cycleways .Bicycles though are still secondary to cars when it comes to traffic lights,intersections etc.But it is a case of getting it out there.But while I cycle around I see cyclist that have no problem mixing it on the road ,running red lights basically getting somewhere fast because they are on 2 wheels.I wonder if I ask these people would you like your mother or your girlfriend to cycle ,what would they answer.I think these cyclists may have no interest in normalizing cycling because they do not want to conform to rules which would be necessary if cycling became commonplace.

Anonymous said...

@Frits B.
But it makes no sense to block cars there, just 2 meters to the left of the bollard there is a road for cars. They even have a marked left turn lane if one looks at the video leading up to this bollard.

@Shiroi と Kiroi
In Denmark we do have cyclepaths and lots of people cycle. But there are still some that will run redlights. Their interest is purely in getting ahead, not a head.

Frits B said...

@Jon - That's why I wrote "are sometimes necessary". In this particular case, the bollard is obviously not necessary so it's one of those instances where "rules" dictated the wrong solution.

Bob Shanteau said...

I'm sorry, but I find it hard to believe your statement that bicyclists need separate infrastructure in order to feel "normalized".

Are you familiar with the TravelTalk film of Copenhagen in 1937? It shows streets dominated by cyclists without a cycle path in sight. Wouldn't those bicyclists consider themselves "normalized"?

What do you think cities like Copenhagen would look like now if bicyclists had been allowed to continue to dominate the streets?

Neil said...

@Bob, not sure I understand what your point is. How does that relate to today's problems with so many cars around? i.e. you would only get the same situation by banning cars or taking the steps the Dutch do give cars very little reason to use that street (e.g. no through route).

If you are simply objecting to separate infrastructure then I don't see how the 1937 example is relevant. Maybe I'm missing something.

Bob Shanteau said...

@neil: Suppose that instead of separating bicyclists, cities like Copenhagen had allowed cyclists to continue to dominate the streets. Would there still be "so many cars around"?

And if bicyclists were still dominating the streets, why should they care how many cars are around, anyway? Slower traffic would keep right and faster traffic would pass on the right. What's wrong with that?

David Hembrow said...

Bob: Thank you for your contribution, but your perspective seems a little odd.

Cycling is "normal" when everyone cycles and it's not considered to be a dangerous activity. Here, cycling is not restricted to a self-selecting few, but a means of transport used by very nearly everyone for at least some of their journeys. No-one bad-mouths "cyclists" in general because everyone is a cyclist.

The country in which you are a traffic engineer unfortunately has amongst the very lowest rates of cycle usage in the world and roads which are amongst the least safe overall of any developed nation. What's more, cyclists in the USA face even worse than drivers do (page 506), with 26x the injury rate and 5x the death rate per km travelled of cyclists in the Netherlands. This doesn't seem to me like a particularly glowing record so far as cycling is concerned.

What you are criticising are the very successful policies of the country which has both the most numerous cyclists and the safest cyclists in the world.

For some reason you're also talking about Copenhagen, a city which is not in the Netherlands and has rather less successful infrastructure. There's a very good correlation between expenditure and cycling levels and I think it reasonable to say that Denmark might do better if they invested at the same rate as the Dutch do.

In The Netherlands and in Denmark, just like everywhere else, the coming of mass car ownership had an impact on cycling. It both provided an alternative to cycling and made the streets less pleasant to cycle on. If these countries had not worked on reversing this trend then they would almost certainly have a situation on the streets now which looks very similar to the USA.

Other European countries, such as the UK, which did not try to reverse the trend, managed to almost eradicate an existing cycling culture by adopting "modern" designs for streets which were focussed around cars. In Britain in 1949, cycling accounted for over a third of all the distance travelled on the roads. By 1960 this was reduced to under 10%, by 1970 to just 2% and since 1993 this has remained at well under 1%. Cycling has become a minority activity. It is no longer a "normal" part of life for most people. In fact, 70% of British people now never cycle, even once per year on holiday.

By contrast what both The Netherlands and Denmark have achieved is quite wonderful. In CPH people cycle for half as many journeys as they drive. Several Dutch cities have a cycling rate which is higher than the driving rate.

The only places which have a mass cycling culture now are places which have addressed the problems experienced by cyclists due to motor vehicles. They have done this by addressing the design of infrastructure. Cycling on the roads is not completely unknown here, but it occurs only where the roads are not dominated by motor-vehicles. This is also a form of intervention on behalf of cyclists.

Blinginheim said...

there are all kindsof vehicular cyclist nazis in the US and california in particular with dense skulls who just dont get it.

todd said...

Watching that video reminds me of my many visits to the Netherlands and my experience biking there (shocking, I know). This is clearly the way to do what has been done there: make biking near universal and safe... and... extremely boring. Yes, there I said it.

I acknowledge the perversity of my own feelings, but they've been a long time in the making: I like feeling the rugged individual, negotiating hazards, riding in traffic like a surfer on waves (sometimes, at least). I like the übermensch status and envy/hate accorded me sometimes by my more timid, less healthy, "normal" peers who see my car-freeness as an extreme socio-political position. In the US, it is.

So I'm torn: NL is a kind of utopia. Brilliantly engineered society. I think I might have to take up some extreme sport or maybe sabotage windmills, or run drugs or something, to restore a sense of measured risk-taking and individuation to my daily life if I lived in this utopia. Biking has been completely hollowed out as a vehicle for this kind of thing.

Riding in Amsterdam, once the grin wears off merely from seeing all ages and classes of people riding in all weather, like breathing, I realized that I didn't really enjoy the riding at all. It's too fast for so close-grained a place anyway. What I admire about Amsterdam and other Dutch cities is not what they've done TO bicycling, but what they have done WITH its lifeless body, the good they've made of the sacrifice. They have made large, dense, quiet urban spaces full of relatively healthy, vigorous people, whose faces you can see and with whom you can speak in public, out of doors. Car culture has destroyed the like here.

David Hembrow said...

Hi Todd, thank-you for an excellent comment.

I agree completely. When I first visited I was also taken by the lack of challenge faced by cyclists here. I used to enjoy my daily dose of adrenalin when fighting for a little space on the roads in the UK.

However, I then had children, and I didn't enjoy other people driving at my children because they were cycling on the road. It changed my mind about all of this: Such thrills are not what the transport of the masses consists of. Car manufacturers and airlines do a lot to emphasize how boring these modes of transport are. It's better that cycling is a little "boring" but also a normal thing for everyone to do.

If you want a thrill, it's still available of course. I like to race occasionally. That certainly gets the adrenalin going. I'm no threat to the fast people, but it's a lot of fun.

John S. Allen said...

The video at the head of this post was shot at a time when traffic of all kinds -- motorized, bicycle, pedestrian -- was extremely light. For that reason, I don't think that it has much to demonstrate about typical safety concerns, or about delays resulting from congestion. Can we have a video shot under more usual conditions?

David Hembrow said...

John: It's a red herring. The infrastructure works whatever the level of traffic.

I'm afraid no-one's going to go back and shoot otherwise identical videos for you with different traffic conditions, but it's a reasonable request to ask to see roads at busier times. If you look around on the blog you'll find others shot at busier times, including several shot at (and conveniently tagged with) rush hour, most of which include videos

The traffic may still look light in some instances. That's how it often looks. When I first started visiting the Netherlands from the UK I often thought I'd arrived during a holiday or when I went out that an important football game must be in progress. This impression was simply due to the lack of cars. I was conditioned to thinking that large numbers of cars are normal.