Monday, 24 October 2011

Transformation of a city centre street

There are many things about streets in the Netherlands which are misunderstood. For instance, many people write that Dutch cyclists "still share with drivers" on many streets. It's true in the literal sense, but streets here are not the same as streets in other countries such as the UK. This can be difficult to understand, as the difference is not so obvious as when there is a segregated cycle-path. However, even on streets like this, cyclists benefit from a form of segregation of modes without cycle-paths. It's not "sharing the road" as many people think of it because routes for drivers and cyclists have been unraveled from one another.

In this post I show a few streets in the centre of Assen and show how they work for cyclists and drivers such that despite their appearance, they are optimized for cyclists. After watching the video, read further to see a map showing the layout and  towards the bottom of the post for photos of what the same streets looked like in the 1960s when they were optimized for drivers.

Note that this video has many captions which explain what you are looking at. They are only visible on a computer and not on a mobile device.

This video shows the route for bikes directly through the city centre along Noordersingel, Nieuwe Huizen and the most Southern part of Groningerstraat. It's shown on this map in red:

Click for Google Maps. The video follows the red line from bottom to  top. Drivers are directed by the one way system along Javastraat, Jan Fabriciusstraat and Het Kanaal. This removes them from the route through the centre taken by cyclists.
These used to be the busiest streets in Assen for motor vehicles. However, they were redesigned, using a one-way system which prevents motor vehicles using it as a through route. Drivers now have to take the streets in yellow, which are optimized for driving (cycling infrastructure there is a bit of a mix at the moment due to ongoing work) and which have traffic lights on them. The cycle route is more direct and doesn't have delays caused by traffic lights, but drivers can't use it because for them it is no longer a through route. By these means, the streets are calmed and cyclists are given priority.

Here are some photos of how it used to look:
In the video we ride from right to top/left from approximately 0:45 until 2:02. This photo shows how the same streets looked in the 1960s.
This is how the junction at 1:15 in the video looked in the 1960s. Note how pedestrians had to walk on narrow sidewalks behind barriers which prevented them from crossing the road wherever they wanted to and how there was "not enough space" for cycle-paths on these streets. This is similar to many current British road layouts.
This junction appears at 1:38 in the video. In 1965, this was the busiest junction in Assen and traffic lights were needed in this location. There is a blog post and video specifically about this junction.
There are shops on these streets which sell items such as washing machines and televisions. These are the types of goods which many people would rather transport by car than by bike. They can do so. You don't need any special permission to drive along here, these are still streets which are open to all users including drivers. However, the way in which they have been developed prevents their use for through traffic.

This is an example of segregation of modes without cycle-paths. It works. Even in the city centre. Due to their central location, and that they remain a through route for bikes even though not for cars, these streets are very popular with cyclists. A count here showed nearly 9000 cyclists per day using these streets: a very impressive figure in a small city of just 67000 people.

Streets which some commentators from outside the country think are "shared equally" with motorists are in my experience never anything of the sort. This is not a rare arrangement, but a very common one in streets like this - optimized for cycling, but allowing access to drivers. Where there is significant through traffic, cycle-paths are required to preserve an acceptable level of subjective safety. That includes just North of where the video in this post ends.

While cycling always benefits from segregation from motor vehicles, that does not mean that all cycling is on cycle-paths. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all streets. Sometimes segregation is achieved by moving cars elsewhere. It is very easy to get an incorrect impression and to miss things like this. Unfortunately, some people visit the Netherlands and go home again still with the wrong impression. This is why we offer study tours and encourage campaigners and planners to come on them. They are a means to explain how details like this work, and to show people actual working examples.

The photos come from the book "Assen Verandert" which we reviewed. There are a number of other posts about Groningerstraat, showing more about the road North from the end of the video in this post. You'll note that where the road is busier, there are cycle-paths because you can't achieve a high enough level of subjective safety for mass cycling on roads with a large number of motor vehicles.


jet said...

I love the concept of 'moving cars elsewhere' in order to provide a nicer shared cycling environment. I'm wondering how many cars per day is 'too busy' to effect subjective safety to an extent that separated paths are preferred over this kind of road marking of cycle lanes. Also, I'm assuming that this is a 30kph limit street?

highwayman said...

That is a beautiful example of well-engineered traffic-calming. Thank-you for posting it.

On a unrelated subject but still relevant to your blog, let me say this: not only am I an avid cyclist, I'm also a truck-driver (or lorry-driver if you prefer). I've pulled trailers as long as 53 feet (approximately 17 metres).

Given the size of the roads, the configuration of the directions decreed for the streets in question, and the sharpish angles of the right-turns that are decreed for these particular streets, I have these questions:

(1) What is the maximum length of motor vehicles allowed in the city-center?

(2) Are there signs posted to steer the drivers of over-length vehicles away from those streets? They, of all people, would be most appreciative of those signs.

(3) Closer to the subject matter of your blog, are there any overlaps between freight routes and bike routes? And if so, how are they managed?

In New York City, Kent Street in the Borough of Brooklyn is one of those mismanaged streets: it is both a designated truck route and a designated bike route --with awkward results. Ouch!

David Hembrow said...

jet: Yes, it's a 30 km/h zone.

highwayman: I don't know the allowed lengths of trucks vs. the US situation. However, I have seen large articulated trucks in this street when they have needed to be there for access. There has been building work, for instance.

The street is certainly wide enough, and the corners are large enough in radius that it can be done. As you'll see in the photos above of the old situation, this was once a through route for trucks.

However, they'd only come here if they had to. Just as for drivers of cars, this isn't a through route for trucks. While main routes for trucks and bikes may be parallel with a cycle-path beside the road surface, they don't use the same space. A previous video showed a junction of the same street a little further North and there you'll see how trucks and bikes are kept well apart from one-another where there are many trucks.

STBill said...

Hi David - I noticed the cyclist early on in the video giving the parked cars a wide berth. Do you have much of a problem with drivers opening their car doors on cyclists?

David Hembrow said...

STBill: It's a rare problem. On streets like this cyclists can ride well out without having to worry about motor vehicle while on roads with separate cycle-paths the door zone is almost always completely avoided. I'll explain in a future blog-post.

Frits B said...

An eagle-eyed viewer may have noticed a car coming from the opposite direction on a one-way street (right at the beginning of the video, on Noordersingel). This is because the street is temporarily open for two-way traffic due to extensive roadworks. It illustrates how wise it was to create a one-way network here; the street is ridiculously narrow to modern eyes.

@Jet - The entire town centre was declared a 30kph zone as recent as March 2011 only. The through roads are still 50 kph and have priority. In fact all residential areas already were 30kph zones before that time, enforced by either road design or traffic signs at the entrance. Finding your way in those in a car can be quite complicated.

Oliver said...

It's very rare in my experience too - the Dutch are very aware of bikes as car drivers are also cyclist. Cycling along at a steadier pace on one of those Dutch bikes also helps dodge any such obstacles :-)

mike said...

I've seen many cycle lanes in the Netherlands that put cyclists in the door zone of parked cars.

I'm guessing this situation is tolerated because (i) there are still many older bike lanes due to be upgraded to the latest standards, and/or (ii) the Dutch are much more aware of cycling so dooring isn't a problem.

Green Idea Factory said...

Wouldn't it be easier (or at least cheaper) to have a default two-way for cyclists on one-way streets, with only exceptions for various reasons? In other words, no sign on every street?

Entrances to the city would have communications - not just signs - to make this known to visitors, and supplemental info could even be sent to mobile phones entering the area.

If sign-makers would lose jobs they can be paid to make art.

Tallycyclist said...

@Mike People are definitely just much more aware of cyclist in cultures that have such high cycling rates. I'm speaking from personal experience cycling in Copenhagen. It's rates aren't as high as many of the Dutch cities, but at least 70% of the population cycle for some trips sometimes. And with so many everyday cyclist present all over the central urban core, you have to be aware or you'll easily hurt or kill a cyclist. Painted bike lanes positioned to the left of parked cars are very rare in Cph (never encountered one myself) but there are streets with no bike infrastructure that have parked cars.

On such streets most people will ride far enough in the lane away from parked cars that it's impossible for cars to pass if there's opposing traffic. If they can they do, but if not drivers just slow down and wait patiently behind. Try that doing in the US and not get harassed. My Danish friends confirmed that drivers are indeed very careful about not dooring cyclist. Also, I would often be 10 m or more away from the intersection (my typical speed is 12-18 kph) and a right turning car would wait for me to pass.

So I can easily imagine what it's like in the Netherlands where cycling rates are even higher. That being said, I hope they will upgrade those type of bike lanes because subjective safety will be vastly improved.

Stev said...

Hi David, interesting post.
How do you view Groningen´s traffic circulation plan ? It has made the city of the Northern Netherlands with it´s roughly 200.000 inhabitants, a prime example of cycling friendly city planning, put in practice about 35 years ago - about the first of the country. Would surely make a worthy post.

These days however, the traffic plan seems to be choking the shops in the center quite a bit. When I lived there, -before the banking crisis- the number of closed shop fronts was pretty awful.
You´ll notice many closed windows in the Nieuwe Ebbingestraat, a bit North from the centre, but also the Oosterstraat and Gelkingestraat leading up to the cities central square, showed numberous stores up for hire.

Perhaps the city suffers from the circulation plans' bad reputation among motorists, may be car drivers rather stick to the free parking in the enormous shopping area just a mile East of the centre, with it´s gigantic IKEA store and a host of other Big Names. Seems many 4 wheel visitors limit their shopping to those nearby chain stores, missing out on interesting little shops in the center completely.

They don´t know what they´re missing ! Assen has a lot of interesting things, but it can´t beat the cosy bustling Groningen centre. What's more, it makes is great cycling !

David Hembrow said...

Stev, you can find a bit about Groningen's planning here.

The centre still seems quite full of people from what I can tell. Lots of Germans do make it to the centre of the city, though it's also true that many limit their visit to the second largest Ikea in Europe which on the eastern side.

Harry Lieben said...

Grote Markt/Vismarkt is the main cozy shopping centre in Groningen Actually. Ebbingestraat is just a bit too much out of sight and quite narrow and thus less popular I think. Groningen is very popular with Germans indeed because the centre is so nice.
Cars are not forgotten though, there is a huge parking lot in the works just outside the centre within walking distance.
There was a lot of protest when Groningen introduced the circulating plan which divided the centre in sections you could not travel between with a car and with many one-way streets but I rarely hear a complaint today. A fine city to live in...
I also lived near Assen and what has been done there for cyclists in the last years is very impressive.