Friday 22 November 2013

Has Assen progressed over the last six years ?

This is the third part of a three part series. See also "Has Britain had progressed over the last six years?" and "Has London progressed over the last six years?". Now I look at Assen, where things have gone somewhat differently.

One of the first infrastructure photos I
took in Assen. We have priority over
 the road at this junction, as we do at
most junctions. Since I took this photo,
the cycle-path has been rebuilt with
smooth asphalt. Continuous small
scale improvements are normal here
We emigrated from the UK at the end of August 2007 and have now lived here in Assen for more than six years. Leaving one country to live in another, especially one in which you don't speak the language, is not easy. In and of itself, we don't recommend it. Emigration causes a lot of every kind of stress. We came here without jobs to go to so one of the first things we had to do was start our own business in order to try to make ends meet. At the same time we were trying to learn Dutch, work out how to register ourselves as residents, get telephones, electricity, gas etc. organised. It's been a real struggle for all of us which I can't do justice to in one paragraph, however we do now have what we were looking for - an environment within which our children and ourselves were safe to be able to incorporate cycling into our lives.

We took a break from organising Study Tours in 2007 to move house and settle in but started again in 2008. We've now shown hundreds of people how and why the Dutch cycle. Other countries could learn from what the Dutch have done. Indeed, if there is a serious intention to have a similar cycling modal share, they must learn as this is the only approach which has had this degree of success Many of the things that you will read about below are seen for real on our study tours. Book a place !

Why choose Assen ?
One of the questions we've been asked most frequently by Dutch people is why we chose to live in Assen. We came here not because it's the biggest metropolis of the Netherlands and not because it's the top cycling city in the Netherlands. Assen is neither of those.

Ordinary in the Netherlands means
extraordinary elsewhere. This is one
of the first photos I took of city centre
cycle-parking. Cycle-parking in this
area has since been improved
In many ways, Assen is quite average for the Netherlands. The majority of the population of any country live in relatively average surroundings, and the majority of the population of the Netherlands lives in places not so different to Assen.

Assen is sparsely populated and it's the capital of the least densely populated province. It's a market town which is quite lively for its size but certainly not a student city like nearby Groningen and Zwolle. Assen is exactly what we were looking for.

What has Assen done for cycling ?
Ordinary cycling provision in the Netherlands is something that would be considered quite extraordinary in any other country. Actually, Assen's infrastructure was slightly ahead of Dutch average when we moved here and this was an attraction of the city. However, remarkable strides have been made since that time. Cyclists are always an important part of planning in the Netherlands, and while not everything has been without a hiccough, this city has made great efforts in the last six years.

If you're in a race you can never catch up by going slower than the people in front of you. It's the same with cycling provision. For other places to "catch up" with the Netherlands so far as cycling is concerned requires them to out-spend the Netherlands and perhaps also use their resources more efficiently than the Netherlands in order to improve conditions to the point where cycling is an attractive proposition for everyone. Unfortunately, what we see from other countries is usually still the opposite of this. Investing too little can never achieve the very dense grid of very high quality cycle-routes required to enable true mass cycling.

Why concentrate on Infrastructure ?
I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again, but building a high cycling modal share is all about infrastructure. Whatever demographic group you have, the potential for cycling is maximised by having infrastructure which makes the most of whatever potential that group of people has with regard to cycling.

Student cities are always likely to be able to achieve a higher cycling modal share, while areas with a high proportion of immigrants from non-cycling nations will likely achieve a lower modal share, but in the Netherlands all demographic groups cycle more than they would if they lived in another country.

Even many Dutch cycling experts greatly overestimate "being Dutch" as a reason the Dutch cycle. Typically they are unaware of how much of an effect the infrastructure and resulting safe environment for cycling in this country has on immigrants from countries with low cycling modal shares. If considered as if they were separate countries, immigrant groups in the Netherlands would be amongst the highest cycling nations on earth. Conversely, Dutch people who emigrate usually stop cycling.

No amount of PR and marketing is equivalent to one metre of decent cycling infrastructure. None of that changes how people feel about getting onto a bike. If you want to build cycling in your nation, build top quality infrastructure which makes cycling into a subjectively safe means of transport.

How is Assen's infrastructure ?

By no means definitive, a few minutes of editing a Google Maps image of Assen to include the routes I could remember resulted in this. The area shown is roughly an 8 km x 8 km square. Good quality cycle-routes need to be at a high density in order to make cycling attractive to all.
Wide, smooth cycle-path built before
we came to Assen. Has not needed to
be changed in the last six years.
Narrow red lines show the locations of cycle-paths which already existed when we moved to Assen. Some of these were actually very new when we moved here, so many of these are less than ten years old and this does not indicate that they are inferior.

The narrow light blue lines are roads on which one cycles but where some technique or other reduces the number of motor vehicles. In the city centre, the streets are nearly or completely car free. In other parts of the city there is a more attractive parallel route for motorists or they are in residential areas which cannot be used to make through journeys by car.

Recreational path built on the East of
Assen a couple of years ago. Excellent
quality adding to the rest.
The thicker green lines show where completely new cycle-paths have been built or extensive resurfacing of older cycle-paths has taken place in the last six years (this is from memory and by no means complete). Almost all the main routes are now up to current standards. i.e. smooth, wide (2.5 m single direction, 3 m for bidirectional secondary route paths up to 4 m for bidirectional primary route paths) and with well designed junctions.

Norwegian Study Tour group riding on
the Bicycle Road.
The dark blue line shows the location of a bicycle road where motor vehicle use is limited and cyclists have priority. This has been extremely successful in this location. Of course it's not the sort of thing you could put anywhere as some roads will always have too much through traffic.

This counts as a main route through a
residential area. Almost no cars go
through here so children can cycle
5 abreast on the way home from school.
Cycle training does not lead to Dutch
cycling espcially safely. They
are safe because cars are elsewhere.
Empty spaces within the city can be assumed to be residential areas which don't provide through routes by motor vehicle and therefore are not used for rat-running.

Roads through empty spaces outside the city can be assumed to have less through traffic on them than you might expect due to measures taken to civilize country roads.

Where there are gaps shown on the map, these are not really gaps but just different infrastructure. In practice the outcome of this is that we can cycle anywhere we want to at any time we want to and conditions remain equally pleasant everywhere that we go.

Brand new four years ago, this cycle-
path provides excellent access to the
city from villages on the East of Assen.
A quality cycling experience doesn't stop at the edge of the city. You'll note from the map that there is a good quality route in every direction out of the city. This allows for commuting adults and for school children who travel in from remote villages. The route to the East was upgraded substantially in 2009 and the route to the West has had much work more recently. Those to the North-West, South-West and South have had partial upgrade. The route to the North was upgraded just before we moved here. That is is possible to make journeys outside the city as easily as journeys within it is required because secondary schools exist only in the city so all secondary school students (age 12-17) who live anything up to 20 km away cycle to the city daily for their education.

Because all these routes join together from different villages, towns and cities, it's actually possible to ride inter-city on good quality infrastructure and it's possible to do this at a good speed. We've done this on many occasions.

A recreational route doesn't need to be
so wide as a main route, but it's good
that they are so well surfaced as this.
We should also not forget the many kilometres of recreational cycle-path which have been created in the last few years around Assen. For instance, the route shown on the left extends several kilometres to the North-West. It's of very high quality concrete construction.

While most recreational routes are not people's direct commuting routes, they often provide useful segments for longer rides.

Traffic Lights
In Assen, the process of unravelling cycling routes from driving routes started some time ago. This has continued during the last six years and the result is that traffic lights are almost completely avoided when cycling. They simply don't appear very often on most of the more popular routes available to cyclists. For instance, when we cycle to the centre of the city we have several routes available to us with no traffic lights at all and one route which has a single traffic light. By car there would be a minimum of two sets of traffic lights. It's similar if we go to other destinations, like the dentist. This holds not only for destinations within the city but also if I head out of the city.

Simultaneous Green traffic lights are
green for cyclists in all directions at
once while all drivers have red.
Safety is achieved by separation in
both time and space.
Where traffic lights are inevitable, those used by cyclists have nearly all been changed within the last six years. Almost all traffic light junctions shared with motorists in Assen now use the Simultaneous Green system. This means that when there is a green light for bicycles, all direction go at once while all motor vehicles are stopped. Simultaneous Green is fabulous for cyclists. It's both a more convenient and far safer solution than two stage turns. It gives cyclists a genuine advantage which cannot be achieved by any design which places cyclists on the roads with cars. When this type of junction is combined with allowing cyclists to make right turns on red lights, as is the case in Assen, convenience is even further enhanced.

Where cyclists have to cross driving routes at traffic light controlled crossings (i.e. equivalent to toucan crossings), the delay is as short as possible. In practice this often means that the maximum delay is eight seconds, and that often the delay is shorter than that - as shown in the video below:

The few occasions on which you have to stop for a traffic light have little effect on cyclists being able to make efficient journeys. As a cyclist you feel valued. There's a safe place to wait to cross and a safe place to cross to. The delay won't be long. No need to break rules in order to feel safe and as a result, it's comparatively rare that anyone goes through a red light.

There are also a couple of places in Assen where the traffic lights default to green for bicycles. It's impossible to have a controlled crossing which is more convenient than that.

While this bridge only carries cars, it
provides for bicycles. Building it
removed a traffic light which would
otherwise have stopped those bikes.
I've often featured a particular large blue bridge on this blog. The reason why is that it is something quite unusual. The bridge was built in the first few months after we arrived in the city and while it carries only cars, it exists to improve conditions for cyclists.

Before the bridge was built there was simply a large flat road junction here with traffic lights. The canal had been filled in in the 1960s. Cyclists heading from the left of the picture would have to stop in order to cross the road. Because this is part of an important route from a new suburb into the city centre, no stops were allowed so this large bridge now carries cars over the cycle-path.

Several other bridges were built along the new route into the city centre and an historically interesting older bridge was moved into a new position simply because this would provide something interesting for cyclists.

New bridge in a residential area
Bridges have also been built within the new housing development as landscaping features which also allow cyclists and pedestrians to be able to make use of routes not available to drivers. These bridges have been constructed over water features which exist only because a hole was dug to create something to place the bridge over. It's a way of sending a very clear signal that more direct routes are available by bike.

While extensive road works go on, the
city sometimes builds temporary
bridges for cyclists to preserve cycling
routes. This is one of the many ways that
cyclists are not put off by road-works.
Assen also has occasionally built temporary bridges so that existing cycle routes are not cut off by road works. It's very important that road works do not cause problems for cyclists as this may cause people to stop cycling. If people stop due to an unpleasant experience then it may take a long time to convince them to try cycling again. This is why it is important to prevent the initial loss of cycling. I've written previously about many examples of how cycling routes can be preserved during road works.

Only two new roundabouts have been built in Assen since we moved here. As with all other roundabouts in Assen, cyclists are not required to ride on the road with cars.

The cycle-paths around this roundabout,
built in late 2007, initially went no-where
because the area had not yet been fully
planned. However, whatever the future
should hold, it was already known that
cycle-paths would be needed
It's unacceptable to expect cyclists to hold their own with motor vehicles when negotiating a roundabout. It's a difficult task which only the fit are likely to be able to do with a sufficient degree of safety. Older people and children can't ride safely around roundabouts with motor vehicles. But it's not just for these groups that it is better not to be on the road.

Provision of top quality cycling infrastructure at roundabouts provides a better experience for all cyclists.

Roads in Kloosterveen are not straight
lines. They are designed both to look
attractive and to reduce the speeds
of drivers.
The new suburb of Kloosterveen was partially built when we came to Assen and building is set to continue for several more years. Kloosterveen is a very attractive new housing development which is quite typical of a Vinex location. Cycle routes are shorter than driving routes and the suburb is self contained with all required facilities. These are family friendly locations with a mixture of social as well as privately owned housing. There are no gated communities in the Netherlands.

Kloosterveen was designed to enable 2/3rds of primary school age (5-11 years) children to cycle to school.

Kloosterveen shopping centre. Most
shopping is done by bicycle. Watch
a video which shows how this works.
The bridge in a residential area above, one of a pair within a couple of hundred metres of each other, was constructed in Kloosterveen in the last few years. All facilities were provided as temporary buildings before the permanent locations could be built.

Next to the temporary supermarket was a temporary hairdresser, florists and chip shop. The temporary church and several temporary primary schools provided different types of education at another location in the suburb.

Kloosterveen's permanent shopping centre replaced many of the temporary buildings and was built from nothing over a period of just over a year. It is designed to be visited most conveniently by bicycle.

Kloosterveen controls access to the suburb by car by several means including a physical control on a bus road but the development also provides adequate residential car parking spaces in order to avoid conflict.

Because this is new-build there were no restrictions on what could be built. This is just as true for new-build developments anywhere else in the world. The choices made by planners affect generations of people who live in suburbs like this. Good choices could be made anywhere.

A sea of bicycles outside Assen's
railway station. 2550 spaces here
means a space for every 26 residents.
London has 2800 spaces spread
between 50 railway stations. That's
just one space for every 2800 residents.
Like many places, Assen never seems to have enough cycle-parking. There are thousands of spaces in the city centre, more than enough for every child to cycle to school. When we first came to live in Assen, the number of cycle-parking spaces at the railway station was slightly over 1000. This increased in 2009 to 2300 spaces and in 2010 to 2550 cycle parking spaces.

Assen's railway station also has a full service cycle-shop which has the longest opening hours of any shop in the city (every day before the first train until after the last train) and provides this city with more bike-share bicycles per thousand residents than London.

Indoor cycle-parking at one of
the main shopping centres.
This can get chaotic and some
limits have been placed on
where bikes make be left. i.e.
not blocking fire exits & doors
The city centre has had to change the way it organises cycle-parking on several occasions since we moved here. All the racks in the centre of the city have been replaced with a type which offers a higher density of parked bikes.

Cycle-parking in the shopping centres can be difficult to access on busy days due to the popularity of cycling.

Two years ago, Assen's library, cinema, theatre and concert hall were rebuilt into a single location in the city centre which offers top class covered and guarded, free of charge cycle-parking in the basement. Facilities include that it's warm, dry, clean and well lit. Free charging is offered for those with electric bikes, CCTV watches over your bike while it's parked and a guard who is on duty for at least part of the day can organise some minor repairs while you enjoy a show. This cycle-park never shuts until after the last performance so you're unlikely to find your bike locked inside the cycle-park.

Even though this cycle-park is really of very good quality, there were complaints locally because it is necessary to use a ramp for access:

In fact, this cycle parking is not very convenient to use in comparison with parking your bike outside. for quick visits to the library, people prefer to park outside and people pressure has forced outdoor parking to be built.

Hiccough at the new shopping centre
Not everything goes perfectly all the time. A new shopping centre in Assen provided outdoor cycle-parking, but no good way for shoppers using the supermarket to take their shopping to their bicycles and return the shopping trolley to the shop. This caused many complaints, and quite rightly so.

A shopping centre with no proper cycle
parking ? In Assen ? Does whoever
was responsible still have his job ?
A video shows the inconvenient
cycle access to this shopping centre.
At the moment there is a temporary solution. Part of the indoor car park has been separated by barriers and turned into a cycle-park. This works, but it's smelly and dark - not at all like a custom built cycle-park should be.

Where conditions for cycling are good, people cycle. This country is not rabidly anti-car and wouldn't benefit from being so if it was. Normally the Netherlands isn't anti-bicycle either, because most people in this country realise that bicycles are important for the health, wealth and happiness of the people. However, it's only "most people" who have realised this, not all of them.

On the opposite side of the road, easily
the worst new bus-stop design in Assen
even though there's plenty of room for
a bicycle bypass. Designed by the
same architect as the shopping centre?
Somehow, someone appointed the job to design this shopping centre for a city where most shopping is collected by bicycle managed to do this job without providing good enough cycling provision that customers could collect their shopping on their bikes.

It's hard to imagine what went through the mind of whoever was responsible for making such a mistake as this.

The road next to the shopping centre was rebuilt at the same time as the shops were built. On this road, a bus-stop was built without a proper bypass for bikes. Was this the work of the same architect ? As it happens, this bus stop is in a location where few people cycle so the consequences of this mistake are not so serious as they could have been. This is a mainly car through route, unravelled from main bicycle routes. However, bad design like this is surely not needed by Assen or any city which seeks to grow it's cycling modal share.

People sometimes think we "cherry pick" what we show about this city. i.e. that we only show the best things and miss out the worst. This is not true. The network of very high quality cycling provision really does go very nearly everywhere. Small parts which fall below the best standard are not extraordinarily terrible. Take for example the cycle-lane at the bus-stop shown here. This lane is smooth and of a decent width, it's just not up to the standard of other things in the city. However, this is not to the standard required to make cycling subjectively safe and attractive to all so we must criticise it.

Unfortunately, the problems in this location have not been fixed and look like they will spread. Read a blog post from 2015 showing more.

So much for what has been achieved by Assen in the last six years, now for a prediction about what will happen in the next few months.

The opposite side of the road from the
first photo in this blog post, in winter.
Snow completely cleared from the
Winter is approaching fast but I expect we'll not have too much trouble with snow and ice in the next few months. It's not that Assen is particularly mild in winter - in fact, winter temperatures here are colder than the Northern tip of Scotland or the Southern tip of New Zealand, but we rarely have problems.

Why ? An excellent standard of snow ploughing and salt application keeps problems at bay. Winter doesn't get in the way of cycling.

Future plans
Assen has many plans for the future. Some of this has already been started, several roads, cycle-paths and bridges (most of them cycle-bridges) are being replaced along one of the canals. There are also plans to renew many of the roads in the South East of the city and this will involve building new cycle-paths.

Public plans for the railway station area. The busy road goes underground, the long cycle-tunnel under the station which impressed me in 2008 will be made shorter and the bike parking will expands to 3500 spaces combined underground and on the roof of the station.
The railway station is also set for replacement. The new railway station will have cycle-parking for 3500 bicycles (one for every 22 people even allowing for future population expansion to 80000) and the busy road which goes past the railway station now is being put underground so that cyclists from the station will be able to get into the city centre without having to stop at a traffic light or negotiate with traffic.

In 2014 the plans for the station were finally published. They are not as positive for cycling as we had hoped. A future blog post will explain the problems.

Is your city catching up ?
A friend of mine lives 100 km south
of here in Deventer - another 'average'
city which is investing in ever
better cycling infrastructure.
Assen is mostly quite an average Dutch city, but Assen certainly is not standing still. The changes which have been made here in the last six years are enormous and cycling has grown from an already high base. This was already a very good place to cycle before we moved here, but it's a lot better now.

It's not just Assen than has been doing this. Almost every Dutch town is in an undeclared competition to out-do the other. Each of them improving their infrastructure because they're investing enough money, time and design effort.

To see for yourself what the Netherlands has
achieved, how important this is for cycling,
and where it's going next, book a study tour.
To catch up with Assen, and to catch up with the Netherlands as a whole, you cannot progress slowly but need to run very fast indeed. Half measures and low aspirations will not achieve what the Netherlands has achieved in the past, nor will they come anywhere near where the Netherlands is going in the future. How much time do you have ?

See also "Has London progressed in the last six years ?" and "Has Britain progressed in the last six years ?"


Edward said...

A great post, indeed a great series. Inspiring and depressing in equal measures.

Which level of government is responsible for all of what you describe? Is it local, regional, national or a bit of all three? More importantly, how do they cooperate so well? In Australia, we have a very well established system of buck passing :)

David Hembrow said...


Think about how your government gets on with things that they want to do. How well they can fund things that they want to do. Buck passing only happens with things that are not a high priority to them.



Titus said...

Great post and an interesting read. I see you found the awful bus-stop near the new shopping centre. Perhaps it's interesting that I have been told that the old Jumbo supermarket near the veemarktterrein is more popular, especially for cyclists, than the one in the new shopping centre. In the original plans the old Jumbo would have been closed but now a cycle-friendly and a cycle-unfriendly supermarket compete with each other.

David Hembrow said...

Titus, I heard the same about the two Jumbos and indeed while I shop sometimes at the old one, I've never used the new one. Easier to go to Albert Heijn where I can park conveniently outside the shop. Jumbo really should have taken more care about the way the place that their new shop was to be in was designed.

An architect's error has now doubt cost Jumbo money, as well as other shops in the same development.

André said...

@Edward - The great majority will be local government - local roads, and smaller interlocal roads all are. The only exception I see is the change to the railway station area mentioned at the end, which is paid partly by local government, partly by the railroad companies and authorities.

Anonymous said...

Great article, it really does put the 1.7km or so of new cycle track in London this year into perspective.

That new bus stop does seem particularly bizarre in a country where good bus stops are overwhelmingly the norm. Has there been any outcry from local people about it?

David Hembrow said...

DfT: I've not noticed much annoyance over the bus-stop (Titus excepted !) but I think this is because it's on so few people's cycling route. The bad cycle parking has been the cause of a lot of complaints and made the newspapers locally.

lagatta à montréal said...

I really appreciate the detailed explanations in your blog.

It was strange seeing so many helmets on the Norwegian group, who otherwise simply look like any other group of Northern Europeans and not strikingly different from a group of Dutch people (no loud colours, etc.) I believe that country was afflicted with that type of cyclist-scaring? Pity that; when I ride in cold weather (here in Montréal), I really want to be able to wear a warm, cosy hat!

You may well have read the bicycle blog in the Guardian, after the dreadful spike in killings of cyclists in the previous fortnight.

There again, someone weighed in opining that mass cycling in the UK was impossible:


22 November 2013 2:03pm

lagatta: That basically means you are opposed to mass urban cycling.

pietari: There can be no such thing as "mass urban cycling" in the UK. If there was extra room for any traffic pathways, more trains would be the most effective users for it.

You can easily read the rest at the Guardian Environment Bike Blog... posted 21 November 2013.

Jim Moore said...

Hi David,

I've been busy the last couple of days but really wanted to say what Edward has said. This post on Assen and the trilogy is a real tour de force, and that's saying something because the writing on your blog has been at a very high level for many years now. In seems you're applying the Dutch attitude to their cycling infrastructure to your writing and continuing to set higher standards.

Australian governments build and maintain very good roads for cars. The same could be done for cycling infrastructure but first we need to show them what that is.

The other major barrier is of course our insidious, soul-rotting mandatory helmet law which makes it so hard to "sell" cycling here. Even my middle-age brothers who grew up riding bikes without helmets, climbing trees and fences and generally performing acts of childhood daring look somewhat aghast at me now if I opine that the law should be repealed.

Cheers anyway. Your latest blog has got me thinking about a White Christmas tour of the Netherlands next year as I'd love to experience cycling while it's snowing.

Frits B said...

Somewhere in Assen's sanctum there is an advocate of shared space; see the recently renovated Collardslaan, Kerkplein and Zuidersingel. These are nominally 30 km/h roads but as the road itself is now visually wider (no more bike lanes) cars run faster than before and cyclists tend to ride on the sidewalk on one side of the road - it simply feels safer. The zebra crossing at Oosterhoutstraat helps but it took a lot of lobbying from the neighbourhood to prevent it from being removed as it was in conflict with the theory. The same principle seems to apply to the planned new raiway station: pedestrians, cyclists and cars visiting the station all share the public space around it if I read the plans correctly (on view at the "stadhuis" at the moment). Not a happy development.

David Hembrow said...

Frits, I've shown the last few study tour groups what's been done on those roads. I'm a bit ambivalent about it. The old situation wasn't great, the newer speed limit and surface helps and there is (I think) usually less traffic there than before. However, as you say, people ride bikes on the pavement because it feels safer.

I'm also not enthusiastic about the new arrangement of bus-stops, which have caused problems due to drivers pushing through.

The area around the station might work out OK. Sending the main road underground will hopefully reduce the amount of traffic going along Stationsstraat and into the other already transformed streets. However, I share your concern that someone's keen on shared space and that this could easily be detrimental to all the good stuff that's been done.

Having said that, there's also evidence of a turn against shared space. Note that Ceresplein no longer allows all and sundry to drive through there, and it's a lot better for being a pedestrian and cycle space instead of shared as before (though I'm not sure it was ever declared to be a "shared space" it certainly looked like one).

Frits B said...

David, The planned tunnel in front of the station is no more than an underpass for through traffic and mainly eliminates part of the existing traffic lights. Stationsstraat will probably remain as busy as it is, only the waiting times will be shorter. I'm 74 so will probably not be around to see how the plans work out; a pity really :-).