Monday, 1 April 2013

The Netherlands sets the best example, but don't copy anything just because it is "Dutch"

While Germany is a genuine leader in renewable energy, and Danish design is known across the world, it is the Netherlands that should be looked to as the leader in cycling.

There is no "good enough". Everything
could be better.  Works on cycle-paths
are common in the Netherlands
 because
standards are improving. Dutch cycling
infrastructure is a moving target.
Observers from other countries with a far lower level of cycling often express an interest in Denmark or Germany because they are considered to offer a more "achievable" or "realistic" target to aim for. A cheaper solution is sometimes seen as an easier thing to emulate than the Dutch solution. It's true that those nations spend less, however they also achieve less. While the Netherlands continues to grow cycling from an already higher base (in 2011 the population cycled nearly 10% more than in 2010), Denmark is struggling against a long term decline in cycling and Germany has infrastructure which is unpopular with many of its cyclists. Are those good scenarios to aspire to ?

Let's not even consider the absurdity of looking towards places which have achieved even less than Denmark and Germany, be they vocal cities in the UK or USA or elsewhere. What works for a minority cycling modal share and what works in a limited area with a demographic bubble are not necessarily what works for true majority cycling over an entire nation.

In the past, Assen had cycle-lanes in the
middle of the road. They're gone now.
Not a good idea. Don't copy this. The
traffic lights that they're waiting for
do not even exist any more. This street
is now much more pleasant.
It makes no sense to campaign for something which isn't actually good enough. Campaigners should be inspired by the best of Dutch infrastructure and be wary of distraction by things which don't have a proven record of success.

Unfortunately there sometimes seems to be a lack of "quality control" when people are inspired by what they see in other places, including what they see in the Netherlands. Not everything "Dutch" is equally good. This isn't helped by the Dutch themselves occasionally forgetting about why they cycle and placing far too much emphasis on things which are less important or by their giving a lot of press to new ideas which are unproven or in some cases simply daft.

What's Dutch and should be ignored ?
I'm more impressed by traffic lights like
this one where cyclists never wait more
than 8 seconds for a green light
 and
where you don't have to stop at all.
Traffic lights which give cyclists priority when it rains have been in the news recently. This sounds lovely of course until you give it a little more thought. The article states that "The rain sensor did not lead to significantly longer waiting times for the non-cycling travellers, nor did it produce jams or stagnation". Now if the change in cycle timing benefits cyclists but does not cause a problem for other road users, then why do we not have that new timing all the time instead of only when it rains ? It's illogical in the extreme to do this, and as it costs an extra €10000 per traffic light, why bother when the same benefit can be found by reprogramming the lights permanently ? This is a gimmick which sounds good in a press-release but is otherwise quite silly.

Does the current situation in winter
look especially problematic ?
Another recent idea was heated cycle-paths. Again this initially sounds like a fine idea, until you realise that it is simply not practical. This idea is estimated to cost between €20K and €40K per km. However, the Netherlands has 35000 km of cycle-paths so it would cost a thousand billion euros to implement everywhere. Clearly this cannot ever happen. At best a very small percentage may be heated, perhaps outside the town hall, and the traditional way of clearing paths (which is already very successful) will have to continue anyway. What's more, the increased cost of maintenance and the energy required to warm the paths has not been accounted for. This is another gimmick which sounds good in a press-release but doesn't really translate into much on the ground.


Simple, old-fashioned and "not invented
here", but what Dutch roads need are
"Cat's Eyes" like British roads have had
for 80 years. Read about the inventor.
Due to being in the centre of roads,
they're not dangerous to cyclists on the
road. Note that smaller versions can
be used on cycle-paths without
causing danger to cyclists. 
A third example in recent months is the idea of roads which glow in the dark. This "designer" nonsense even won "Best Future Concept at the Dutch Design Awards". The resulting press-release was taken up by organisations around the world and it received a considerable amount of coverage. Did no-one think about how impractical this is ? It's really a daft idea. Dutch roads genuinely do have a problem with how visible they are after dark, but spreading a thin layer of rapidly worn away paint across the entire surface is not the way to deal with this. British roads have provided an example of a better solution for nearly 80 years ! Cat's Eyes are retroreflective devices found in vast numbers along Britain's roads and motorways. The very clever design of Cat's Eyes means that they retract to avoid damage so are resistant to being driven over by trucks and even snow-ploughs, and that they use this retraction to clean themselves. What's more, they've a proven history of success. Having driven on both Dutch and British roads and motorways after dark, I can state that it is quite unequivocally easier to do so in the UK because you can see so much better where you're going if the centre-line and sides of the road are fitted with Cats Eyes.

After this is commonplace perhaps it's
 time to ask for big bridges and tunnels
Often there is an over-emphasis on the most recently built exceptional pieces of infrastructure. To claim in a press-release that you will build the "longest", "tallest", "widest" or whatever of anything is of course a real crowd-pleaser. It guarantees free publicity even before the new thing exists. Cities which have built exceptional pieces of infrastructure often use them to hype themselves.

I have received email from Dutch architects and "creative engineers" asking for me to advertise for them by writing posts about their latest projects on this blog and I've been invited to events and other such things. However I am not interested in astro-turfing for such companies and you should be wary of reading articles which are the result of marketing campaigns. Until something has been finished, proven to work and has a long record of being cost-effective, it's not ready to be copied elsewhere.

Campaigners need to be wary of all of this. Publicity is not our aim. Cycling is our aim. Exceptional pieces of infrastructure can only ever make up a small percentage of the total and if given too much emphasis they distract attention from the important point that it is the very high standard of the infrastructure which goes everywhere and which everyone uses every-day for all their journeys which creates a high level of subjective safety and attracts people to cycling. Fancy bridges, tunnels or claims for the "longest" cycle-paths or whatever are nice to see and occasionally convenient to use, but they're icing on the cake, not the cake itself. I've occasionally covered exceptional pieces of infrastructure on this blog, but with warnings.

Students surveying Haren's "Shared
Space" and counting how often car
drivers don't give way to bikes
There is also the perennial favourite of "Shared Space" road layouts. Despite having failed as a concept here in the Netherlands, there being no new large "Shared Space" projects, these ideas keep being pushed with enthusiasm elsewhere, quite often by those who stand to gain from contracts for its implementation. Even here in the Netherlands they sometimes achieve design wins, even though we know that shared space is not really safe. These days, with an increase in interest in Dutch cycling infrastructure elsewhere, "Shared Space" is sometimes pushed on the grounds that it's "Dutch" and therefore must be good. However, in practice this is now barely a Dutch idea at all. While a Dutch invention and while such layouts had brief popularity here in the early 2000s, the problems with this "emperor's new clothes" manner of redesigning streets are now quite clear and few people would ask for this. Far fewer than 1% of the street layouts in the Netherlands are "Shared Space" and as a result they form just a few weak links in an otherwise very good network of infrastructure for cycling. The real way of civilizing city centre streets is to remove most of the cars from them. Compare a video of a street which was once shared space but is more pleasant now that motor vehicles have been removed with another showing how shared space is both dangerous and inconvenient for the vulnerable.

Turbo Roundabout. Can we really
expect children or adults in disability
scooter
s to cross safely here ?
Turbo Roundabouts are a Dutch innovation to keep motor vehicles moving. They're horrible for cyclists, causing danger and inconvenience and cyclists are never expected to use the road on a turbo-roundaout. Protests about infrastructure are rare in the Netherlands, but there have been protests against Turbo Roundabouts because even crossings at such roundabouts are not necessarily safe.

While Turbo Roundabouts are bad news for cyclists, the design of some other Dutch roundabouts is exceptional. However here also it is necessary to pick the best, safest, most convenient examples to copy and when copying them, it's essential to copy the entire thing. I've seen several examples of engineers from other countries trying to pick some aspects of Dutch roundabout design but miss out others. It's common for people to focus on the geometry. i.e. they see the difference in exit radii and the size of the island in the centre but miss out the cycle-paths. So far as cyclists are concerned, the cycle-paths are the fundamental reason why Dutch roundabout design works well. Miss them out and you do not have a "Dutch" roundabout.

While on the subject of large junctions, traffic light junctions in the Netherlands are not all created equal either. The best design of traffic light junction for cyclists is the simultaneous green design. This is not only extremely convenient but also has proven to be extremely safe and it fits almost any size of junction. Anything else compromises at least one of safety or convenience. Unfortunately, much discussion elsewhere is concentrated on the "Standard Dutch Junction" or the "Protected Intersection", both of which are versions of older and less successful designs.

What's Dutch and often misunderstood ?
Wide cycle-path next to a 30 km/h road
This is necessary to preserve subjective
safety and direct cycle-routes
Lower speed limits are a good thing. The Dutch think so - and that's why more than a third of the total road network in the Netherlands has a 30 km/h or lower speed limit. However, research published in the Netherlands four years ago showed that merely lowering the speed limit was not nearly enough of an intervention to make roads safe.

Residential areas and villages should have speeds no higher than 30 km/h / 20 mph on their streets. However, even where there is such a low speed limit it is often necessary still to have separate cycling infrastructure, and low speed limits certainly don't remove the need for separate cycling infrastructure in other places.

Achieving safety requires removing cars or building separate infrastructure for bikes and of course junction design is important too.

It is worthwhile to campaign for lower default speed limits but lower speed limits should be viewed as just one of a number of tools to civilize the streets and their contribution should not be over-emphasized. The same goes for Strict Liability, the importance of which is often much over-stated in other countries and which is often misrepresented as meaning that drivers are taken to be responsible for all crashes which occur between bikes and cars. In fact, strict liability was introduced after the Netherlands already had an extensive cycling network and it is this network which makes cycling popular, pleasant and safe. Separating cyclists from motor vehicles as much as possible, building a dense network of cycling routes and making cycling routes shorter and more convenient than driving routes are all more important than either lower speed limits or strict liability. Separating bikes from cars has a much greater effect on subjective and actual safety than does changing the laws which apply to drivers.

A simple bollard prevents this bridge
from being used by drivers. However,
bollards should not be over-used. They
can be dangerous.
Unravelling of routes so that cyclists do not have to travel parallel with motorists can make it possible to segregate modes without specific cycling infrastructure. However, the resultant routes for cyclists should be the direct routes, not indirect routes which go "around the houses" in order that cyclists are merely kept out of the way of motorists.

In the Netherlands it is quite normal that drivers find themselves having to take a detour in order that residential areas can be pleasant places to live. Cycling routes can pass through residential areas, but...

An old street converted into a Woonerf
in Assen. They were also built as new
developments in the 1970s and 1980s.
Woonerven (or "living streets" - similarly, the living-room in a Dutch house is called a woonkamer) are residential streets in which people take precedence over motor vehicles. The concept was especially popular in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s.

While woonerven provide for access by any means of transport, they should not be through routes by motor vehicle. What's more, they should also not be through routes by bicycle. Woonerven are not cycling facilities, they are intended to be pleasant places to live. This is not enhanced by having nose to tail commuters heading through these streets either in cars or on bikes.

If someone suggests that a woonerf should be a through route for bicycles, look out. Not only have they fundamentally misunderstood the concept of a woonerf, but they're probably proposing to send cyclists "around the houses" rather than provide the direct routes that cyclists need.

Older residential street recently
transformed to better accommodate
resident's cars
. Note also the one way
sign, excluding cyclists. This civilizes
residential streets in older areas
From many peoples' interpretations of what the Dutch have done, you could come to the conclusion that many things are "anti-car" in this country, but it's not true. The Netherlands is a rich western nation in which people can easily afford to own cars if they want to, and this country does not make it difficult to own, drive or park the cars that people own.

New-build residential areas provide ample car parking so that ownership of cars doesn't cause problems for other residents. Many shops offer free parking. The city that we live in, Assen, has the cheapest car parking in the Netherlands. What's more, the roads are well maintained and well sign-posted. They're a pleasure to drive on.

That driving can be very convenient for some purposes, and that people like to own cars does not stop those same people from cycling if cycling is an attractive option. But for this effect to become reality, cycling must be a very attractive option people for people from all walks of life. There is nothing unique about the Dutch people which makes them ride bikes - they find it useful to do so because it has been made into an easy choice to make and that comes because the environment encourages cycling. The Dutch have successfully harnessed the enormous pent up enthusiasm for cycling that exists everywhere. The desirability of cycling results in people using their bikes even though commutes by car are subsidized by the Dutch government.

The first pedestrianized street in the world was built in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and there are now many pedestrianized zones across the country. However, unlike pedestrianized zones elsewhere which ban cycling these are usually easy to access by bicycle. However, note that these are generally not main bicycle routes. A main route through a shopping street could cause conflict. Similarly, shared use pedestrian/bicycle paths are not built because they also cause conflict. For the same reason, bus lanes are not combined with bicycle lanes.

Other things to be wary of
On holidays from the UK we got the
impression that there were a lot of
wind turbines here. Not really. For
that you do need to go to Germany.
Be wary of "holiday opinions". Holidays in other countries are not remotely like living there for a period of years and they often lead to people having a view of their holiday destination which doesn't fit reality. To understand another country you have to live there for years and put some effort into understanding how things are in your new home.

Note that Dutch commentators speaking about the Netherlands are equally unlikely to understand differences between their country and others unless they have lived for many years in other countries and spent the time to study those differences while they were there. The significance of the everyday and mundane things which are taken for granted by cyclists in the Netherlands can easily be forgotten. Dutch commentators are as likely as those from elsewhere to place an over-emphasis on the new and spectacular, particularly if this shows their country in a positive light. Also note that most Dutch people have no real understanding of the problems facing cyclists in other countries because they have not experienced them. After he read comments about "dooring" in youtube comments, I had to explain carefully to one Dutch bicycle blogger what this meant because despite cycling since he was a child he had never experienced it himself. There can also be problems with language, and that's not just restricted to bloggers. Even the Fietsberaad sometimes publishes documents in English which don't mean the same as their Dutch equivalents.

Original London "Superhighway"
illustration with miniature
cyclist. The result of compromise
before negotiation.  Remember
past hype and promises made but
not always kept. Celebrate actual
results, not announcements in
press releases. Cycle lanes
similar to this can be found in
the Netherlands, but they're not
good here either.
Dutch people have told me that the Netherlands suffers from all sorts of problems, such as particularly high unemployment, a high violent crime rate, a terrible problem with litter, mass obesity, particularly terrible economic problems. They also often think that mopeds are a huge problem for cyclists, though they're actually a non-issue in most circumstances. If you're close to even a small problem it can seem like a big problem. I've also been told that cycling is far more pleasant in the UK because of a supposedly more extensive British network of traffic free paths, which of course doesn't actually exist. The hyped initial promises for London's "superhighways" resulted in some Dutch media sources suggesting that the Netherlands could soon fall behind, which of course didn't happen. Why do people believe these things ? Without the perspective of seeing how other people live by living as they live it's difficult to be objective.

Cycle-chic style pictures and videos of peak time cycling (I made them myself way back in the days before youtube had HD) look nice but do not really teach us anything. When emphasis is on the young and pretty then the impression is given that they are the cycling demographic we should aim for. When wider demographics are featured they tell you nothing about why it is that older or younger people cycle or about how often they are seen doing so. Videos of masses of people cycling are of no real use without an explanation of why. The result is often to simply reinforce the irrational beliefs about Dutch cycling that many people already hold, and this can be read in the comments.

Junctions commonly known as the
"Copenhagen left" design were tried in
NL 30 years ago but are no longer built
Not really Dutch at all
Not all things proposed as "Dutch" in other countries are actually Dutch at all. Two stage turns are a good example of an inferior design which has been linked with fatalities in Copenhagen, yet has been proposed as examples of "Dutch" design in the UK.

These were built up to about 30 years ago in the Netherlands, but I've not seen one of these for more than ten years. A reader sent the location of the junction in the photo on the right. There's a reason why these went out of fashion - it's because they're unsafe and inconvenient.

While junctions like this might have been "Dutch" in the past, it seems a bit unfair to still blame the Dutch for them now when almost all have been replaced.

What's the harm in doing something else ? What's the harm with making a slow start ?
The problem with following the wrong path is that time is wasted while this happens. The suggestion that campaigners should work towards something other than what the Dutch have has been made since at least the 1970s. Surely forty years of trying things that don't actually work for furthering cycling is enough. It's time to stop falling behind and catch up as quickly as possible.

The Netherlands is ahead in cycling mainly because other countries have never really been in the race. It's much easier to make an excuse about the Dutch being 20 / 30 / 40 years ahead and therefore difficult to catch up with than it is to make genuine political and financial commitments which will last for decades, but that is what is required in order to make a proper start at catching up. No more broken promises.


Groningen still has some "advanced
stop lines
" (bike boxes). It doesn't look
very different from the London photo,
but this isn't the best infrastructure in
Groningen. ASLs are not a good idea
either here or anywhere else. Don't
copy this, there are better examples.
Conclusion: Use good examples to make progress
Not all of the best ideas in all fields come from the Netherlands. Not all Dutch ideas are good. Not all Dutch people know why they cycle. Not all Dutch people how lucky they are to be able to cycle as they do, and of course not all the infrastructure in the Netherlands is perfect, or was built recently to current standards. In short, the Netherlands is far from perfect.

However, if you're interested in improving cycling in your own country this is still the most successful nation by a considerable margin and therefore is also the single best place to look for inspiration. But when looking here you need to seek out the best examples. Don't aim low because by doing so you guarantee not to achieve a high cycling modal share.


The one and only "Hybrid" cycle-path in
Groningen, not properly separated from
the road. The primitive design survived
for decades in this location and works
because there's a parallel service road
behind the hedge on the right. Cars
don't make right turns in this location
and there's no reason for them to park
here because that happens beyond
the hedge on the right of the picture.
It's not generally applicable, and not
something to ask for elsewhere.
Campaigners with low aspirations for their own countries often seem to cling to inferior infrastructure in the Netherlands because they view it as "more achievable". However you have to see this in context. Examples of low quality infrastructure in the Netherlands are merely weaker points in a comprehensive network which is of high overall quality. The remaining examples of lesser infrastructure have typically survived where they are because in these locations they cause relatively few problems. However, infrastructure is constantly being upgraded all across the country. This inferior infrastructure is under threat even where it works. If you refer to such infrastructure to form your standards, you run the risk of setting the standard for your best infrastructure to be equivalent to what has already been removed in the Netherlands. What was shown not to work well enough here will be installed in places where it won't work well in your own country and having set a low standard you will be doomed always to achieve a lower cycling modal share than the Netherlands until the standard can be changed once again. If it's already taken forty years to set a standard, you need to get it right.

There is no need to learn from the past mistakes of the Netherlands by repeating them. You can leapfrog over them and copy what really works. Use the best examples. Ignore less good examples.

The worst thing for campaigners to do is to hamper their own efforts by not setting a high enough standard for themselves and for the community that they live in. If you were planning a mission to the moon, would you go to NASA for advice, or would you prefer to take notice of what the Ugandan space programme had achieved on the grounds that it looks more affordable than NASA ?

Study Tours
We run regular study tours, both on dates which are open to anyone who wants to book individually as well as special tours for interested groups.

We take just three days to demonstrate and explain how cycling works in the Netherlands. Take advantage of our decades of experience of living, working and cycling in both the UK and the Netherlands.


The widget
The "How far ahead" widget began counting from "40 years" on March 4th and will continue to count upwards until adequate action is taken in London. To keep up pressure on London you can embed it on your own blog or web page by adding the following line of HTML:
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://hembrow.eu/howfarahead.js"></script><script type="text/javascript">howfarahead("right");</script>