|Assen's first traffic lights were at|
this junction, once the most busy in
It wasn't until the 2nd decade of the 20th century that electric traffic lights were invented and after the first of those was installed on August 5th in Cleveland Ohio, they were swiftly adopted worldwide.
The Netherlands followed shortly afterwards, installing the first traffic light in 1928.
Traffic lights were invented for very a reason: The adoption of motor vehicles led to a growing number of deaths and injuries. Controlling motor traffic was essential to improve safety. There are far more cars now than there were a hundred years ago, so they are still needed - but only on streets used by motor vehicles.
|Nowadays, the same junction looks|
like this. It's still busy with bikes, not
so many cars. The result of deliberate
policy to improve city centres. Note
empty car parking bays. There aren't
many provided but they're rarely full
During the 20th century, not only were traffic lights installed in order to control the problems of motor vehicles, but other changes were made to streets in order to control pedestrians and cyclists.
The transformation of city streets to favour car drivers over cyclists and pedestrians happened across the world. The Netherlands was just like other countries in this regard. Traffic lights were required to avoid motor problems caused by motor vehicles, but those same motor vehicles were still seen as the solution rather than the problem.
|Not so long ago, Dutch children were educated about traffic|
by "Bruintje Beer in het Verkeer". This junction is just like
the one shown above. Chains stop pedestrians crossing
the road, formal crossings show places where this is allowed,
cyclists are not kept apart from motor vehicles, which appear
to be going rather quickly compared with everyone else.
The text specifically tells children not to cross diagonally,
It's now encouraged by the most modern Dutch traffic light
junction design which make diagonals safe & convenient
By the 1970s, the streets of Dutch cities had been redesigned with many features associated priotizing motor vehicles:
- Pedestrian barriers to prevent pedestrians from crossing the road where they want to.
- Pedestrian crossings to enforce crossing only at places situated for the maximum convenience of drivers
- Narrow pavements (sidewalks) to make more space available for wide lanes for motor vehicles.
- Asphalt road surfaces replaced the older tiles to enable higher speeds of driving with lower noise within the car.
- Traffic lights were required to control mass driving and make it safer, but they were mostly built without much thought to how they could be used to make convenient and safe journeys by foot or by bike,
|Another view of how grim Assen had|
become by the early 1970s. This street
is no longer open to cars at all. Watch
a video showing how it is now.
Starting in the 1970s, the Netherlands began to transform towns to reduce the problems caused by cars. This resulted in taking a step back from many of the "improvements" made in the mid 20th century, and returning city centre streets to a similar condition to which they had in the early 20th century. Because cars are either completely banished or have been reduced to mere guests on streets which are dominated by cyclists and pedestrians, the problems that they create have been largely removed from most city centre streets.
|Assen in the 1970s. Waiting for a|
traffic light which no longer exists
Having got rid of the motorized through traffic, the traffic lights could go too. But it couldn't be done without first getting rid of those cars.
City centre streets can be made more civilized, quieter, less fume-filled and more pleasant spaces to be in if motor vehicle access is restricted. Such streets are referred to as Autoluwe or Nearly Car Free. This should not be confused with the far less successful "Shared Space" which seeks to keep motor vehicles in the same spaces.
View Larger Map
The junction shown in the video and photos above, the site of the first traffic lights installed in Assen, is very small. With 1950s and 60s methodology (which took hold just as well here in the Netherlands as elsewhere), it made sense to dedicate a small junction like this, with streets barely more than 10 metres wide, to motor vehicles. This was the wrong solution for such a street. The "second revolution" took away that mistake and other places should not seek to replicate the mistake.
Nowadays, if you go looking in the Netherlands for traffic light solutions for streets of these small sizes, you're likely to be disappointed. This blog post shows you the current situation. i.e, it's no longer a traffic light junction. On a map which shows all of the traffic lights of Assen, this junction now shows up as a white space.
Not only in the city centre
With modern infrastructure, you do not usually have to stop for traffic lights with anything like the frequency in the Netherlands that you would do in other countries which still resemble the mid 20th century in this country. This is enormously beneficial for cyclists as you'll see from this video, showing a complete journey from a village outside Assen to the city centre.
At the end of the video there's another glimpse of how the city centre looked in the 1970s
Stopping a motor vehicle and re-starting it consumes a great deal of energy. However, it's not especially wearing on the driver, who merely has to move their feet between the brake and accelerator pedals. Stopping is much more serious for a cyclist because the cyclist is not merely the "driver" of their vehicle but also the engine. Stopping not only costs a cyclist time but also energy. It greatly reduces average speeds to have to stop, making all journeys take longer and thereby also making an acceptable journey time cover a much smaller area.
For a cyclist, each stop can easily be the equivalent of riding several hundred extra metres. Cycling becomes a far more attractive mode of transport, even over longer distances, once it is made into a much quicker and more convenient mode of transport. This is why Dutch people not only cycle more of their short journeys than people of other nations, but also cover far more of their middle distance and longer journeys by bike than do people of other nations.
When I visited London in November, I expressed my annoyance not only with the danger of cycling in that city but also that cycling is dreadfully slow on the streets of a city which is still designed very much around the motor vehicle (the video that I shot in London shows many of the problems with that city, others are discussed in blog posts). London is by no means unique. Many other cities also combine dreadful cycling provision with time-consuming stop-start journeys. In such an environment we can never expect to see cycling grow beyond a 5% modal share. Even convincing people to make a low proportion of their journeys by bike will be difficult so long as cycling remains both dangerous and inconvenient.
Not only is cycling infrastructure required to removes cyclists from the danger of 'sharing' streets with motor vehicles, but it is also necessary to unravel routes sufficiently that cyclists can reach their destinations without having to continuously stop and restart. Stop-start cycling is also an artifact of motor dominance because it comes from streets being designed around motor vehicles. The solution is not to put cyclists onto back-roads which don't go to their destinations, but to give them direct routes which do take them to their destinations.
Every country followed the first revolution, however most haven't yet begun to catch up with the second revolution which started 40 years ago.
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