Saturday, 8 February 2014

Disappearing traffic lights. How a second transport revolution in the Netherlands made mass cycling possible despite the rise in cars


Assen's first traffic lights were at
this junction, once the most busy.
The first traffic lights in the world were installed in London in 1868. This gas operated signal exploded shortly after installation.

It wasn't until the 2nd decade of the 20th century that electric traffic lights were invented and these were swiftly adopted. By that time, an increasing number of deaths and injuries due to motor vehicles made traffic lights essential to improve safety.

The first traffic light in the Netherlands was installed in 1928.

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
The first revolution
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
Into the 1960s, Dutch towns were actually removing cycle-paths built earlier in order to make more space for cars and in other places the building of cycle-paths was opposed on the grounds of causing delays. For example, in Heerlen, "The head of the traffic police division has declared that the city's traffic situation is leading increasingly to the use of traffic signals at intersections. Should bicycle paths appear at these intersections, this would require separate traffic signals, which would be too costly. Moreover, it would cause too great a delay for 'fast' traffic".

By the 1970s, the streets of Dutch cities had been redesigned with many features associated priotizing motor vehicles:
  1. Pedestrian barriers to prevent pedestrians from crossing the road where they want to.
  2. Pedestrian crossings to enforce crossing only at places situated for the maximum convenience of drivers
  3. Narrow pavements (sidewalks) to make more space available for wide lanes for motor vehicles.
  4. Asphalt road surfaces replaced the older tiles to enable higher speeds of driving with lower noise within the car.
  5. 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.
The second revolution
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 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
The result of removing motor vehicles from these streets is that the traffic lights and other street features once required to control those vehicles are no longer required and that has made walking and cycling both pleasant and convenient.

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.
Another junction in Assen in the 1970s vs. now. Apart from the traffic, note that the photo on the left features the same chains to prevent crossings and narrow pavement (sidewalk) as Bruintje Beer used to educate children about. There is far less traffic and far more space and freedom for pedestrians in the new situation as shown on the right. It's also a lot quieter and the air is cleaner than in the 1960s. Note that the old photo shows a petrol station in the city centre. They were removed from such locations decades ago and can now only be found around the edge of the city.
This is a very small junction
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

Why stopping matters to cyclists
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.

What can we learn?
Study Tours can be organised for groups on
almost any date. The next open tour is in April.
Read more about what we cover.
It is possible to make city centres more attractive for cycling and walking by making these modes more pleasant and more convenient. Removing traffic lights achieves these aims if the traffic is also removed. To see this in real life, book a place on a study tour.

5 comments:

Giles LEJOG 2012 said...

I agree with almost all of your post. It does seem a shame though that every path has to be lit at night. Your caption implies that this is a good thing. There can't be many places left in the Netherlands where you can still see the stars, and the waste of electricity for all these lights must be high. Why not non polluting solar powered 'stud lights' implanted in the path surface such as on some cycle paths in and around Cambridge?

David Hembrow said...

Giles: It's a good thing to have cycle paths lit at night because this improves social safety. Vastly more people cycle in the Netherlands than anywhere in the UK (including Cambridge) and they do so in all weathers, and at night time as well as in the daytime. This requires socially safe cycling facilities.

Having lived in Cambridge before I lived here, I can tell you with all certainty that there are far more stars visible in the night sky here than there are in Cambridge.

Bear in mind that while cycle-paths have quite comprehensive lighting, roads are less brightly lit here than in the UK. This results in less light being emitted and less power being consumed overall.

Some older lights remain, but the majority of lights used here are quite sophisticated designs. The light is projected downwards, not sideways. Many of the street lamps in Assen now are LED lights which control light output far better than the older lights did and also consume far less electricity to do this.

There are also other innovations such as lights which come on only when they are needed. Please read some of the other blog posts about lighting.

As for the studs in the paths as used in Cambridge... I'm absolutely not a fan. These do not light the path so you can't actually see what you're about to ride into by using the lights from the studs. What's more, the way they are laid in Cambridge doesn't even make junctions obvious. Making the mistake of assuming that the studs actually marked the edge of the usable path led me to crash when I lived in Cambridge. If they can't even do that, then what are they doing ? Solar studs are a truly inferior "solution" in comparison with proper cycle-path lighting.

Next time you ride at night along a cycle-path which is inadequately lit by tiny solar studs, look towards the clouds and you'll see an enormous amount of light reflected back from the ludicrously bright lighting along the A14. It makes no sense to skimp on what is for cyclists while being so extravagant with what is provided for drivers.

Christian Bode said...

Interesting article however taking the UK context if a completely segregated network in this sense was the panacea why does Milton Keynes that has such a network not have such a large cycle usage?

David Hembrow said...

Christian: Please stay on topic. This blog post is not about Milton Keynes. However, I'll give you one short answer here:

Have you tried cycling in Milton Keynes ? I have. It's absolutely nothing like cycling in the Netherlands. The "redways" remove priority at intersections and are often narrow with blind corners (social safety issues are common). The cycling network is not nearly extensive enough and of far too low a quality and it does not take direct routes.

Milton Keynes does not prioritize cycling. It was never intended to. Milton Keynes was an attempt at building a city for cars. This is why there is such an extensive network of very large roads which provide efficient routes to every possible destination. That's not mere speculation, the city's "father", Melvin M. Webber, made his career based on a car based approach to urbanism. He may have regretted this later on, but it was in full flow when Milton Keynes was planned.

Milton Keynes is perhaps the ultimate expression of mid 20th century design for ever more cars. We had there here in the Netherlands as well.

You can see more of this in Britain in 1960s films about transport in the UK. But also see this post and this about how these ideas were turned around in NL

Giles LEJOG 2012 said...

Hi David,
Many thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment with such a thoughtful response. Don't get me wrong i loathe the street lighting in the uk- there is way too much of it and it is often poorly directed leading to pollution. I only mentioned the studs as a kind of half way thing- personally I prefer riding in total darkness.
Bad lighting s a bit of a bugbear if mine and apologies for going slightly off topic!
Regards
Giles.