Wednesday 28 January 2015

Of six new bridges in Assen, three are only for cyclists and pedestrians. But they're not good enough. I'll only cheer about new infrastructure when it is an improvement.

This blog post was written after some of the new infrastructure had been built but before a public meeting which presented some details which were previously unavailable. See the note at the bottom of the blog post.

Locations of the six new bridges
In the past, Het Kanaal ("the canal") was an important trade route for barges which went close to the centre of Assen. It was cut off last century during the period when emphasis was on motor vehicles and much commercial shipping moved from the canals onto roads. The Blauwe As (Blue Axis) project in Assen seeks to re-open Het Kanaal for recreational use. Six new bridges are being built. Three bridges are for bicycles and pedestrians only, the other three also accommodate cars. Each of the bicycle bridges has replaced a previously existing bicycle bridge while the bicycle and car bridges will replace junctions where the canal had been entirely filled in. It's a very well funded project, a €50M part of the Florijn As project which in total will cost €1.5 billion.

When I first heard of this project I hoped that by this date I would be writing about impressive new cycling facilities which resulted from the new investment. Unfortunately, the planning process has been rather opaque so far as the public is concerned. We've seen flashy videos but not a lot of detail. thus far it has been could have written about six new wonderful bridges. It would have been dishonest to write about the new proposals based on nothing but the flashy plans presented and very little information was made available before building. At best, this could have been a chance to improve conditions for cyclists. It could also have been a sideways move for cyclists. However while these works bring obvious benefits for drivers, the outcome appears to be to make conditions slightly worse for both cyclists and pedestrians in Assen. The three bicycle bridges were completed first, at the end of 2014, and I won't gloss over the problems that they cause.

Bike Bridge 1
The old bridge has been relocated to a
quiet location in a suburb where its
5.3 m width and separate provision
for cyclists and pedestrians is far
more than adequate.
The bridge shown at (1: Vaart / Het Kanaal) on the map above featured on my blog four years ago. It had previously been moved as a part of a large and successful project from another position nearby to this location in order to complete a high quality direct route for cyclists. The bridge combined a 3.5 metre wide cycle-path with a 1.8 metre wide pedestrian path, allowing both cyclists and pedestrians to access the city centre without conflict. While this bridge was 5.3 m wide in total, that still made this the narrowest part of a very high quality route from a new suburb to the city centre. At the time when the route was re-constructed, it was considered to be important that cycle journey times should so short as possible in order to make cycling into the most attractive mode of transport from the new suburb to the city.

The 4 m wide replacement will
inevitably cause conflict between
cyclists and pedestrians.
Unfortunately, some of that good work from seven years ago has been un-done. The replacement bridge is much narrower at just four metres wide in total. There is no separate surface for pedestrians. Conflict occurs between pedestrians and cyclists required to "share" because pedestrians are much slower than cyclists and they meander while cyclists travel somewhat faster and need to maintain their momentum.

Conflict is particularly a problem where paths are busy (the three locations highlighted in this blog post can be very busy) and at narrow points such as bridges . Everywhere in the world where shared use paths have been built this same problem occurs. That shared use paths didn't work well was understood in the Netherlands at least a decade ago and planners in this country were once careful to avoid creating these problems. Lessons from the past appear to have been forgotten. The new bridge is to be "shared" by cyclists and pedestrians together, meaning that people who attempt to use the cycling route as it was intended to be used - i.e. as an efficient route to the city centre - will now be delayed whenever pedestrians are crossing the bridge and those pedestrians will experience the same discomfort due to cyclists being "too fast" as is experienced in other countries.

Bike Bridge 2
The old bridge was obviously ready
for replacement in 2008. I expected the
new one to be an improvement
The second bicycle bridge is number three on the plans above. The Venebrug, This is the only one of the three which is a small improvement over the old. The original bridge at this location was already much too narrow, just 3.5 m wide. It never had a separate path for pedestrians and this bridge was therefore one of very few places near the centre of Assen which demonstrated the problems caused by shared use. Luckily the problems were only on the bridge itself and the bridge is quite short. At either side of the bridge there was separate infrastructure for walking so the problem was at least on a very small scale.

Very slightly wider than the obviously
inadequate bridge which came before.
The replacement bridge in this second location is fractionally wider at 3.8 m, so can be seen as a slight improvement over the old, but this is so only because the original was so inadequate. A mere 30 cm improvement in width when the older bridge was so obviously inadequate and should always have provided separately for pedestrians isn't something to get excited about. A chance to upgrade the experience for both cyclists and pedestrians has been missed.

Update 2016: A new central reservation for people crossing the road is absurdly narrow. At just 1.8 m in width it is narrower than most bicycles are long. The situation here is not improved over that shown in the video above, but has become worse due to the wide driving lanes encouraging higher speeds and the change in parking regulations encouraging more people to drive to the adjacent car park than did so two years ago.
The new cycle-path in this location has a drainage problem and is almost flooded right at the point where a cyclist needs to put their foot down to give way to a car-park entrance. This is supposedly part of a primary cycle route but it is not nearly high enough in quality.

Bike Bridge 3

There is a very obvious difference in width between the old bridge and the new bridge in this location. The separate pedestrian crossing which was designed for the older bridge now lines up with nothing at all. This video demonstrates how minor conflicts arise even at quiet times.

The old bridge was 5.5 - 6 m wide
A separate path for pedestrians
prevented conflict.
The third cycling bridge is shown as bridge 4 on the plans above. The Molenbrug is on a main cycling route which has always been far busier than the Venebrug. That is probably why this bridge always was considerably wider. This bridge had a separate path for pedestrians. I never measured this bridge. Estimating from Google Earth it appears that it was around 5.5 m wide.

Architectural drawings made the new
bridge look wide, showing just two
people at a time crossing.
The replacement for this bridge is the biggest disappointment of the three. At just 3.8 metres wide, this is the biggest percentage reduction in width. Even on a relatively quiet winter afternoon, as shown in the video above, you can see the problems caused by the new bridge. It is very obvious that pedestrians need a separate path. Again, how did Assen make such a mistake as to build this inadequate infrastructure to replace an existing and successful bridge ?

A local campaigner asked a councillor why the bridge had been built more narrow. The reason given was one of "bezuinigingen" - budget cuts. In this project which is being funded with a total of €1.5 billion and which will lead to much more convenience for drivers elsewhere in the city, we are being asked to believe that a slightly too narrow bridge for cyclists is the item on which savings must be made.

A view of the new bridge with the original crossing shows how the pedestrian crossing built to line up with the old bridge now leads into the water because the new bridge isn't nearly so wide as the old. Note the pedestrian in front of a cyclist approaching a bollard, which creates a dangerous pinch point for the cyclist and leads to close passing which makes the pedestrian feel uneasy. This photo was taken just a day after the new bridge opened. The conflict was visible immediately. It's just as you'd expect in any place where cyclists and pedestrians are supposed to "share".
2016 Update: the new junction is nearly finished. There is no longer a traffic light here to control motor vehicles and the width of the cycle-path at this side of the canal has been reduced to a dangerous 2.8 m - well below the allowed minimum of 3 m for a bidirectional cycle-path. Cyclists bunch up here on the road waiting for space to pull onto the cyclepath. They do this in front of motor traffic. In the past, this crossing had a perfect safety record. It has now been transformed into a bad example of an uncontrolled crossing - the type of crossing which is most dangerous in Assen. Watch a new video about the problems caused by this junction.

When crossing the road at this point, cyclists must now stop in the middle of two streams of traffic which no longer has to give way to cyclists. The central reservation is too narrow for this to be safe for anyone with a longer than average bicycle (e.g. a tandem) or anyone who is pulling a trailer, for instance, a child trailer.

Path alongside Het Kanaal
Not all pedestrians will be able to use
their new path because there are steps.
The Venebrug is linked by a path to the Venestraat. In 2008, this link consisted of a 3 m wide cycle path and a separate parallel 2 m wide pedestrian path. The old cycle-path was of smooth asphalt and no conflict occurred here because of the separate paths.

The replacement path does not have a parallel pedestrian path so there is now conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. The new path has the same inadequate three metre width as the old cycle-only path, but it is surfaced with bricks which give a less smooth ride to cyclists than the old asphalt.

Note that this video was made part way through the reconstruction of Het Kanaal. However, most of the objections raised here apply to the end result. The new cycle-path is not as convenient as the old as there will be far too many places where cyclists must give-way to motor vehicles. Also the new cycle-path is too narrow.

It is planned that a separate path for pedestrians will be built, but rather than taking the same line as the old pedestrian path, this will take a less convenient route alongside the water. There are several reasons why pedestrians won't want to use this new path: It's a board-walk so will be rough to walk on, it doubles as mooring space for boats, and it also requires use of steps, so will not be accessible to all pedestrians. Pedestrians will continue to use the cycle-path because they are not being provided with a usable alternative.

Update 2016: As predicted, the design of the cycle and pedestrian paths alongside Het Kanaal have led to regular conflict. Pedestrians almost never use the pedestrian path by the water with the steps because it is in an unwelcoming place and of some people can't use steps. For cyclists it's inconvenient because the path is not really wide enough even just for cycling in both directions and when pedestrians are walking in both directions at once it's often necessary to come to a complete halt. This infrastructure doesn't well for either cyclists or pedestrians.

Car bridges
The three other bridges are for driving cars over as well as for cycling. In each case there is no bridge in the current situation as the canal was filled in some years ago. Details of the car bridges are not public. The only information easily available is in the form of pictures from the architects which feature no cyclists at all.

The bridge at location (6) is to look like this. It appears to be neutral so far as its effect on cyclists is concerned but we don't have much to go on. There is already a signalized crossing in this location for bikes. The cycle-path shown along the side of the canal doesn't exist at present so this could be one small gain.

(5) Many of those cyclists will turn
left. In future they'll have to cross
straight over and then wait again to
make a left turn.
Note that bridge 5 is to be better than it originally looked. See the update below.

The bridge which I'm most concerned about is that on Groningerstraat, shown at (5) above. This is currently a very efficient Simultaneous Green traffic light junction. I use it often to head home from the centre of the city, turning left diagonally across the junction in order to make a quick journey.

The only publicly available picture
of the new bridge at (5). We can't see
what is happening here.
From what we've been able to make out, this junction will no longer have simultaneous green traffic lights. A representative of the company behind these works talked about getting rid of the diagonal crossing. The impression I was given at the meeting is that cyclists will in future be required to stop twice in order to make a left turn: If so, then this is another step backwards from good design.

Existing arrangement at Nobellaan (2)
Note that bridge 2 will actually work better than described in the following paragraphs. See the update below.

The last bridge for cars is that on Nobellaan, shown at (2) above. This is part of our most direct route from home into the city centre so we use it often. Behind the viewpoint of the camera in this photo there are rather good cycle-paths. It is from this point onwards that the quality of our current route to the city centre drops. It was my assumption when I wrote about this location at the start of 2012 that the old low quality infrastructure would be improved upon by lengthening the cycle-paths which lead to this location until they eventually took cyclists safely to the city centre. That has not happened and it appears that nothing will improve with the new bridge. What's on offer here is low quality provision for cyclists: on-road cycle-lanes with all their attendant problems. A few hundred metres onwards from this location we reach the bad example cycling infrastructure design in a new development which I covered in my last blog post.

The only publicly available picture
representing the new bridge at (2).
There is no island in the middle to
help with crossing the road.
You'll note from the map at the blog post that there is supposed to be a walking and cycling route between (1) and (3) which crosses the road at this point. Unfortunately, there is no good way of crossing the road at this point now and this will actually get slightly worse in the future if the available pictures which represent the route are accurate. The existing partial central reservation in this location offers a modicum of safety for cyclists and pedestrians when crossing because it separates the two opposing flows of motor traffic, but this does not exist with the new situation.

Crossing the road safely here will become more difficult because there will be two lanes of cycle traffic and three lanes of motorized traffic to cross in one go without anywhere to stop in the centre. A few years ago, Assen was demonstrating very well how building central reservations could make crossing easier in far less busy locations than this, but the ambition to make crossing easier and safer appears to have been forgotten about.

Update February 18
Our local newspaper carried this article today:
Building of the new bridge at location 2 on the map at the top of this page is starting in two days. The short meeting to which people are invited to see the plans doesn't take place until an afternoon 13 days from now. Therefore there is no chance for anyone to say "no" because building will start before those who might object to the plans have seen what is on offer. So much for democracy.

I attended the March 3rd meeting and new information was presented which removes my objections about this bridge:

This bridge will break the existing primary cycle route along the North side of Het Kanaal. However, a new and improved link will be created on the South side of Het Kanaal.

The existing space in the middle of the road is long enough that one can wait with a bicycle in the middle and therefore it is not necessary to cross all three lanes of motorized traffic at once.

Children use this on their way to and from school. How will it be possible for them to cross safely when the new bridge is built ? Have the designers of the Florijnas project forgotten about Stop De Kindermoord ?
Further along the road
Ahead of the bridge are these on-road cycle-lanes, Newly built in 2012, they force cyclists to ride next to buses and trucks (which do not keep to the 30 km/h speed limit). There is no reason for this low quality infrastructure. There is no lack of space here. The pavements have been built extremely wide and space has been found for plants in the middle of the street. Almost all cyclists make a left turn across the road next to the tall building. It's been known to be dangerous since at least 2005 but this street redesign did nothing to improve the situation.
A short history: The last ten years in Assen
"Assen Cycles". In 2005, there was
a real ambition to increase cycling
in Assen.
By 2005, well over 30% of all trips within Assen were by bicycle yet the ambitious "Fietsverkeer nota" document from that year was modest and talked only about how Assen had "the potential to become a real cycling city". At that time, just €4.5 Million could be allocated for the work on cycling infrastructure but this was spent wisely, an enormous number of improvements were made and the cycling modal share increased as a result.

When we first arrived in Assen, many
cycle-paths were surfaced with tiles.
Almost all were upgraded to asphalt
by 2010. With the new projects we
now see asphalt replaced by bricks.
The 2005 document discussed such things as how important it was to improve links to areas for shopping, employment, schools, entertainment and the railway station. It was recognized that cyclists needed smooth asphalt or concrete surfaces in place of tiles or bricks, that a fine grid of high quality facilities were required to make cycling attractive to all destinations, that cycle-paths needed to be wide in order to reduce conflict, that cycle-routes should be direct, that cyclists should have the shortest possible waiting times at traffic lights, or none at all, and that the Simultaneous Green traffic light design with two greens for cyclists in each cycle of the traffic lights was desirable. There were many other recommendations in this excellent document.

We moved to Assen in 2007 because we were impressed both with the existing infrastructure and also the ambition for more cycling. In 2011 I wrote about how things would continue to get better. An official document said that "By 2015, so many journeys as possible must be by bike. Bikes must more frequently take priority over cars". Sadly, I don't see much of that ambition in the new plans. Assen now has an enormous amount of money to spend on infrastructure, but the new proposals include few improvements for cyclists and several off them are actively hostile to cycling. Funding is being found for expensive projects which look great in architectural drawings but which are not thought through from the point of view of a cyclist. Much is being spent to create huge areas of concrete which no-one will use, simply to satisfy an architectural trend. By blindly following this trend, the city risks undoing much of the good that was achieved in the past.

What you read about above is not something unique to these bridges (there are other plans which I may well write about later) or even just to Assen. Across the Netherlands there is now far too much emphasis being placed on appearance of projects and not enough on their functionality.

No country and no city is immune from declines in cycling. No place gets a free pass, no place has cycling so embedded in its culture that people won't stop cycling if it becomes unpleasant or dangerous. Cycling already declined declined across the Netherlands when policy favoured motoring in the mid 20th century. When Assen was an unpleasant city for cycling, cycling declined in Assen too. Cycling is a very fragile mode of transport. It will only remain at a high level or grow if facilities for cycling are kept to a very high standard.

Other newly built problem areas in Assen
Other examples of where Assen has made recent planning mistakes include:
  1. The unpopular and dangerous Kerkplein Shared Space
  2. A new shopping centre built with no provision for bicycles in a city where most shopping is by bicycle
  3. The area outside the new cultural centre.
The view from overseas
Most of my readers are from outside the Netherlands, and having read many positive stories from Assen in the past I suspect some will be surprised at my sentiment in this blog post. No place is perfect. I try not to present an unrealistic picture of the Netherlands and that is why I have written about problems in Assen and elsewhere in the Netherlands many times before. I don't write blog posts about the newest infrastructure or regurgitate press releases which claim improvements in safety which are not confirmed by actual data. It's why I caution about assuming that everything Dutch is worth emulating. It is only worth copying from the best examples in the Netherlands. Increasingly, the best examples are not necessarily the newest, and they are usually not the most well publicized either.

Some of these bad examples have been part of our study tours for the last few years. We will be running study tours again this year and again they will offer an honest and independent appraisal of what works and what does not work in the Netherlands, with no commercial reason to push one solution over another.

March 2015 update
There was a public meeting today in which parts of the plans could be seen which were not available before. People who lived along the route were invited to see plans at an earlier stage, but not those who live elsewhere in the city and use these routes. Better communication could have helped avoid concerns about the quality of the work being carried out.

My concerns have not been completely addressed. I still have concerns about the widths of the new cycle-paths (three metres seems to be as much as we'll get, but it's not enough) and the widths of cycle bridges noted above are still not adequate. I also still also most certainly have concerns about Jan Fabriciusstraat. However the situation at two of the bridges for which little information was available when I wrote the blog post above is definitely going to be better for cyclists than I was led to believe previously:

Bridge 2:
It has always been difficult and dangerous for cyclists heading south to make a left turn to continue east north of the canal, on what is currently a primary cycle route. Crossing the road in this location was assisted slightly by a gap between traffic lanes which will be taken away by the new design and this caused concern.

In the future, a traffic light controlled junction will make it easy and safe for both left turns and crossings to be made on the south side of the canal, linking with a new cycle-path which doesn't exist at present:
This junction turned out to work extremely well. Watch a video showing this junction in 2016.

Bridge 5:
At this bridge there is currently a simultaneous green traffic light junction. Motor vehicles can use the road North of the canal in both directions and south of the canal in order to head North. With the new situation, motor vehicle access is restricted to southwards only for vehicles north of the canal and there is no exit for motor vehicles from the city centre south of the canal at this location.

In the past it was possible to make a left turn onto the far side of the canal in order to head west. We now have the option of making a left turn immediately onto the cycle-path on the south side of the canal, without having to wait for traffic lights.

Good infrastructure in Assen
Assen has much very good cycling infrastructure. Read more about the best examples of infrastructure in Assen.


marven said...

Wow, that bridge definitely got pared back quite a bit. I'm glad I got to see the original (and other good Dutch designs) so as to avoid getting "Dutch dazed" and automatically assuming everything from the Low Country is wonderful.

Koen said...

Appently the wise people have left and there's a fool at the helm now, who thinks mostly of aesthetics...

Clark Nikolai said...

Just feeling a bit conspiratorial today so...
I wonder if now that the Netherland's bicycle infrastructure is no longer below the radar and the whole world knows about it and wants something like it, that there might be pressure from the auto industry to try to mess with it there.
Of course it might just be those designing just haven't been briefed in what is needed and what's important.

Robert said...

Do you invite local planners to go on your study tours?

Finch said...

@clark Nikolai. The Netherlands has no car industry, so no pressure there. Since I am a person on a bike (10.000 km/year) and a person in a car (60.000 km/year) I can tell you that I am in favour of better biking facilities, since as a driver I profit from this as well. Less bicycles on the road, less people in cars, because riding a bike is more efficient. Yes, I enjoy the best of both worlds.

Unknown said...

Reading between the lines, I would guess that a different political party is more dominant now. Would I be right in assuming they are right wing?

In most other locations where right wing parties take control they associate cycling with socialism and accordingly take steps to reduce it.

David Hembrow said...

Joe V: You're sort of right. There is a change in the politics, but in NL some of the more obviously right wing parties are roughly as supportive of cycling as the left wing ones. Cycling is not subversive here and not particularly associated with being left wing. Our current centre-right prime minister cycles. The best support perhaps unsurprisingly usually comes from green leaning parties. However,in Drenthe we've currently got a bit of a problem with political support for cycling from any direction. Our best support locally, such as it is, is from a centre-right party.

..... said...

I've kept a tab on this blog for years. But now after a couple of years living in NL (married into it), i can only say that that while the fiets network is better the car network encourages madness. I understand well why in the UK (yep I am english) planners like bends, slows everything down. In NL, seldom a bend
So: I think this is a great post. Great example of what not to do (Clark Nikolai, you have got it so wrong),
It is also a problem of NL, where you are encouraged to drive fast to get to the next light, on the chance it may turn your way(and it does very quick). In the Uk you knew that the speed limit was 30, and planners had the lights set so that if you travel at 30 they turn just when u get there.
Maar dit is NL, u moeten denken over een weg alles kunnen gebruik(my slecht nederlands)