Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Road works vs the Dutch cyclist - a rural main route between village and city


Road works always risk placing cyclists at a dangerous disadvantage, which can result in people opting for another form of transport. To prevent this, cycle-routes must always be maintained, as can be seen in this video.

There are many other examples of this principle being applied in many different situations.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Groningen. Somehow the new infrastructure is never quite good enough

We've run cycling infrastructure study tours in this area for well over a decade. The tours are based in Assen where we live with (for three day tours) a day in Groningen which is just 30 km to the North. People always want to see Groningen because Groningen famously has the higher cycling modal share of any city in the world. It's certainly worth seeing, but Groningen's high modal share is largely due to demographic factors (a huge student population). The cycling infrastructure in Groningen simply is not as developed as in Assen and on the study tours we've always used Groningen to illustrate problems that this causes.

I've covered a few times in the past how things didn't quite measure up in Groningen, and this is another of those blog posts, focusing this time on two newly built pieces of infrastructure which are not what they could have been.

A street which has been redesigned
For many years, one of the least pleasant roads to cycle along in Groningen has been Gedempte Zuiderdiep, especially in an Easterly direction. This road has a very strange layout, where the central "road" section is reserved for buses only while the part which looks like a cycle-path is actually for private cars as well.
Gedempte Zuiderdiep this afternoon. The car was going very slowly behind a cyclist, but this meant everyone had to go very slowly because "none shall pass".
Good drivers on Gedempte Zuiderdiep just get in the way. They catch up with a slow cyclist who they can't easily overtake and stay behind them, but this means the entire "cycle-path" is blocked so that everyone has to travel at the speed of the slowest cyclist. That's no way to make cycling convenient and attractive. Bad drivers toot and rev their engines and make close passes which is no way to make cycling safe and attractive.

The layout also places cyclists in the door zone of parked cars. It's simply not a good layout for anyone except bus drivers, who have the only smooth asphalt that any more of transport has: a lane all to themselves which they hardly use at all.

Now you might think that this obviously not very good design might be the subject of "a street which has been redesigned", but it's not. Instead, Groningen has instead copied this design elsewhere.

The newly rebuilt streets, A-Weg and Westerhaven, have a few changes, which are for the worst.

  • This time the car parking is on the opposite side of the cycle-path which does slightly reduce the likelihood of dooring but only at the expense of drivers having to look all the way through their cars (or vans which can't be seen through) to decide when to pull out, rather than only over their shoulder.
  • The surface is again tiled, but even though it's new it's already even more bumpy than the old layout in Gedempte Zuiderdiep.
  • There is no allowance for how actual bicycles go through corners. Ninety degree turns on the spot are required.
  • Pedestrian crossings have been eliminated

This street used to have a slightly too narrow, but smooth separate cycle-path. Recent re-work puts cyclists in this lane with cars.
The Google Streetview car caught an example of a driver going along slowly but a bit too close for comfort behind a cyclist, much as in my photo above. The gap to the left of the cyclist, especially with that forgiving kerb providing more space on the left, will lead to very tempting opportunities for a less cautious driver to overtake. In this photo you cab see how as you cycle over this bumpy service you have a very good view of the wonderfully smooth asphalt over on the left, which is reserved for buses only.
The surface is so bumpy that it doesn't even look flat in this photo. Though this is nearly new, it is already much worse to cycle over than the older example in Gedempte Zuiderdiep, and much worse than the old asphalt cycle-path which used to be here. Note that drivers are provided with forgiving kerbs to get into parking spaces but cyclists are not provided with the same luxury so that they can park easily outside shops.
Look at the details: Completed around September last year and it's already falling apart.
To turn into Westerhaven from A-Weg you have to make a left turn next to this incredibly sharp and tall rectangular kerb. This reduces the effective width of the turning to about half. You then get to cross a couple of lanes of bus only asphalt before again riding on a bumpy cobbled surface.
This is how the old Westerhaven looked. The asphalt cycle-path was of its time and a bit narrow, but it never had cars in it. It was in need of resurfacing and the better course of action would have been to widen at the same time to improve this already good design. Oh, and look at that pedestrian crossing. There are none of those in the new design.
Why has Groningen done this ? Why substitute cyclist (and pedestrian) unfriendly designs for old but serviceable designs which merely needed a slight upgrade. Does this city actually want people to cycle ?

The new fietssnelweg (high-speed cycling highway) which isn't quite good enough
We have many examples of very good cycle-paths in this area, but none of them were used as inspiration for the new fietssnelweg. Instead of a smooth surface, this new route (the first 3 km of a 30 km route) has 1500 permanently built in bumps along its length, and while at the moment they're not a total disaster, these bumps will only get worse with time. When there are many hundreds of very well designed cycle-paths in this area which have continuous and smooth concrete surfaces, why did Groningen instead choose a substandard method to construct the new flagship fietssnelweg cycle-route ?


This could have been so much better if a continuous concrete cycle-path had been created instead of using these separate sections with bumps in-between. Also that traffic light and then the speed bumps ? The routing seems sub-optimal.

As well as the substandard surface, the new fietssnelweg also does not have optimal routing. The route which has been chosen requires cyclists to ride between house boats and the gardens which belong to those house boats. I don't think it will surprise anyone to learn that the residents are not especially happy. Would you let your child walk out of your door to play in the garden if they had to cross a motorway to get to that garden ?

Protests against the new fietssnelweg in October last year because residents of the house boats, unsurprisingly, feared the arrival of many high speed cyclists going along a path between their door and their garden, changing the character of what was a relatively quiet cycle-path. I've ridden along here a couple of times in the past but never really felt comfortable doing so because of the proximity of peoples' homes. The council apparently didn't foresee this conflict source
The 'solution' which Groningen seems to have come up with is to build speed bumps on the fietssnelweg to slow cyclists down, on a cycle-path whose whole reason to exist is to speed cyclists up. I saw one of these speed bumps under construction today:
I cycled along this path a couple of weeks ago. Today the path was blocked while cycle-path speed bumps were being constructed. I don't think this will address residents' issues. In my opinion the fietssnelweg would be better on this side of the canal rather than over there.
Did anyone think this through ? For many years I've used the existing good quality route on the other side of the canal to ride to Groningen. The straightness of the new concrete section shown in the video does save time over the relatively twisty route on the other side of the canal, but couldn't a straight path have been built on that side instead, or cyclists redirected to the other side before they reached the point where there would be conflict with the house boat residents ?

This first part of this fietssnelweg leading into Groningen and then within the city seems to have a lot of built-in problems for a flagship project.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Concrete cycle-paths. Smooth, maintenance free and generally preferable to asphalt

A lot of the cycle-paths in this area are made of concrete rather than asphalt. When I first moved here  it seemed a slightly odd choice because concrete is a more expensive material. I was surprised that we were getting the premium product while drivers on roads alongside those cycle-paths had the "cut-price" asphalt (immaculately laid, mind you).

The advantages of concrete have become more clear with time and were reinforced by a representative of a company which builds cycle-paths who I met a few days ago at the opening of a new path in Assen. The main advantage is that once laid, concrete cycle-paths generally require no maintenance for 30 years. We've only lived here for 11 years, but while the city has been diligent about fixing problems which occur on the asphalt paths, sometimes before they're really problems at all, and in some cases three times while we've lived here, none of the concrete paths have required any work at all so far as I can tell. For this reason I'm inclined to believe 30 year claim. Another advantage is that relatively little preparation of the ground underneath the cycle-path is required, making these paths less labour-intensive to install than would otherwise be the case. Obviously the ground underneath should be flat, but that can be sand and a 20 cm thick layer of concrete is then enough to spread the load and withstand damage without the same multiple layers of support as asphalt paths require.

There are concrete cycle-paths in this area dating from when we moved to this area which still look exactly as they did when we first saw them except that the bright colour has faded a bit. Others which already looked faded when we first came to live here also remain perfectly smooth and pleasant to cycle over. Even when there are trees nearby, these paths appear to be so completely immune to the problem of root damage.

Cycle-path which is at least ten years old. Next to trees. Perfect.
A brand new cycle-path in Assen, to be covered in the next blog post
A cycle-path in Assen which is around ten years old - surface is still perfect
Another older path, next to trees. Perfect surface The gap was cut into the path after it was laid in order to allow for expansion. There is difference in height and you can't feel this as you cycle over it.
Even where paths are also used by occasional motor vehicles (this one is only a golf kart, but tractors are quite common on rural paths) they're very resilient.
There are many hundreds of kilometres of paths like this in this area now and they're all delight to ride on. This one is in a rural area for recreational use, hence less width than a busy urban path. Note also the unsurfaced road alongside for motor vehicles. This is how routes in the countryside are unravelled.
Paths like this in the countryside are extremely popular with all cyclists who like to ride a bit further and faster.
Rural but a main route alongside a fairly busy road. No damage here even at the entrance coming up where motorists have to drive across the concrete cycle-path.
By comparison, even with good asphalt cycle-paths, root damage is a constant threat. In this case it's marked for repair. The repair happened very soon after the photo was taken and before the path became unpleasant to use, but it simply wouldn't have been necessary with concrete which is more expensive in the first place, but cheaper in the long term.
How these paths are constructed
The good concrete cycle-paths are poured on site and made in one long continuous pieces, usually 300 m in length. Where they join after each 300 m, there are a few cm of slightly soft asphalt to fill the gap and allow for a little movement. Every 3-10 metres (this seems quite variable) the concrete is cut after it has cured to allow for some movement. The surface is textured so that it provides grip for your tyres even when icy.
The concrete is 20 cm thick
Ground preparation is nothing more than making a level surface and applying a layer of soft sand. You can also see in this photo where the path was cut every few metres. Note that the zoom lens makes the distance between cuts seem far less than in reality. Note that when the cycle-path was completed the vertical sides were covered up. The second photo from the top shows the same cycle-path a few weeks after it was completed. There is now no vertical drop at the side.
This textured surface provides grip for bicycle tyres in any weather.

An alternative type of concrete cycle-path
Recently, the first stretch of a new fietssnelweg (cycling motorway) came into use between Haren and Groningen. It's a boon for commuting cyclists because it provides a decently wide path taking a very direct route along the canal which avoids traffic lights and junctions so is faster than any other route over its 3.5 km length. However, while this is a concrete path it's constructed in a new way and I don't think it's quite the same quality as that which is usually used.

Instead of being made of one piece of concrete poured on site, the Haren-Groningen path is made of pre-fabricated sections which have been laid against each other. They are of a design which interlocks and is supposed to be stable and I hope the sections won't come apart and create gaps, but as it stands there's a perceptible bump every two metres along the path. Mostly the sections are fitted very well into each other but in some cases it's possible to see nearly a centimetre difference in height between successive concrete sections.

This new method of constructing paths presumably has some advantage or it would not have been used. I have fears that it simply won't prove to be both durable and of high quality. However as it only opened a few weeks back we will have to wait and see.
In the worst case the gaps between sections have almost a centimetre difference in height
The sections are four metres wide and two metres in length. Running over the gaps every two metres means that you will notice them quite often if some of them are less than perfect. It's certainly not unpleasant at the moment, but I'm concerned that it will get worse and then anything which rattles on your bicycle will rattle annoyingly.
There are 3.5 km of this and it does make a very efficient cycle-path. In any other country in the world, a direct cycle-path like this would be seen as a miracle - especially when this new high quality route is parallel with four other very good, safe and convenient routes into Groningen from the South within a few kms, all of which we've taken with study tour particpants in the past: a very pretty and pleasant countryside route on the other side of the canal (the pleasantness of which excuses this more direct route being tainted by motorway noise - we're given a choice), another route a bit further to the right of this photo which passes the airport and a third which isn't all that far away from the motorway on the left but which has a few too many traffic lights for my liking and finally another route even further to the left which I used to take to reach my work in the SE of Groningen.
This video shows a short part of the Groningen-Haren path:


Please also see an updated video showing the entire route, including all the faults with this path.

Good paths are good. Not all concrete is the same.
Note that the good examples above are of concrete paths which are laid in one piece, are wide, have thick concrete which is resistant to damage, they're textured for grip and they do not have vertical drops at the side of the path. All of these aspects are important. Cycle-paths should not be constructed out of separate tiles between which there is always a bump or with thin surface layers which are guaranteed to crack. They should not have vertical drops at the sides, should not be too narrow for people to ride side by side. Corner radii should be generous, care should be taken to keep cyclists out of the "door zone", sight lines need to be long so that collisions can be avoided and priority at junctions must be obvious so that all parties know what they should do. Please read other cycle-path blog posts for other details of good design.