Wednesday 27 May 2009

Lower speed limits are not enough

A recent report from the Fietsberaad shows that merely having lower speed limits is not enough to achieve adequate safety for cyclists or other road users.

The Netherlands now has over 40000 km (25000 miles) of roads with a 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limit (out of a total of 120000 km of road). These roads are safer than 50 km/h ( 30 mph ) roads, but not as safe as they used to be. The number of cyclists and pedestrians injured and killed on 30 km/h roads is rising as the lower limits have been applied more widely. Drivers have also become more familiar with the lower speed limits and break them more often. In the last ten years, as the proportion of roads with the lower speed limit has grown, the injury figures have more than quadrupled on 30 km/h roads. These have gone from from 2.4 to 11.7 serious woundings per 1000 km of 30 km/h road. Two thirds of accidents involving children 11 and under occur as they cross roads.

Also of note: A large number of the injuries occurring on 30 km/h roads take place at uncontrolled junctions. In Dutch cities where other potentially more dangerous designs of junction have already been addressed, it is uncontrolled junctions which are left as amongst the most dangerous. Note also that if cyclists are to be given priority at road junctions then designs need to be very careful to avoid a heightened rate of injury as that has all too often been the result of giving priority to cyclists.

Meanwhile, always a decade or two (or four) behind, Britain is just starting to get to grips with the idea of 20 mph ( 32 km/h ) speed limits, and the police have announced to errant drivers in advance of implementation that they don't intend to enforce the new limits...

I should explain that I think lower speed limits, especially on residential roads, are a fine idea. They make the environment more pleasant, including more pleasant for cycling and they do play a part in improving safety. However, the benefit of changing speed limits alone only goes so far. This is being given far too much emphasis in countries which are trying to get something for nothing in terms of growing the cycling rate. If you want more cyclists, you need to address such things as subjective safety and directness of cycle routes. You need not just the benefit of lower speed limits, but the much greater benefits which comes from the whole package of sustainable safety measures. Merely putting up a different speed limit sign on a busy street doesn't achieve much in the way of safety for cyclists if their routes remain shared with drivers. Motor vehicles need to be excluded from roads used mainly by cyclists.

The Netherlands still has the safest cyclists in the world, and despite the large number of vulnerable road users, Dutch roads vie to be the safest roads overall in the world.

Do Dutch drivers stick to limits ?
The simple answer is 'no'. Just as everywhere in the world, drivers in the Netherlands break laws that they think they'll get away with breaking.

The photo shows a road on my commute which has a 30 km/h speed limit. I always ride my bike along this section above the speed limit, but even if I'm riding at 35 km/h or more, almost every car still passes me. Dutch drivers are very much like those elsewhere. Speeding in this location lead to the only incident of anything approaching road rage which I experienced in five years of living in the Netherlands.

Also read about how speed limits are being reduced in rural areas.

If not just lower speed limits, what else is important ?
Campaigns based only on speed limit reduction can never achieve the scale of change required to make the streets and roads of a country safe for everyone to use. Lower speed limits are just one tool out of a number which are required to create the needed change.

Amongst the other things which the Dutch do to increase the safety and convenience of cycling are unravelling motor-routes from cycle-routes, building very high quality cycle-paths, allowing cyclists to avoid traffic light junctions, and making it easy to cross the road. All these things come under the umbrella of "sustainable safety" and they particularly benefit the next generation. Note that pedestrians also benefit from sensible policies, not just "cyclists".

After criticism, Cambridge police retracted their statement that they would not enforce the law, but a few years later the Association of Chief Police Officers in the UK again said that they would not enforce lower speed limits.


Anonymous said...

David, you ruined my romantic image of Holland. I thought only Americans had lead foots and were thoughtless drivers.

Here is what I have seen. Throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s we had a national speed limit of 55 mph (88 km/h) which was enforced pretty well. You could usually get away with 60 mph, but not much more. Surface streets tended to have 45 mph (72 km/h) speed limits. Residential areas it was 20 to 25 mph (32 km/h to 40 km/h). School zones were 15 mph (24 km/h). The country didn't come to screeching standstill.

We slowly raised our speed limit first to 65 mph (105 km/h) and then repealed the federal speed limit allowing states to set them. Texas and Utah have 80 mph (129 km/h) speed limits.

At first glance it should seem I wouldn't mind high speed limits on limited access highways that do not allow non-motorized transport. Unfortunately a consequence of the speed limit changes has been speed limit inflation. The speed limits on all other streets have been raised and raised to a point I think they're downright dangerous. The school zone near my house went from 20 to 25 mph last year. This despite a child was killed recently on that road and we have auto-ped crashes. Enforcement is very, very lax. It's rare the sheriff's department is out there and when they are it's usually one deputy. So while he's occupied, people will fly down the road even when children are crossing the street.

There are other roads in town that as I drive them think 45 mph feels about right and then I see the sign directing me to drive 60 mph. I'm a relatively young man, not an elderly woman! Even I think the speed limits are too high.

We learned in driver's education about a phenomenon, I forget the name, where when a driver has been driving at highway speeds it's difficult to adjust to a lower speed because it feels too slow. I think that's part of the problem. Someone was just legally driving 70 mph, it's hard to drive 35 or 40 mph all of a sudden, so the driver keeps it at 60 mph. And with such lax traffic enforcement the odds are the driver will never be caught.

I understand the Big Brother aspects of it, but I'm almost to the point of supporting cars with GPS units that won't allow drivers to exceed the speed limit. If people simply behaved themselves and were considerate on the roads, the idea of GPS speed enforcement would never be considered. But because drivers are arrogant, self-centered morons, we could end up with such a system.

David Hembrow said...

John: I think it's not so much that "drivers are arrogant, self-centered morons," as that being such is part of the human condition.

Give someone the chance to push a pedal and go faster and they probably will, whatever their nationality. Drivers everywhere break speed limits.

Segregation of modes has been the big success here.

Colibri said...

@ John: I also think that "automatic" speed enforcement, by technical means, is the only way to go in today's world. And there's nothing Big brother in having a device that has control over the maximum speed of a vehicule.
Most other means of transportation, used in a professional context, have been equipped with such devices for years. For example, to a degree all train conductors, aircraft pilots and lorry drivers are already "monitored". I don't think this has led to a Orwellian world in that respect...

@ David: in a way, you're replying to people asking you : "in practice, what do you mean by appropriate bicycle infrastructure?". That's (mainly) segregated paths!
That's a choice that could be discussed at length but one can only acknowlegde that the Dutch example has shown excellent results.
So maybe segregation is, in the end, the only way to care for cyclists of all ages and physical conditions.

anna said...

Yes, I get your point. I think the idea is good though. Just setting up speed limits doesn't help much if they are not enforced and the roads are actually built in a way that you can easily drive 50. Design can change much more than a simple traffic sign can.

David Hembrow said...

Colibri: It's really quite striking that wherever you cycle here you are not hassled by cars. Whether a short journey into town, a commute or a longer journeys between cities, you're away from them.

The recent video of the London Mayor nearly being involved in a crash on his bike made me think about this. Near misses of this type (though usually not so dramatic) are not uncommon on Britain's roads, I experienced enough of them myself when I lived there. However I simply can't think of anywhere here that this could happen.

David Hembrow said...

Anna: It doesn't much matter to me what idiocy drivers might get up to. They're not near me when they do it.

This has a much stronger effect on the conditions for cyclists than enforcement ever could - even if there were a traffic policeman on every corner.

It results in the removal of conflict between drivers and cyclists. The removal of the strongest disincentive to popular cycling in other countries - that cyclists are expected to share the roads with cars.

l' homme au velo said...

Hi ,I would agree with you Separating the Cars from the Cyclists is the safest Option of all.

Our Infrastructure in Dublin is very much like Britains with only a couple of Segregated Cyclways maybe Two or Three in the whole City.

You have to keep watching both sides of the non Separated CyclePaths,to the Left in case a Car Passenger opens a Car Door and knocks you off your Bike. To the Right in case a Motorist Encroaches onto the Cycle Lanes and Hits you. Also you have to Watch in case a Bus Cuts you off in Order to Park at a Bus Stop and you can Cycle into the back of the Bus.

This is made worse at Rush Hour in our Cities on certain Arterial Routes.You have to Constantly Watch for Traffic ,most of them do not see you properly as they Jocky their Way through trying to get ahead of the other Motorists.

There is a constant Battle between the DCC/ Dublin City Council, The Cycling Organisations and The Motoring Lobby about Installing 30k/ph 19mp/h limits and more Pedestrianisation in the City.

The DCC is afraid to put in Separated Cycle Lanes saying the Streets are to Narrow because the Motoring Lobby keeps telling them so. The Cyclists Voices are getting more Louder however and the Council are taking more heed of them and are Promising a better Infrastructure.

I saw a strange sight Today a Police Patrol Car Stopped and the Garda was actually giving a Motorist a Ticket for Parking on a Cycling Lane. I have never seen them do that before, they normally dont bother Enforcing the no Driving or Parking on the Cycle Lane.

Karl McCracken (twitter: @karlonsea) said...

@Colibri - I have mixed feelings about segregation as for a long time my experience of the UK's implementation of this was second class.

When segregated routes are done right they're just fantastic though, and do more to promote cycling than any amount of bike hire schemes, painted lines on the road or the dreaded 'toucan' crossings. By done right, I mean:
o End-to-end
o Uninterrupted
o Properly surfaced
o Wide enough
o Gradient conscious
o With appropriate turning arcs

Colibri said...

@ Karl : indeed, I totally agree with you. In countries without a strong "cycling culture", segregated infrastructure tends to be poor, putting cyclists at risk.

I have the feeling that's why even well intentioned cycling advocacy groups tend to ask for "shared space" instead. They know they would be worse off. In fact, there has been opposition from cyclists themselves historically!
But those cycle lanes give little protection in the end. And as good as they can be for experienced cyclists, "a mother and her 5 year old child" won't dare use it in a 50km/h-30mph zone.
Plus goes the trendy egalitarian idea of all people, hand in hand joyfully, sharing the street space in good harmony. But as David once said, it only needs a couple of careless drivers to ruin it all. That's sad indeed, but the reality of facts is stronger.

Anyway, I would be very interested in learning about the history of Dutch cycling infrastructure. Because as you mentioned, a dedicated cycling network requires to be "end-to-end" and "uninterrupted" to work well and be safe. So how did they succeed, as they couldn't get where they are in one day? Does a segregated network require a "critical mass" before getting acceptable?

David Hembrow said...

Karl: you don't need cycle paths absolutely everywhere. It's surprisingly often the case here that roads simply don't have cars on them, which gives segregation without having to build anything as such. You can see examples of this on bicycles roads in the city, residential roads, which may offer through routes by bike but rarely by car, and even in the countryside where efforts have been made to exclude cars from roads.Colibri: I used to live in the UK, and most cycle paths there were unusable. Indeed, at one point I started documenting the ones around where I used to live, and gave up on the project to document the cyclists dismount signs in the area when I realised that it'd be a life's work to do so.

The opposition from cyclists in English speaking countries is in my view mainly due to their ignorance of what is possible. I've yet to meet anyone opposed to cycle paths here, though there are plenty who are opposed to Shared Space.

As for how was it done, it simply takes it to become an important thing to do. Both Britain and the USA have shown they are also perfectly capable of consistent planning over decades in how effectively they've built a truly splendid network for drivers.

There's a reasonable history of Dutch cycle paths here. It's one of several articles that we link to.

N said...

Do speed limits apply to cycles in NL? As you may know, they don't in the UK (except royal parks) as speed limits apply to motor vehicles.

David Hembrow said...

N: I'm pretty sure that it's the same here. I've no idea if there is an equivalent of "cycling furiously" as in the UK.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a few words missing in your post after "speed limit sign on a busy"?
In Germany you would get passed, too - even if you cycled 30 km/h. That's the inexplicable "Must pass cyclist!" behaviour.


Branko Collin said...

"Do speed limits apply to cycles in NL?"

They do if they are posted, i.e. if there is a sign that indicates a maximum speed. If a maximum speed follows from the context, for instance if you are within city limits, only drivers of motorized vehicles have to obey the default maximum speed.

The first rule overrules the second, i.e. if there is a maximum speed sign at the city limit, it also applies to cyclists (and any other 'traffic participant' as we say here).