Monday 25 August 2014

Assen's best bicycle "tunnel" is a bridge. How a crossing of a main road, once a large traffic light juncion, has been made almost invisible to cyclists.

The video has a short spoken introduction but I then shut up and let you hear for yourself how quiet and peaceful this area is for a place where we cross four lanes of motorized traffic. This is not peak bicycle traffic but an average level of traffic for mid morning.

The video above shows the best "bicycle tunnel" in Assen. It's actually a bridge for cars. This deserves some explanation.

In the 1960s the canal which used to head to the centre of Assen in this location was filled in and a ring-road built around the city. Until late as early 2007, the ring-road was still at ground level. At this point Assen could be accessed by motor vehicles heading in from villages around the city. The lifting bridge was used by motor vehicles and cycle alike.

When cyclists wanted to go to the centre of the city they had to use a light controlled crossing and wait for a gap in the motor traffic. Boats could of course not access the centre at all.

A new route for drivers heading to the right on this picture
(i.e. west) is just off the bottom of the image. This new route
is also paralleled by cycle-path. Drivers didn't lose a route
as a result of this bridge being built, but cyclists did gain.
However, Assen has been growing rapidly and a new suburb on the west of Assen needed not only better facilities for access by car, but also required that cycling facilities were improved in order that the cycling modal share of the city would grow rather than shrink as people moved into the new suburb. That is why this area needed to change.

The ring-road was to be doubled in width for a short section to allow for the large increase in population at this side of the city. It's unrealistic for cyclists to expect that roads should never be improved as unless we're going to ban people from owning cars, people will want to drive the cars that they own. The Netherlands is remarkably free of obviously anti-car policy. The highest cycling modal share in the world is the result more of cycling being made attractive than of driving being made unattractive. When infrastructure is retrofitted to an existing city, as happened here, we do sometimes have to be pragmatic - hence the bicycle road discussed below rather than a cycle-path as the direct route to the city centre from this point. However we should never accept that cycling infrastructure comes second and should be built to a low standard. Cyclists should benefit even from new road building.

The existing road to the centre was no longer to be used for motor vehicles. Rather, this most direct of routes was changed into a bicycle road divided by stretches of cycle-path so that it could not form a through route by car. The existing lifting bridge became part of the bicycle road, also used only by residents' cars for access. This has now become a main bicycle route unravelled from motoring routes. As a side benefit, the canal could also now be re-opened as a public amenity (these days it's used for tourism, not for industry).

This blog post highlights just one of
many crossings of main roads and
railway tracks in Assen. Many
crossings are required in order
to avoid the funneling problem.
One crossing is not enough
Note that this is just one of many crossings of large roads and railway tracks in Assen, just one of many crossings which prioritize cycling.

Bridge or tunnel ?
A bridge for cyclists to cross the ring-road was considered, but this would have had to be extremely long to have the required gradual incline and of course any bridge requires cyclists to climb to a considerable height before they can ride back down the other side, which slows cyclists down. Cycle-paths should be built to maximise the speed of cycling in order to make this mode as attractive as possible. Therefore it is best to avoid high bridges.

The option of a tunnel was also considered. This would also have solved the problem of expecting cyclists to wait and it would have come without the price of sending bikes and their riders up an incline. However it would also have required sending people into a hole in the ground and it was judged that in this case the subsequent reduction in social safety could lead to less cycling.

The distance between the new suburb and the centre of the city was already long enough. It was considered to be important to keep journeys times so short as possible and to avoid any other reasons why people might choose not to cycle.

A comprehensive grid of cycling
infrastructure covers Assen as it does
other Dutch cities. Red=main routes,
Blue=secondary, Green=recreational.
Of course, it's still not enough. Assen
has not finished with building and
improving cycling infrastructure.
So the city chose to leave cyclists on the level and to build a bridge which carries four lanes of motor vehicles above the cycle-path. It is easier for motor vehicles to climb than for cyclists to climb.

Cyclists stay on the level, but with no need ever to stop for the road. Sound barriers were installed which make the sound of motor vehicles almost completely disappear. Cyclists now barely even notice when they cross the ring road.

If your aim is to encourage cycling then it's important for the cycle route to be as good as it can possibly be. This means it should be so direct as possible and have so few stops as possible.

The old direct route
You may wonder what happened to the old direct driving route into the city which has now been closed to through motor traffic. Two photos illustrate how this road has changed:
In the 1970s this was a narrow through road shared by cyclists pedestrians and motorists. Because roads like this encourage high speeds, a hand painted sign reading "drive slowly" was put up by a resident.
The same road is now a bicycle road. It is no longer possible for motorists to use this as a through route. Therefore motorists use this stretch of road for access to just 11 houses which still exist along here. For cyclists it's a busy through route which provides part of a straight line cycle-route between the new suburb of Kloosterveen (planned for 9000 homes) and the city centre. Local residents no longer have a need to erect signs to ask drivers to slow down for the sake of their safety.
Exceptional or unexceptional ?
Of course, one piece of cycling infrastructure can do very little on its own. There is often too much emphasis on exceptional pieces of infrastructure when what is truly exceptional in the Netherlands is something altogether different:

True mass cycling is enabled when the entire population is attracted to cycling and when all journeys can be made by bike.

Cycling is made attractive by segregating cyclists from motor vehicles almost 100% of the time because motor vehicles are what people fear most when cycling. In the Netherlands this has been done by building a remarkably tight grid of cycling infrastructure which would be considered to be exceptionally good in any other country. No-one has to make their journey in unpleasant conditions which might scare them off cycling.

The need for a high quality grid of traffic free routes was the most important lesson learnt by the Dutch way back in the 1970s and this is what has been built upon since that time. Nothing stands still. All cities across the Netherlands continue to improve their infrastructure. During the seven years that we have lived in Assen, the majority of the city's cycling infrastructure has been improved. Other places can't catch up by doing less, only by doing more.

We visit this bridge and ride the entire length of the bicycle road on our study tours. The whole of the uninterrupted route between the bridge and the city centre can be seen in a video.

Link to Bing Maps bird's eye view of the site of the blue bridge.

1 comment:

highwayman said...

Thank-you for the video. It inspired a sentimental memory of a journey from a study tour I was on, with you, in late August 2013. It was a lovely day for a lovely ride.

My ideal return to Paradise would include these items:

1) expansion joints on the cycle - path for some bouncy rhythm;

2) street lamps to give voice & ambiance to the Path;

3) AND... some music onboard the bicycle as I ride down the cycle - path into downtown Assen, combining the previous two items with the music to create an epic Nirvana of a ride.

More ways to attract people to cycling. ;)