Saturday 18 October 2014

Our streets are too narrow for cycle paths

I've lost count of how often people have tried to convince me that their city's streets are too narrow to have cycling infrastructure. The three words "not enough space" are repeated as if they are a mantra.

It is often genuinely believed that Dutch towns were built with wider streets and that there is therefore more space here than in other countries. Of course, that's not true at all. If you look around an older city like Assen (over 750 years old) then you find many narrow streets just as you would with any older city in another country. Newer wider streets in the Netherlands are also similar in width to newer wider streets elsewhere. It's the modern day usage of the space which is different, not the width of the streets themselves.

Take a good look at the photo above which shows one of the streets in Assen in 2014. Quite clearly there's "not enough space" here now to accommodate motor vehicles. When people see streets like this then they often guess that there was never enough room and that therefore this street was always much as it is today.

However, that's not actually the case. Look back to 1957 and we find that this same street was completely different. There was an asphalt through road in this location, and it was quite a busy road which could accommodate large vehicles in both directions. While the gap between those buildings looks small, it is in fact just enough to accommodate this traffic so long as you don't mind that pedestrians must cross only at certain places and can walk safely only on one side of the street. Note that no separate space at all was allocated for safe cycling. Cyclists had to use the road along with trucks, buses and cars. There is of course no longer a bus route through this location.

1970s city centre street in Assen. No room for cycle-paths here either. Traffic lights were required to deal with the cars in this location. Cyclists were amongst the cars and pedestrians had little space.
I suspect that this is starting to sound like a familiar situation to some readers in other countries and it was certainly familiar to Dutch cyclists in the 1950s.

The same location in 2014. We don't need traffic lights any more because cars are no longer driven through here. Note how there is ample space for cyclists on a "road" for bikes separate from a wide pedestrian path, and that the pedestrian path has plenty of space on both sides for a textured surface for blind pedestrians.
An observer in the 1950s in the Netherlands might well have pointed out that this street had "not enough space" for a cycle-path at that time. i.e. exactly the same objection as people give about their streets now. And of course they'd be right if the streets were viewed as having to always manage the same combination of vehicles as was the case in 1950s Assen.

1960s. Pedestrians squeezed to the edge while a lone cyclist waits with drivers for a traffic light 
So where did the space for people, pedestrians and cyclists, come from ? It came from right underneath where motor vehicles used to be. A second revolution on Dutch streets was required to change things. A decision was made to effect real change. This was not limited to just a few streets, but spread across cities and even the entire nation. Traffic was redirected so that residential areas and the centres of cities could be reclaimed by people.

Now: Pedestrianized with good cycle access
It's worth reflecting on the fact that cycling was in decline in the Netherlands while streets were dominated by cars. It's not difficult to work out why. Transforming the streets reversed this decline. As you look at these photos, consider how convenient and how safe it was to cycle on the streets of Assen in the past vs. how convenient and safe it is today.
1960s: Main through routes for motor vehicles and cyclists alike

Now (2014): Still accessible by motor vehicle but very much a downgraded route. No longer usable as a through route by car so therefore few people drive here. Still a busy through route by bicycle, which no longer requires traffic lights.
Update 2016: Now upgraded once again. This is now part of Assen's central pedestrian zone which permits cycling. Allocated times for deliveries and and for the Wednesday and Saturday markets

Update 2016: Where trucks used to be driven on a main through route, children now play in the fountains

1940s: Major intersection, in this case busier than usual due to an event. Traffic stopped at a junction.

Now: A pleasant place to sit and have a drink. Bicycles flow freely here and it is no longer a bus route

1974: Assen city centre was a car park. The car park was often full.

Now: Assen city centre is a square with cycle parking and where events are held. There's no longer any need to have the streets leading to this area dominated by cars. Note that small children are free to cycle even in the city centre.
People often believe that Dutch cities somehow have more space than other countries. As you can see from these photos, it's simply not true. What happened in Assen and across the Netherlands was that planning on a large scale gave streets a defined purpose rather than all of them operating in a chaotic manner as through routes by car. Motor vehicles were not prioritized above all other transport but careful considerations were made of where they should go and where they should not. Busy roads still exist, but careful junction design removes conflict.

Streets where cyclists and pedestrians needed to go were transformed to exclude through motor traffic.

When ring roads were built the traffic was taken off the old main roads which became pleasant routes for bicycles. Crossings of the ring road were nearly always grade separated.

When a new route was required to take cyclists to the centre of a city from a new suburb, the original direct route was turned over to cyclists and the driving route took a required detour to traffic lights.

Drivers are now kept away from the city centre by a special type of one-way system leaving what were once the busiest city centre streets to cyclists and pedestrians. A similar network of one-way streets is used in residential areas.

Shops cater for cyclists with parking by the door, while car parks are by necessity larger and more remote.

Residential streets were treated in a
similar way, even the narrowest now
serving as bidirectional through routes
for bicycles while being made useful
for access only by car.
Together with an extensive grid of high quality cycle paths, these changes have resulted in nearly 100% segregation of cyclists from drivers. Cycling routes are largely unravelled from driving routes, resulting in lower noise, less danger and cyclists having the most direct routes and fastest journeys possible. This is what makes cycling extremely attractive to the entire population.

Of course it's not just Assen but every Dutch city which has done this and they have all been successful. Nothing stops other countries from making similar changes. There is no better time for other countries to start a similar transformation than today.

See the result of the transformation for yourself. We visit these locations on our study tours.

The city centre has changed enormously since this photo was taken in 1972. Infrastructure which was new or under construction at that time to accommodate endlessly more cars in the city centre was removed years ago.


Kees Rookus said...

Correction (now autocorrection of ipad off...)

Great article, thanks. Guess the Dutch will need to go through yet another transition soon to allow for 45km/h bicycle commuting. Most likely the popularity of the speed pedelec will grow fast. Just maybe, other countries can skip one or two transitions...


suea09 said...

I just looked up 'speed pedelec' and I have to say that this seems like a bad development. The article itself was very good, but the whole Netherlands cycling setup could be ruined by these motorised bikes, I think.

David Hembrow said...

Speed-pedelecs are not really likely to make the differences you both fear. Powered two-wheelers have existed for more than a hundred years already. Some of them four times as fast as speed pedelecs. Makes no difference to what I'm writing about here.

As they have so little to do with this blog post can I ask that you please discuss them under another more relevant story - perhaps under mopeds.

Unknown said...

When I hear "not enough space" I like to point out that because bicycle transport is so much more space efficient than car transport, allowing much higher travel capacities, it is precisely those places with least space that are most in need of some of it being repurposed for segregated cycle infrastructure.

eric said...

Thanks so much for your work. It's important to see that the Netherlands were not always as they are now, and it's important to be reminded of this over and over. Even cycling advocates like me tend to forget...

Wounded Knee said...

One must remember there are several reason for narrow roads. The first is most every one walk to where they needed to go a horse was an expensive proposition as they need to be feed, groom and house on a 24/7 bases. The cities of old were also fighting cites and narrow roads and alleyway help make it easer to defend. When planning out a road it would be the width of two carts and measurement of a old roman cart was 4feet 11½ inches.

Kevin Love said...

One comment about the photo captioned "...while a lone cyclist waits with drivers for a traffic light."

I see three cyclists waiting behind the cars.

David Hembrow said...

You're right Kevin. There are (at least) three wedged in between the cars. Not a nice place to be.

Unknown said...

Excellent article. Thanks very much for this. It will most probably help me in my tentative to convince my local authority to make a move in that direction (yes, I know, I'm a dreamer).

Jimmy said...

Excellent article David that makes an important point. I'd be interested in seeing photos of the development of the street in between the photos from the 50's and the more recent photos. Animated GIFs are all the rage nowadays?

gh234vwav5w said...

Hi David. I hope you still read the comments sections of your older posts.

In my city (Madrid) as in many others, one of the main obstacles to reduce motor traffic on the streets is car parking space.

Residents are usually quite happy to accept speed reductions, usage restrictions for other than themselves, etc, as this means less pollution and noise, but would never, ever let go parking space for their cars.

In some parts of the historic city centre this has been accomplished by building expensive underground parking, free for residents, but this obviously cannot be a general solution.

As keeping car parking space is a must for residents, politicians won't dare to touch it, keeping the car status-quo.

I wanted to ask you how is this solved in dutch cities. In particular, how are residents kept happy.

Thank you.


David Hembrow said...

Mambrino, it's generally the case that residents are provided with car parking. The same desire not to lose the facility of somewhere to park a car exists here as in other countries and car ownership is quite high in the Netherlands. It's usage which is relatively low, due to cycling being a good alterative to driving.

Jèrriais news said...

I'm trying personally to get my head around how my area could improve cycling. Unfortunately I'm not someone who cycles much now because of a lack of confidence to ride on high-traffic roads due to a lack of education, however I recognise there would be personal health benefits for myself if I were to cycle, especially over short distances.

However, many of my thoughts come to a dead end because my area's roads genuinely are too narrow. And that is the case for many British towns (not counting places like London and Manchester which tend to have much wider roads).

Looking on Google Maps at various towns in the Netherlands compared to towns in England, it does seem that (outside of city centres) their main roads genuinely are wider than British equivalents. A large large number of British urban main roads are only 10 metres in width (including pavements) so I really cannot fathom where you'd put cycle lanes. I genuinely think Dutch cities are just designed in a different way. When you go and look at their layouts in their suburban areas, even with cycle lanes, their roads are often dual carriageways with tree-lined edges, compared to British roads which are generally a single carriageway and pavements wedged between two houses.

David Hembrow said...

Unknown: The examples above are mainly in an historic city centre where the streets were very narrow. The first two photos show a situation where if you stand there now it's very hard to believe that two way traffic with trucks was ever permitted, but it was. Many British town centres still have locations like that.

Further out from the historic centres you'll find that lane widths for cars in the Netherlands are often much narrower than in the UK and that we often have fewer lanes for cars than you have in the UK. As a result, there is more space for cycling. Please read the comparison that I made a few years back between a street near my old home in Cambridge with a street here which is narrower along part of its length but provides far better conditions for cycling. The difference in conditions for cycling comes down entirely to not giving motor vehicles all the space, but sharing it more equitably. A later blog post shows the lane widths.

Where you're talking about roads which are completely outside of the older areas there is an opportunity to build differently both in the UK and the Netherlands. But something that happens frequently here but is hardly ever seen in the UK is that the old road is de-trunked and sometimes actually made completely unusable for through motor traffic. Because through traffic then has no choice but to use the new road, this effectively gives the community an almost completely car free de-facto cycle-path almost free of charge which follows the route of the existing road which goes past all the homes and other destinations on its route.

None of this is beyond the UK. It simply requires a mindset which aims to improve conditions for both residents and cyclists and which does not mind sending drivers on an occasional small detour so that those conditions can be improved.