Monday 12 January 2015

How poor design creates conflict: An inconvenient and dangerous junction in Assen.

Poor infrastructure design causes conflict wherever it exists. This is just as true in the Netherlands as in other countries. It should not be assumed that employment of Dutch architects is enough to produce good results for cycling. We can't even guarantee that in the Netherlands...

Just over two years ago, a huge new cultural centre, De Nieuwe Kolk, opened in Assen to accommodate the library, cinema, theatre and other arts related facilities. It's a very impressive looking building and it provides some great facilities for local people.

Whether it makes sense for a city of just 70000 people to spend €100M on such a facility is not a subject for this blog. However the quality of design of the newly built road outside the new building, and the problems which it causes for cyclists most certainly is a subject for this blog:

How poor design leads to conflict and danger
All the problems shown in the video and the photos below occur within a 100 metre long stretch of new road. Not only the road but the large building next to it is also completely new. It is situated on top of an entirely new under-ground car-park which goes down several floors and required disturbing everything which already existed (plumbing, drainage, electricity etc.). There was a very good opportunity to improve conditions for cycling here as part of this work. To have done so would have cost a tiny fraction of the cost of the development as a whole. Sadly, that opportunity was not taken.

The enormous space between buildings on either side of the road (at its widest about 60 metres) has been used in order to create a specific look and to cater for the needs of motorists. It has not been used for the maximum benefit of pedestrians and cyclists.

The pavements (sidewalks) for pedestrians are incredibly generous even though the number of people who walk on them is low. Decorative steps to reach the main entrance of the new building take up a huge amount of space and a central reservation which accommodates a small number of plants is also several metres in width. Buses have functional bus-stops, taxis have a taxi-rank and there's a large loading area opposite the building.

Motor vehicles were very clearly the main priority of the designers. This road works well enough by car, providing a direct through route which is part of the busy inner ring-road. There are two pedestrian crossings to look out for, but apart from that, motorists rarely have to slow or stop.

That leaves one mode of transport which has to be fitted in around the others: Cycling is important in Assen. Assen residents make an average of nearly 1.2 journeys per day by bike and more shopping takes place in the city centre by bicycle than by other means. City centre businesses rely upon people being able to ride bikes to the city in order to survive. Sadly, making cycling safer and more convenient was not at the top of the agenda for this design. On this route to the city centre, cyclists have been provided with nothing more than on-road cycle-lanes. No attempt at all was made to improve on the inadequate previous layout. It has been known for many years that merely lowering speed limits limited effectiveness for improving cyclist safety but that's the only positive step which was taken. While a 30 km/h speed limit applies to this section of road, many people drive their cars faster because the road clearly can be driven along at a higher speed.

The result is that within this short length of road, cyclists experience the wide range of problems as shown in the video above and the photos below.

Architect's dream
Before starting with my photos, showing how the area really looks in daily use, here's one of the photos used by the architects to publicize their work on the new building. My vantage point for making most of the video was amongst the light sculpture on the steps, coloured purple in this photo:
Note that the architect's photo, taken soon after construction of the building. This emphasizes the appearance of the area, de-emphasizes conflict due to its design, doesn't give any hints as to how cyclists should behave here. Note that it shows no outdoor cycle-parking. This was retro-fitted at a later date after people realised how inconvenient it was to access the new building by bicycle. Note the line taken by the car headlights. Even in the best photo that the architects could take, cars consistently enter the cycle-lane when going around the corner. These points are expanded on below.
Cycle-lanes on bends encourage drivers to cut corners
There are many perpetual problems with on-road cycle-lanes, one of which is that drivers have a natural tendency to encroach on these lanes as they go around corners. This happens regularly on both sides of the road in this location. You can see it even in the architects' photo above. The white tracks left by the headlights of a passing car show that this car also entered the cycle-lane when going around the corner. Good cycling infrastructure should keep cyclists away from motor vehicles.
Drivers everywhere have a tendency to enter cycle-lanes where they go around corners. The Netherlands is no different. This is one of the reasons why use of on-road cycle-lanes erodes the safety of cyclists.
U-turns cause motor vehicles to enter cycle-lane
Because there is a designed in space for drivers to make U-turns, they do this regularly. However, the lanes for motor vehicles are not wide enough to avoid problems so nearly every car or van which makes a U-turn enters the cycle-lane in order to do so.
A still from the video above. Cars which are about to U-turn pull into the cycle-lane in just the same way as cars which are parking. In the video I was overtaken by this car which then pulled to the right and slowed down. I pulled out slightly to pass but the car then turned left across my path.

Note that bollards are used in an attempt to prevent cyclists or drivers from encroaching on the wide and usually empty pavement at this point, but nothing protects cyclists within the cycle-lane.

Taxi rank / loading bay entrance
Not only do drivers make U-turns, but they also turn across the cycle-lane to enter a taxi tank and loading area.

Take note not only of where the car is turning into but also the following danger just a few metres further along - a bus-stop which requires buses to cross the cycle-lane.
Bus-stops without bypasses
Assen has many good examples of how cycling infrastructure can be designed to avoid conflict with buses at bus-stops, but none of them served as examples for this busy street. Instead, cyclists on this short stretch of road experience all the same problems as cyclists anywhere else in the world where proper bus-stop bypasses are a rarity. Cyclists are endangered by buses overtaken by buses which then pull into the cycle-lane across their path and buses have a tendency to pull out of bus-stops while cyclists are riding past.

In the past, the east-bound bus-stop was before the corner where at least there were reasonably good sight lines. It has now been moved to after the corner.
A view in the opposite direction from the photo above. A bus-stop immediately around a bend. Assen has many bus-stop bypasses which remove conflict between buses and cyclists. Almost all of them are located on roads which are less busy than this one. Neither bus-stop built as part of this new development includes a proper bus-stop bypass to keep cyclists safe so there are clashes between cyclists and buses pulling in and out of the bus-stops.

Cyclists can't turn left to cross easily to the city centre
Many cyclists from the west of the city turn left at this point to enter the city centre. Turning left from a cycle-lane in a country where the convention is to drive on the right requires taking a good look over one's shoulder while also judging what is happening in front. This is increasingly difficult with age. Many older people cannot look around so easily as they could when they were young.

Making a left turn also often requires a cyclist to accelerate to pull out in front of a car. This is another factor which discriminates against those who are less able and it requires a level of confidence that the driver behind is paying attention.

At this location there are additional problems due to design:

  1. The left turn takes place on a bend where motorists often cut the corner.
  2. It happens at the same point as where pedestrians may cross the road and where motorists may (or may not) slow down or stop due to those pedestrians.
  3. It's almost exactly at the point where motorists can make U-turns, which leads to unpredictable behaviour as drivers swerve right into the cycle-lane before they making a sharp left turn.
  4. Drivers never turn left at this point so any motor vehicle which manages to pull alongside and begin to overtake very effectively blocks cyclists from being able to make their turn.

This is a very busy cycle-route. Most cyclists need to make a left turn here to enter the city centre. This is difficult because they are encouraged to ride on the right side of motor vehicles and because the pedestrian crossing is located exactly where cyclists also need to cross. Note that again someone has chosen to use the pavement rather than cycle-lane (disability buggies have the status of bicycles in the Netherlands). Any bus in this position is likely to swerve right immediately after the pedestrian crossing in order to enter the bus-stop.
Cycle-parking design inadequate
When the new building opened, an indoor cycle-park opened with it. This initially looked quite good, but it was not well thought through. Access was relatively difficult in comparison with parking outside the building, and the double layer stands used are of a poor design which does not support bicycles well (it's possible for a bicycle to fall out from them and land on the floor). What's more, the architects got some of the details very wrong. For instance, the indoor cycle-parking is not at ground level but requires going down some steps for access and while there is a wheeling gutter, this doesn't reach ground level but requires that people lift their bicycles. As a result of these problems, local people refused to use the cycle-parking and the council was forced to provide additional cycle-parking where it always should have existed - close to the front door of the building. Because of the planners' obsession with huge empty spaces, it was easy to find room for the cycle-parking but unfortunately, there is no good way of accessing this parking without cycling on the pavement:
The most convenient cycle-parking for the new building was retro-fitted outdoors in this location after local people objected to having to use a less convenient indoor cycle-park. This was intended by the architect as a huge empty space beside the building. Note also the pavement cyclist. Many people prefer to cycle on the pavement here rather than the road.
Cycle-lanes not wide enough for passing
These cycle-lanes measure 1.9 m wide, meeting recommended widths for cycle-lanes, but at busy times there are often too many cyclists here and people who wish to overtake must use the main traffic lanes. This of course brings another potential conflict - between cyclists and motorists.

At busy times these cycle-lanes are not really wide enough.
Lack of pedestrian crossing points
Not only cyclists but also pedestrians are inconvenienced by the new road layout. There are crossings only at either end of the building while many people have a reason to cross at points in-between.
No matter what planners might hope, pedestrians simply won't walk long detours to cross the road. This photo also gives another view of the popular conveniently placed outdoor cycle-parking which the planners thought cyclists didn't need.
A lot of people cross the road while pushing their bikes because there is no other way to make a left turn into the cycle-lane on the other side of the road and ride away from the camera on the correct side of the road.
Neither pedestrians nor cyclists can cross the road except at either end of the long building. The distance is simply too great.
Pavement cycling
In any place where cycling on the road does not feel safe, people will cycle on the pavement (sidewalk) instead. Pavement cycling is actually quite rare in the Netherlands because in most locations cycle-paths are provided which make people feel safe enough not to use the pavement or motor through traffic is removed making it safe enough to use the roads. However, where the infrastructure does not support safe cycling (such as in Shared Space areas or places like this) many people vote with their wheels and take to the pavement. The solution to pavement cycling is good cycling infrastructure:

Many people prefer to cycle on the pavement here rather than the road. The sight of cyclists on the pavement should be seen as a flag which indicates that road and cycle infrastructure design is not adequate. Children do it.
Cyclists should not be forced to break the law in order to achieve safety. Women also cycle on the pavement here.
And the cycle-lane is unattractive enough that a significant number of men cycle on the pavement here too.

Parking in cycle-lanes
Another of the perpetual problems with on-road cycle-lanes is that drivers just can't seem to avoid parking in them. That happens here too, and it usually takes place right at the point where it is most dangerous - i.e. right on the bend and where U-turns, cyclist left turns and a pedestrian crossing collide:
Cycle-lane parking is a problem everywhere that cycle-lanes exist. When drivers park in the cycle-lane this makes the already difficult situation around this junction even worse.
Google Maps immortalized another of the cycle-lane parkers.
Why now ?
You may wonder why I have waited until 2015 to publish a blog post about problems caused by infrastructure which was completed in 2012. This area has already featured as examples of "what not to do" on our study tours but it took time to get around to writing about these problems.

I held off at first with public criticism because the situation here had not really been made significantly worse than it was before. It's not realistic to expect that all steps taken will progress cycling. There will always be occasional mis-steps. Almost everything that changed between 2007 when we moved to the city and 2012 was good.

When I wrote in 2013 about what had been achieved in the last six years, I briefly mentioned the problems with the indoor cycle-parking at this location but was otherwise positive about almost everything except a new shopping centre and the road outside, which I was surprised to find were designed as if cyclists didn't matter at all. This has turned out to be part of a destructive trend. Current plans for Assen are simply not so good as those from ten years ago. More again on this soon.

The 2005 fietsverkeernota showed three
locations where cycling safety should
be improved which were close to the
new development above. (Highlighted
in yellow). An opportunity missed.
We moved here in 2007. We decided upon Assen after exploring much of the Netherlands and finding that this city combined the sort of life-style that we wanted with some of the best cycling infrastructure that we'd seen anywhere. What's more, Assen was not only already good but also had a huge ambition, expressed in an official document, to improve itself further for cycling.

Elsewhere in Assen: An old
but wide cycle-path which
was obviously intended to be
continued has instead been
cut off. Current plans are
to remove it altogether,
making a bad situation worse.
Improve or decline
Unfortunately, this no longer seems to be the case. Assen's ambitions are no longer what they were.

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 declined right across the Netherlands when policy favoured motoring and when Assen was an unpleasant city for cycling it declined in Assen too. Cycling is a very fragile mode of transport.

Where the cycle-path should have
continued: cyclists now ride on the
pavement even when there's a truck
parked on it. Few use the road. There's
now a blog post about this location.
Cycling can only be maintained and grown by investing in ever better conditions for cyclists. That is precisely what the Netherlands did from the 1970s until very recently and this successfully reversed the decline up until the 1970s. Stopping investment now, on the grounds that the cycling infrastructure is "finished" (an expression used by a councillor in a recent meeting at which I spoke about problems with another new design for Assen) will lead not to a constant level of cycling despite changes elsewhere to favour driving, but to a decline in cycling. This is doubly true when current plans in many cases will degrade conditions for cycling.

There will be more on the problems with the new plans in subsequent blog posts.

Overseas readers: Don't copy anything just because it's Dutch
The Netherlands has not turned against cycling, but across the Netherlands it seems that many of the principles on which the high cycling modal share of this country was built are now being pulled apart by people making change for the sake of change. Cycling is taken for granted by planners and architects. New plans fit cyclists around the edges of currently fashionable things deemed to be more important, such as the extra wide pavements shown above or nice lights.

The Netherlands still leads the world on cycling, but that doesn't mean that everything in this country is good for cyclists, nor that every Dutch designer or architect has any real understanding about how to design good infrastructure which encourages cycling.

It is important to be skeptical about claims any made by any architect or urban designer from any country. With the rise of interest in Dutch cycling infrastructure it's especially important that you don't approve of anything just because it's described as Dutch, but instead seek to build infrastructure which emulates the best of what they Dutch have achieved.

We are interested in what works, not what is currently most fashionable. In our independent study tours we show you not only the very best and most effective cycling infrastructure but also the mistakes which the Dutch are currently making and which you can learn not to make.

Other examples of where Assen has made recent planning mistakes include the unpopular and dangerous Shared Space at Kerkplein and a new shopping centre built with no provision for bicycles


Koen said...

I am curious to know if this blogpost will be read by policy makers and traffic engineers in the municipality of Assen, and if your hint will be taken up by anyone. Will you be going public in the local papers with this? I'd imagine Assen can't be too happy with this picture of their cycling infrastructure...

Anonymous said...

I envy even the bad designs that you show on your blog. In Poland the cycling infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. If there are any cycle paths, they are on the edges of towns, usually only around 1 meter wide, cut off all of a sudden, often used as car parking, or snow pile place in winter (which erodes their surface, which often is made from sidewalk bricks). On top of that it's banned to ride on the sidewalks, and in recent years the police have stepped up in their efforts to fine cyclists on sidewalks (which are in as bad condition as the cycle paths are).

To sum it up: we are forced to ride on roads, where the drivers don't obey the rules and speed limits en masse, drive up to 80-100km/h where possible (in cities!) and hit the bike handlebars with sideview mirrors for fun. I don't remember if a month passed last year without the press writing about another cyclist death (the most gruesome of it was an obvious murder, where a car waited for the cyclist, 2 people jumped out of it, hit him in the head and pushed under an approaching bus!!!).

It's a horror to cycle nearly anywhere in Poland, so I'd take the bad dutch designs any day. Or just any designs, even a painted line on the sidewalk that would indicate a cyclepath. Or just plainly to be allowed to cycle on the sidewalks legally.

Titus said...

Great post. I too have noticed a lack of interest for cycling in recent developments. Sometimes I wonder this is because design of the public space around new developments is left to the developers while in the past de municipality took a more active role. Regarding the disability buggy, I've been learned that they can choose to behave like a vehicle or like a pedestrian so perhaps they are not the best indicator.

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

If it is not good enough for everybody (aside from the obvious things, like car steering wheels should not be designed with 8 year olds turning them), then it is simply not good enough. Dare the designers behind this monster of a cycle lane to ride on it for themselves.