Friday 19 October 2018

Over the hills and far away - Drenthe has built a hill for cyclists

Steve, Peter and myself on "our" new hill: The "Col du VAM". It's the highest point in Drenthe at 4800 cm above sea level !
Each week, a small group of recumbent cyclists ride together from Assen on short touring rides. This morning three of us went on a 70 km round trip to ride up a new hill which Drenthe has created for cyclists of all kinds to ride over. "Our" new hill is now the highest spot in the province, reaching 48 metres above sea level. If you want to climb higher than this in Drenthe then you have to do it more than once.

Posing in front of the visitor centre before we properly begin our second descent.
This hill has been quite a long time in the making. While professional cycle races have also used the hill for many years (watch a video of Marianne Vos on the hill five years ago) it's been closed to everyday cyclists with a gate at the bottom because there was a potentially dangerous conflict on the only path which used to exist between pedestrians and cyclists descending quickly. That's why the general public were restricted to walking until yesterday when the new cycle-paths over the hill were officially opened.

Optional cobbles on the climb. There are a lot of
these around Drenthe for cycle-racers to use.
In total we now have 2.1 km of cycle-path on this hill which provide several routes up to the top and back down again. The climb has an average gradient of 10% and a maximum of 15% so it's a fairly good challenge. I've enjoyed riding over many larger hills in the past, but never before has there been a hill like this which was made especially for cycling over.

The quality is excellent: Wide and incredibly smooth asphalt paths are provided both for the ascents and the route back down again (where it's even more important).

It's really well thought out: A one-way system is used to prevent conflicts between those climbing and descending.

There is even a section of Kasseien (Kinderkopjes) to allow those who wish to to emulate their heroes in the Paris-Roubaix and other classic races, but because that's not everyone's cup of tea it's provided as an optional extra for those who want it while the rest of us can ride on asphalt.

Peter chasing someone else towards the steep part of the
descent. We saw many other cyclists on the hill today. I
expect it'll be even more popular on sunny Sundays.
My recumbent touring bike isn't really set up for hills. I've use a single front chainwheel with 60 teeth and the largest sprocket on the cassette at the back has 28 teeth so there's a minimum speed which it's possible to cycle at because going any slower will mean that I'll stop and never get started again and would have to push. As it worked out, all three of us reached the top, twice by different routes, without any problems in a reasonable amount of time.

The descent is marvellous, a unique experience in this area. It's deliberately been made less steep than the climb but 60 km/h is reached before you know it. This gives your brakes some work to do before the corners, but you always have the security of knowing that going off the asphalt doesn't mean crashing into anything hard because there's grass on both sides and you also have the certain knowledge that no car will ever get in the way of your safety as you descend because there are no cars allowed here.
While we were eating sandwiches at the top, this chap arrived over the cobbles with a handbike, having ridden from a village 10 km away to go over the hill. Cycling should be for everyone, including people with disabilities.

The visitor's hut at the top has an explanation of what lies beneath
It's Rubbish !
The VAM-berg is actually a pile of rubbish. Literally. It's a landfill site which has now been turned into a useful facility. It's not only useful to us cyclists, but these days, between 4000 and 5000 cubic metres of useful gas are extracted every hour from the waste. A fifth of the gas is burnt in a power station next to the hill while the rest of it is injected into the gas pipelines of the Netherlands and used by consumers at home to cook and heat their homes.

Recreational cycling and hills
Hills are not a problem for cyclists, they make cycling more enjoyable. If you go up a hill on one part of your journey, you get to ride back down again a little later on. No hill lasts more than a few kilometres. On the other hand, flat countryside means you can ride all day long against an endless and unbroken headwind, which costs you just as much energy as a hill without the reward of a descent.

Recreational cycling is often overlooked by cycling campaigners, but it is important as it provides more options for cycling. In my case it's one of the things which helps me to remain healthy. Recreational riders don't need much special infrastructure. They mainly use the same infrastructure as is used by local people to make everyday journeys. We just typically use more of it in a single day, benefiting from how everything is joined up across the Netherlands. Cycling infrastructure which doesn't allow people to make longer journeys also won't really allow them to make short journeys everywhere.

Our route to and from the VAM-berg included new sections of top quality cycle-path which are so new that I couldn't use them when I last cycled in this direction a few weeks ago. Other sections were part of a route which I've used for more than ten years to collect stock for our webshop from a supplier 40 km away.

Elsewhere, priority should first be given to providing infrastructure which allows specifically for everyday journeys, focusing on city centres and safe approaches to them, but a comprehensive cycling policy results in more than that. Journeys in any direction will be possible if a comprehensive go-everywhere grid of high quality infrastructure is built. In that context, a mere 2 km of cycle-path which exist for no reason other than to allow people to smile as ride up and down a hill especially built for them appears as part of a comprehensive policy. It should be seen everywhere, but actually it's only seen here.

This is an excellent and unique piece of infrastructure, in a province which prides itself on being the best place in the world for cycling.

As part of the official opening event, local school children rode up the hill and left pictures behind which are now on display in the visitor's centre.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Zwolle: The Dutch city which changed its roundabouts from one unsafe design to another unsafe design

I've written three times before (1, 2, 3) about how the roundabouts in Zwolle cause danger for cyclists. Each time, I've pointed out that the use of the "priority" roundabout design in that city results in those roundabouts always featuring as the most dangerous sites for cyclists in the entire city.

The top ten list of most dangerous locations for cyclists in
Zwolle according to the Gemeente. Three are roundabouts.
This has now been confirmed by the local government (Gemeente Zwolle) itself, which admits that the most dangerous place for cyclists in the city is the roundabout pictured above at the junction of the Burgemeester Roeienweg and Pannekoekendijk.

Zwolle's local newspaper has covered this issue several times in the last year and this helped to prompt the local government to produce a top ten list of the most dangerous places in the city for cyclists.

Gemeente Zwolle's top ten list shows that they consider three of the ten most dangerous places in the city for cyclists to be roundabouts. The top location is precisely the same roundabout as I identified as being the most dangerous in the city when I first wrote about the problem of adopting unsafe roundabout designs back in 2014.

The top ten list of most dangerous places for cyclists in
Zwolle according to newspaper readers: Five roundabouts.
The newspaper also surveyed local cyclists who gave a subjective response about how unsafe various places in the city feel. They placed the most dangerous roundabout in fourth place and pointed out several other problematic roundabouts as causing a problem. The worst place according to local cyclists is the "Fietsrotonde".

The fietsrotonde opened in 2013 to claims of safety and much press coverage. Many people praised the new design but I did not because it was unproven. Instead, I pointed out in 2014 that the claims of safety for the fietsrotonde were premature, that I thought the design was confusing and that it gave little chance for recovery from error.

A little later in 2014 I unfortunately had to update my blog post to point out that it had already claimed victims.

Zwolle's Fietsrotonde. It requires perfect behaviour from all
users and much head swivelling from both cyclists and drivers
to predict what each other will do. That is why it's unsafe.
Update: Another crash
The subjective view of local cyclists that this junction is difficult to navigate safely is accurate and it results from the same problems as occur with the roundabouts in Zwolle: Cyclists must their "priority" by riding out in front of motor vehicles while relying upon drivers to maintain the safety of cyclists. This never feels safe and it never truly is safe. Drivers are frequently distracted, they often don't see cyclists until it is too late, and of course a fair number are simply not very skilled at driving so cyclists should never be expected to place their safety in the hands of drivers.

Crossing the road
When I wrote about Zwolle's roundabouts a second time (in 2015) it was as part of a blog post about the nature of the most dangerous locations for cyclists in several different Dutch cities. Amongst the most dangerous things that a cyclist or pedestrian can do in a modern city is crossing the road. At uncontrolled crossings our safety is very much in the hands of drivers and this is why uncontrolled crossings and junctions expose cyclists to great danger. While the safe roundabout design which I have been promoting for the last four years almost completely eliminates this danger to cyclists using the roundabout, the unsafe roundabout design as used in Zwolle offers only a very small improvement over an uncontrolled junction (research found just an 11% difference). It should be no surprise therefore that when I went looking for the most dangerous locations in various cities, I found that cities which had adopted the safe roundabout design (like Assen) did not have roundabouts amongst their most dangerous locations for cyclists, while those cities which used the less safe design frequently had roundabouts as amongst their most dangerous locations.

You'll note that Zwolle's local government listed many crossings (kruising) as well as roundabouts (rotonde) in their top ten list. If they had adopted the the safe design of roundabout then their list would probably not have included any roundabouts at all but instead would be made up almost entirely of crossings. Zwolle would have been safer for cyclists than it is.

It may seem quite a big request to make that a city should change its roundabout designs. In Zwolle's case they have actually made this investment. Unfortunately, though, rather than adopting the safer design they spent their money and time converting their roundabouts from one unsafe design to another and as a result they have not improved the safety of cyclists...

After being improved, the most dangerous roundabout remains the most dangerous
When I wrote about Zwolle's roundabouts in 2014, many people were quick to point out that the design of the roundabout was less than optimal. There was little distance between the cycle-path and the road. Claims were made that had this been otherwise, the roundabout would have been safe. We now know that this is not so. This particular roundabout has been changed in design quite radically yet it remains the most dangerous location in Zwolle for cyclists.

Both photos show the same roundabout and this is the same location as at the top of the page. Safe roundabouts don't look like either of these two examples. Neither the "before" photo nor the "after" photo are safe. I pointed out that the first was the most dangerous roundabout in Zwolle in 2014 and Gemeente Zwolle themselves have now pointed out that the "improved" version of the roundabout remains the most dangerous location in the whole city for cyclists in 2018.

Zwolle is now considering changing this design once more to try to make it safe. We should not keep making the same mistakes. There is a better alternative.

The truly safe design
This design is truly safe. Cyclists and drivers meet each other at 90 degrees so that sight lines are maximised. Speeds are reduced by camber on the road and the curves on the cycle-path so that both parties have as much time as possible to make decisions. Priority at the crossings is given to motorists because they have the greatest power to cause harm and the least "skin in the game". Cyclists are prioritized by having bidirectional cycle-paths so that they cross less often and because they can always turn right without considering motor vehicles at all. Please read the entire blog post from 2014 about why this particular design is special and watch a video which explains further.
Dutch cities which use this design see radically fewer cyclist injuries on roundabouts than Dutch cities which adopt the same designs as used in Zwolle.