“Roundabouts are safer than intersections because they reduce the number of potential conflicts between road users and lower the driving speed. In the Netherlands, replacing a four-arm intersection by a roundabout is estimated to reduce the number of severe casualties by approximately 70%. The traffic flow is usually better on roundabouts than on intersections, and exhaust emission and noise decrease, certainly when compared with signalized junctions.”
In the Netherlands cyclists have priority over motorized traffic on most roundabouts in built up (urban) areas even when they are on the ring shaped separate cycle path around the roundabout. Cyclists generally have no priority on roundabouts outside built up (in rural) areas.
There have long been roundabouts in the Netherlands. But they were large with only a small center island so cars could easily pass each other at high speeds. These old fashioned roundabouts were not very safe and because of the priority rules they were not particularly effective either. Under Dutch law all traffic on the roundabout had to give entering traffic –coming from the right– priority. This led to a standstill on the roundabouts when there was a lot of traffic.
In the mid 1980s the priority rule was changed to be more in accordance with other European countries. From then on traffic on the roundabout had priority over traffic entering it. But because of the much higher number of cyclists in the Netherlands the question of how to arrange their priority arose. At first cyclists on the roundabouts and those on cycle lanes on the roundabouts had priority. The ones on cycle paths on the outside of roundabouts had to give priority. Since the speed of motorized traffic on a modern roundabout is so low (around 30kph/18mph), the city of Enschede started an experiment in 1990. They reasoned that with those speeds it would perhaps be no problem at all to give cyclists on a ring shaped cycle path around a roundabout priority over motorized traffic that enters and exits that roundabout. The experiment was successful and soon other municipalities followed. This led to differences in priority between different municipalities and confusion with road users. Confusion leads to unsafe situations so this was unwanted. The government initiated action to remedy this.
Who gets the right of way
After thorough investigations CROW (Dutch technology platform for transport, infrastructure and public space) finally came with recommendations to harmonize the dimensions and the priority rules on Dutch roundabouts in 1993. They were supported by the minister of transport, the provinces, most municipalities and organizations like VVN (‘Safer Traffic Netherlands’), ANWB (Dutch Motorist’s Union) and the Cyclists’ Union. The recommendations marked the end of the experimental phase of priority for cyclists on roundabouts in built up areas. An underlying investigation showed how road users best understand who has priority:
- by the so-called ‘shark teeth’ markings on the ground (which are more clear than traffic signs);
- by having the color of the cycle path continue across the drive way of motorized traffic.
Roundabout in 2011 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands with priority for cyclists on the separate cycle path around the roundabout
By 2010 the recommendations were adopted by most municipalities. Cyclists did no longer have priority on nearly all of the rural roundabouts. But it is different for urban roundabouts: some municipalities refuse to adopt the recommendation even though they were repeatedly asked to change the priority on their roundabouts by even the minister of transport. Assen is one of the dissident municipalities. This could have to do with the fact that one investigation revealed that roundabouts where cyclists have priority were considered “slightly less safe” than those where they do not have right of way. However both situations are considerably safer than traditional cross roads junctions. Apart from SWOV (Institute for Road Safety Research) all the other institutes were therefore in favour of priority for cyclists in built up areas.
The findings in said SWOV investigation were disputed and not by the least of people. In 2009 the then minister of Transport (Mr Eurlings) called the raport “outdated”. His first point of criticism was that the figures dated from the time that mopeds (also the faster types) were still using the cycle paths and no distinction was made between crashes with bicycles or mopeds. His second point was that the SWOV investigation made no difference between roundabouts with separate circular cycle paths and those with on street cycle lanes. Under Dutch law, cyclists must have priority on that last type, so it would only make it more confusing if the ones with circular cycle paths around them would not have priority. Also the “extra number of casualties” as calculated by SWOV was deemed as estimated too high.
That is why the minister Eurlings saw no reason to change the fact that cyclists do have priority on the circular cycle paths around roundabouts in the built up area “From the view point of traffic safety there is no problem that would require a different approach.”
Now that the rule has been in force for over a decade and all traffic users could get used to the priority rules, the Cyclist’s union sees a high and growing appreciation for these roundabouts. Interestingly cyclists also report a decreasing number of “near misses” and they give high marks for comfort. The most important type of roundabout is the single-lane roundabout. It can handle 20,000 – 25,000 vehicles per day. With a steady arrival of vehicles, a roundabout can have a shorter waiting time than a signalized junction. In general, the waiting time for cyclists and pedestrians is shorter on a roundabout, even without priority, than at signalized junctions. When an intersection with traffic lights is replaced by a roundabout, the emission goes down by 29% for CO and 21% for NOx. The noise emission decreases in both cases.
 Information for this blogpost was gathered from the Factsheet Roundabouts from SWOV and websites from the Cyclists’ Union, VVN, Fietsberaad and other institutions.
This post, written by me, was first published on a different platform.
Nick said… Mark, Thanks for the great demonstrations of junctions lately. I am especially fond of roundabouts in general because they do not require the dehumanizing computer control. My favourite thing about this design is the use of the “shark’s teeth”, which I noticed is widely used all over the Netherlands. We have no equivalent in Canada, relying instead on signalized junctions almost entirely. Where roundabouts are found in Canada there is rarely a cycle path on the road. If one is present on the approach, the traffic planners usually remove at the critical moment when conflicts occur so cyclists negotiate the roundabout in the main circle. A terrible shame. I can see how the present example, even though it breaks the usual convention of yielding to traffic in the roundabout, works because of the shark’s teeth. The universal application of this device allows for regular exceptions to the rules of right-of-way. Are the cyclepath crossings raised for cars to further slow down the vehicles as they approach? 12 May 2011 04:46
H@rry said… “Are the cyclepath crossings raised for cars to further slow down the vehicles as they approach?” @Nick: no, they are not, but it’s an interesting idea. Some cardrivers like to go as fast as possible through the roundabout, which decreases the cyclists’ reaction time. Raising the cyclepath crossing would decrease car speed. Oh and eh, shark’s teeth rule! You can keep your eyes on the road and still know priority. 12 May 2011 14:04
Ben said… If only this much thought was applied to cyclist priorities here in the States! 14 May 2011 05:14
Anonymous said… What Ben says explains it in a nut shell what American cyclists have to deal with. David 15 May 2011 13:09
Anonymous said… Having just come back from the Netherlands as a car driver I can say I drove with white knuckles the whole time. The sharks teeth are impractical in Canada given 1. our streets are covered with snow for a good chunk of the year and 2. Canadian cities come nowhere near the level of street maintenance I experienced in Holland…when the teeth are worn off in Canada it would be years before they were repainted im sure. 9 June 2011 04:45
Mark Wagenbuur said… @Anonymous; the “shark teeth” are only used as an extra indication, never on their own. So you will always also see a normal ‘give way’ traffic sign right next to them. For the times that we have snow too. 20 June 2011 14:52