Once again the world was getting excited about something that has been common practice for decades in the Netherlands. It was worldwide news earlier this year: Paris was to allow cyclists going through red lights. “It’s enough to make motorists see rouge!” was one such headline. But when you look a bit further it turned out to be only a small scale experiment. There was more swollen language: “Paris is to become one of the first major capital cities in the world to officially allow cyclists to ride through red lights”. Nonsense of course! Already a year earlier Belgium had changed their law*. Effective from July 2011 cyclists in Belgium are allowed to take a right turn on red, if there is a sign allowing them to do that.
The step in Paris was described as a ‘radical measure’, but is that really true? We are talking about a very small scale experiment at only 15 traffic light controlled T-junctions in 30km/h (18mph) zones. In a trial period cyclists are allowed to go through the top of those selected T-junctions on red. But they will be held responsible in the case of a crash.
So what is the situation in the Netherlands? Here it has been in the law since 1991** that road managers can allow cyclists to turn right on red if they put up a sign that says: “Rechtsaf voor fietsers vrij” (Free right turn for cyclists). But that is not all, in reality the Dutch can turn right on red and go through red at a T-junction at almost every bigger junction! This is possible because the Dutch (unlike the Danish) continue their separated cycle tracks at junctions. Their design facilitates going through the top of a T-junction or turning right without anyone really noticing it. No law was needed for it, nor any experiments. The nature of the design of the cycling infrastructure simply makes it possible in a very safe way. It is so common that even the Dutch themselves don’t realize this is how they do it.
It is interesting that in France and Belgium the measures are only legally acceptable in 30km/h (18mph) zones. You will have to look very hard to even find a traffic controlled junction in such zones in the Netherlands. In those zones speeds and traffic volumes are so low that traffic lights are not needed. In the Netherlands people on their bicycles can cycle through (or better ‘past’) red lights on the major through roads where it is even more beneficial. You can make much better average speeds when you do not have to stop so often.
The Paris experiment is expected to be studied by city and town planners across the world. At the risk of sounding smug: wouldn’t it be a better idea to study the system of the Netherlands, that has been in place at thousands of junctions and that has been perfected over decades?
Video explaining how you can cycle past red lights in the Netherlands
Obviously in countries with a high sense of ‘them vs. us’, cyclists ignoring red lights causes a lot of controversy. But in the Netherlands the feeling generally is: if a traffic situation leads to cyclists ignoring red lights without causing danger to themselves or others you should legalize that, because it helps to get cyclists to follow the rules at places where you really need them to do that.
If you’d like to see a further analysis of the Dutch system there is an excellent article by two students of Northeastern University in Boston that was written for the summer course by professor Peter Furth in 2011.
Update 29th October 2012
Quite often people express concern that because of the Dutch junction design and the separate green cycles, cyclists waiting for a red traffic light would block the way for cyclists riding in other directions that have green. That is generally not the case. The following five pictures explain that more clearly than I could in words.
Only when there are more than about 10 cyclists waiting things will become too crowded. That does happen in some Dutch cities now, so a so-called scale-jump in those particular places is wanted, but in general there is no problem.
* And I consider Brussels to be a major capital city.
** The law can be found in: “Regeling Verkeerslichten“, first effective on 28 June 1991, paragraph 2, article 28 a, b and c.