An ‘Elephant & Castle’ in the Netherlands

“This really looks a lot like Elephant & Castle” is what I thought when I was cycling in The Hague on the last Sunday of 2012. If “Elephant & Castle” doesn’t ring a bell: it is a major intersection in London that is notorious because it is so dangerous to get through on a bicycle. I had heard about it and decided to visit the northern roundabout last year to see what it was like with my own eyes. Because I had been there, I could see the similarities when I rode on one of the larger intersections in The Hague. Erasmusplein is a ‘traffic circle’ under Dutch law. Elephant & Castle and Erasmusplein both look a bit like a giant roundabout with straight sides. They are very similar in size and have no less than 4 lanes for motorised traffic. The Elephant has one arm extra but the principle difference is of course how people on a bicycle can go through both these intersections.

Aerial shot of Elephant & Castle’s northern roundabout in London (Bing maps)
Erasmusplein in The Hague (Bing maps). Almost the same size and the same number of traffic lanes on the “roundabout”, but with separate cycling infrastructure.

This week’s videos show you how to go through these enormous intersections on a bicycle. Dutch traffic designers consider the junction so large and dangerous, that even people on the faster type of mopeds are sent back to the cycle track for their safety. You can see that in the beginning of my video. The cycle tracks are kept completely separate from motorised traffic and because crossing other traffic is controlled by traffic lights, you hardly notice that this junction is so large. But as you can see from the pictures, it is really very comparable with Elephant & Castle. The pictures below show both to the same scale and these pictures reveal that the Dutch built the same type of intersections with the same number of lanes for motorised traffic in the same amount of space, only they also included completely separated safe cycle tracks. The green line represents the route I took to get through this intersection from the top right to the bottom centre. The red line left is the route in the London video.

Comparing London and The Hague
Comparing London and The Hague. Left Elephant & Castle in London and right Erasmusplein in The Hague. The red line is the route of the English video and the green line is the route I took to get through the major intersection in my video.

First the ride in London filmed by YouTube user “DrMorocho”.

“Cycling through the infamous Elephant & Castle”, the actual roundabout starts from about 35 seconds in the video.

My ride in The Hague is rather different.

Cycling through Erasmusplein in The Hague.

Note: the lights for pedestrians confuse some viewers, but there is no red light jumping in this video.

Historic Background

It would have been possible that the cycle paths in the Dutch version were a later addition, so I tried to find out when they were constructed. This area of The Hague was constructed in the 1950s. I found a picture of the junction under construction in 1954 but it doesn’t show the road layout yet. The first picture to show a cycle path is a detail from 1959. That is so shortly after construction that I think it is safe to say the cycle tracks were designed and constructed right from the start. Building separate cycling infrastructure on major new roads was common in the Netherlands since at least the 1930s.

Tram on Erasmusplein in 1959. The wide cycle path is already clearly separated from the main carriage way.

Later pictures all show the separate cycle paths. The carriage way was originally not divided in 4 lanes, not even on the 1975 picture, so that was a much later change. The smooth red asphalt of the cycle paths is certainly more recent. Google Streetview’s 2008 pictures still show a tiled surface.

Detail from 1965 clearly shows the cycle path around the roundabout, separated from both carriage way as well as pavement (side-walk) with kerbs (curbs).
An overview of 1975 shows the carriage way has not yet been divided into four 4 lanes but the cycle tracks and the clear crossings are all there.
Detail of the 1975 picture in which I highlighted the cycle tracks. Slightly more crude in design (sharper angles) but in essence very similar to the cycle paths today. The traffic lights are apparently under construction (some poles are there, but no lights yet).

What this comparison shows is that even for the major intersections there is almost always a counterpart in the Netherlands that is very similar, but comes with separate cycling infrastructure. It is not how the Dutch would design their modern cycling infrastructure today, after all this particular example was built in 1954(!), but at least it shows that a safer solution to those larger junctions is very possible. Examples to give you an idea of how you could retrofit existing junctions do exist and they have been tried and tested, in this case for 59 years!

Link to Erasmusplein The Hague in Google maps.

20 thoughts on “An ‘Elephant & Castle’ in the Netherlands

  1. I cycled this particular crossing this summer twice in one week. Is is very easy to, even though I do not live in such a big city as THe Hague. It is all very clear.

  2. Amazing to think that even in the 1950s and 1960s and early 70s cyclists were not totally forgotten, though with designs that did not make them the main traffic. How was the waiting time for bicycles and pedestrians back when you were just beginning to cycle as a young child? IE around 1972.

  3. They actually element you inward: As a point actually you can see occurring what you explain. At around the 0:34 level in the far right a red car goes through red while you see the light for bikers already switching to natural.

  4. I live near E&C and I am particularly annoyed that the traffic lights on the cycle bypass take so long to turn green for pedestrians and cyclists. I have timed them and it’s easily four minutes on the section on Old Kent Road (which is one of the roads shown) and there is no way you can cross without them as the traffic is constant and easily doing 40mph. It’s so tempting to go the much quicker route on the road instead.

    The route shown being cycled here is the only way to get to the far side of the roundabout, I can’t work out a quiet road route to get there (the cycle bypass only takes you part of the way). I always feel very small and insignificant when I cycle there, quite different to how I feel when driving it, which makes me feel rather exhilarated – not a good mix!

  5. I live in Elephant & Castle, and have to negotiate it every day for my journey to work. The roundabouts are just too intimidating for me to cycle around, so I use the bypass. This takes you along back streets which are quieter, but there are some key differences in how they’ve been planned compared to the Dutch model as I understand it.

    Importantly, if you use the bypass it’s significantly longer and slower than the roundabout, as there are traffic lights at each junction. Some of the sensors don’t work very well, so you are reliant on people wanting to use the pedestrian crossing to make the traffic stop, and the signal phases are in favour of road traffic, so the pedestrian/bike green phase is quite short. This is most noticeable at the Churchyard Row/Newington Butts crossing, where there will often be a high volume of cyclists waiting and during rush hour, you may have to wait for two or more phases.

    Finally, the bypass is compromised by the need to not inconvenience or slow down motor traffic, so on some of the junctions (Princess St/London Rd, taking you towards the city) cyclists are banned from turning onto the bus/bike route to continue their journey. This is because it would cause conflict with people using the pedestrian crossing. A filter light would solve this issue, but that would mean that traffic would be held longer at a red light. Consequently a large number of cyclists ignore the banned left turn, or get off and walk 6 feet then remount. Rather than re-phase the lights, the police have started handing out £30 fines during occasional ‘crackdowns’.

    It’s interesting to see how differently similar looking roads can be designed if you consider the needs of all road users, rather than start from an inherently compromised premise!

    1. Thank you too Liz for your local insight. I had no idea it worked like that for that bypass. Seems you have to choose between two options that are not very attractive to say the least…

  6. Hey, this is about 200 meters from where I live and where I have lived my entire (47 years) life. It’s fun to see something so familiar through a stranger’s eyes. The smooth red asphalt is indeed a very recent improvement (about two years ago) and they updated the traffic lights as well (nothing fancy, just a spruce up and shine job), which inadvertantly made things a bit more dangerous. You see, the timing between red for cars and green for cyclists is a *little* too sharp for me. Cars that see the lights change from green to yellow will often speed up a bit to *just* squeeze through before it changes to red. Three seconds later the cyclist and pedestrian lights will change to green. Snappy, but I’ve learned to wait two seconds. I’ve had a few close shaves… But people complained and things have been calibrated and the close shaves have become a thing of the past, I’m glad to say. Still, I’ve learned to ‘keep my wits about me’ (to quote a lighthaired mayor) at the Erasmusplein 🙂

    I’m SO glad it’s not Elephant and Castle, though!!

    1. Thanks for this local insight! As a matter of fact you can see happening what you describe. At around the 0:34 mark in the far right a red car goes through red while you see the light for cyclists already turning to green. Drivers and red lights… will they ever change? 😉

  7. It’s interesting how the design was there to begin with, but has also been improved over the years (asphalt instead of tiles, smoother corners, etc.). It shows the Dutch commitment to cycling infrastructure.

  8. What is in the center of Elephant & Castle? Whatever it is I feel like I would never want to go there, having to cross all of those lanes of traffic. I don’t see crosswalks and pedestrian traffic signals either.

    I think another difference between the two traffic circles is what’s inside of them: The one in Den Haag has it over a river so there’s no need to utilize the center space while the one in London has some features – features with low quality of access.

    1. It’s an electric substation supplying the tube lines that run underneath:

      There are signal-controlled pedestrian crossings on most of the arms of the roundabout, but some of them are very inconveniently placed quite some distance back — the need to prevent traffic backing up onto the roundabout being far more important than the needs of mere pedestrians. But there is also a system of grotty old pedestrian subways.

    1. The lights are usually timed so that traffic users benefit from mutliple green lights in a row as much as possible. Because there are so many different short light cycles that is possible. I don’t think it is a coincidence that you have two green lights in a row as a cyclist like in the video happens. It is most likely timed that way. At each crossing there are three types of lights: for pedestrians, for cyclists and for motorised traffic. Detection loops in the surface also monitor approaching traffic and give you an optimal ride. (Pedestrians have to push a button.)

  9. You won’t find me riding under Elephants or through Castles any time soon, Mark.

    Erasmusplein wins. Erasmus himself was well ahead of his time, so the name is appropriate.

    1. I didn’t feel any desire to try cycling through Elephant & Castle either. I watched and made up my mind. I am glad someone did it for me. Hard to watch it calmly with all those buses! And it can be so different, so easily.

      1. I don’t see you cutting lanes to get through any intersection, be it in the UK, or if you had to (if such a situation could exist), in the Netherlands.

      2. If I had been on a bicycle in E&C I think I would have dismounted like I saw other people do too. Sometimes there are situations that you could cut through lanes at junctions in the Netherlands but only very rarely. Most people choose get to the far right corner of a junction and wait for a gap in traffic (or lights to change) to cross with traffic from the other direction.

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