All about cycling in the Netherlands
People walking and cycling dominate Visstraat in the historic city centre of ʼs-Hertogenbosch. Until the late 1990s this was an ordinary street designed for motor traffic, but since then it has become one of the very few examples of ‘Shared Space’ in the Netherlands (that I know of) that does seem to work.
Visstraat and the adjacent Vismarkt (Fish Street and Fish Market) are exactly what they are called: the former Fish Market of the city which was conveniently located near the former port. It is a street but it has the feeling of a square. So that’s how the area was redesigned by Spanish architect Beth Gali. She was commissioned by the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch to redevelop a lot of the public space in the city centre. In 1993 the city had adopted a plan ‘The Inner City Outside’ (De Binnenstad Buiten) with a focus on the design and redevelopment of the public space in the city centre. In her master’s thesis “Changing public space” Rianne van Melik writes “It aimed to strengthen the meeting function of the city centre by making public space more attractive. The existing pavement, street furniture, and lighting had been neglected too long. Too many objects, such as poles, billboards, traffic signs, bicycle racks, and bottle banks cluttered the streets and squares. Moreover, public space suffered from heavy motorised traffic. The plan included detailed improvements from management changes (e.g., more surveillance and maintenance) to changes in the design of public space. It specifically addressed the use of paving materials in different areas of the city.”
For some streets Beth Gali’s designs worked out perfectly. Vughterstraat is an award-winning example (Omgevingsarchitectuurprijs 1998). But not everything worked out so well. In a sloping street she designed steps and that was highly criticized and reversed rather quickly. A lot of people cycled in this street, which was made impossible by the steps. The different type of weather in the Netherlands was also something this Spanish architect did not take into account enough. The expensive natural stone she used on some locations became too slippery in the Dutch rain and had to be replaced as well, because people cycling slipped on it and fell. On other locations the expensive paving material could not withstand the heavy motorised vehicles and many of the stones broke. Typical for her designs is that she seems to deliberately deviate from the road design recommendations. Two streets that don’t align were designed in such a way that the carriageways also don’t align. Both carriageways simply end in an area without any markings and the road users have to figure out how they go through the area.
Visstraat was also designed that way. All the streets leading to it simply stop and end in a square with a surface of grey blocks of natural stone. There are no height differences nor a clearly marked pedestrian area or carriageway. It is fortunate that this street/square can be found at the edge of the pedestrianized area of the city centre, because there is not much motor traffic as a consequence. There used to be a public parking garage that attracted a lot of traffic, but that lost its public function and is now only used by residents. On the other hand there is a bus line that traverses the square (in one direction) and residents can drive here if they have too. But the main flow of traffic is that of pedestrians and people cycling.
Given her other designs I do not believe architect Beth Gali designed this square with “Shared Space” as it is known now in mind. But it has almost turned out that way. This is within a 30km/h zone, so there are no signs for priority. (In a 30km/h zone the default priority deriving from the law is always in force.) The only signs you find are the ones indicating how the one way streets are arranged. There is no clear division between pedestrian space and the space for other traffic (although a few brass ‘dots’ do give a hint). There is one outside seating area that has a few big stone blocks and planters to stop traffic from coming too close as well, but that is about it. Traffic does however come from ‘normally’ designed streets and goes to such streets as well. So even though the markings and kerbs (curbs) are missing on the square itself, traffic naturally follows the invisible lines connecting the streets on either end of it.
The main reason why sharing the space by the different types of traffic works on this location is the sheer number of people walking and cycling. Their number is far greater than the few cars and buses that pass here. In fact there are almost 10 times more people cycling than there are motor vehicles. And when you combine walking and cycling there are almost 23 people walking and cycling for every car that passes here in the 6 minutes that I have filmed (on a Friday afternoon in early rush hour). This is immediately reflected in the behaviour of that motor traffic. Motorists generally adapt their speed to the pedestrians and they traverse the square really in walking pace. It also helps that only traffic that has to be here uses this street. Motorists usually live in the area and are therefore very familiar with this place. Even the frequent buses blend in nicely. The accidents website does not report any incident at this particular location between 2007 and 2012.
The only time the system works less than optimal is when motorists think they can park their cars to do a quick errand (this happens in the long version of the video towards the end). They then almost always block one of the flows of traffic and especially the turning buses need a lot of the space. When there is a blockage people cycling start to flow in all directions, almost like water under pressure.
Shared Space is overrated outside the Netherlands. And seems to be misinterpreted in the United Kingdom especially, where experiments are being undertaken in streets which are completely unfit for Shared Space, like London’s Exhibition Road*. In the Netherlands Shared Space is a local experiment that did not catch on in the rest of the country. Most locations are in the far north of the Netherlands. Shared Space is certainly not recommended when there is a lot of motor traffic, especially not when motorists aren’t used to adapt their behaviour to people walking and cycling.
But there are always exceptions… here it works and seeing how it works is quite entertaining, I think.
Visstraat, ʼs-Hertogenbosch on Friday 6th June from 4:03 pm to 4:09 pm. That little boy cycling in the still is wearing a superman outfit!
See this location in Google StreetView.
Traffic volumes in the six-minute video
159 People walking 46.9% 147 People cycling 43.4% 16 Scooters 4.7% 14 Cars 4.1% 2 Buses 0.6% 1 Motor cycle 0.3% 339 total 100%
Whenever I publish a video like this, there are always people who mention they would like it to last longer. Especially for these people there is a longer version. That video is 20 minutes and includes the first 6 shown in the video above.