A little over a week ago, there was a protest for longer green times of the cycling traffic lights in Utrecht. The local chapter of the Cyclists’ Union (Fietsersbond) and the organisation Kracht van Utrecht (Power of Utrecht*) offered people waiting for the lights to turn green a sweet roll to ease that waiting. They also handed out leaflets that informed them where they could complain about traffic lights that are annoying to people cycling.
Last week I showed you how the municipality of ʼs-Hertogenbosch created a new signal to make crossing a large junction more convenient for cycling. That city has relatively few signalised junctions. Utrecht on the other hand has a lot, compared to similar sized cities. Underlining once again how different Dutch cities can be when it comes to cycling, because cycle infrastructure is the responsability of the municipalities. According to the Cyclists’ Union the many signals in Utrecht are not friendly to people cycling. This was already reported in 2006 but no real improvements have been noticed since then.
Badly designed infrastructure – and that includes traffic lights – leads to bad behaviour. In the case of signals that means that people ignore them. Especially annoying to people cycling are red lights right next to a crossing where pedestrians do have a green light. How can that be? They have to cross the exact same road. Usually that has its reasons. There might be a second stage of the crossing where pedestrians arrive at the same time as people cycling, only if they have an advanced green phase at the first stage. But that is hard to explain to people.
The DUIC (The Utrecht Internet Paper) was the first to report that at one such intersection in Utrecht, the police had (again) set up a trap for people cycling. On the morning of the 30th of September last, 144 people got a ticket of €90. The police had done this before, just two weeks earlier. The Dutch are blunt, so some people complained and they instantly got a second ticket for riding through two lights. Because there are three lights here, one shortly after the other, that was possible. Once it was known this was happening, all other people cycling stopped for the red lights and then something interesting happened. The police action caused a terrible congestion. Bicycles were lined up in a traffic jam of over 100 metres long.
That had never happened before. People jumping red lights had prevented that. So that means there was something fundamentally wrong at this intersection. It cannot be right that there is congestion when people abide by the law and traffic flows smoothly when they break it. The pictures of the bicycle traffic jam caught a lot of attention and it was especially surprising to many that the road was empty. That is because there are road works in the street. Cars are only allowed in one direction and that turned out to be the reason the signals weren’t functioning properly. The alderman for traffic, Lot van Hooijdonk, announced one day later that the detection loop on the cycleway was malfunctioning. That could have been for quite some time, but because there are normally cars as well, the lights did get green because these cars were detected. Now that there weren’t any cars the lights for cycling only turned green for 6 seconds per traffic light cycle. The detection loop was repaired the same day and that prolonged the green time by 5 times. From now on the light is green for 30 seconds in every cycle.
Of course that was a great action, but at the same time some people frowned upon that news. How could this be done so quickly, when there are other lights that should have been fixed since at least 2006! That is why the Cyclists’ Union and Kracht van Utrecht took this opportunity to once again draw attention to Utrecht’s signalised junctions.
At the intersection of Ledig Erf people cycling have to wait a full two minutes to get green. This is because the cycle route crosses the main bus route to the University Area. Buses get priority and that causes the long delays. In two minutes you have more than enough time to eat a sweet roll and that is what people cycling were offered the morning of the 8th of October. A lot of people showed approval for this sympathetic protest.
The long waiting times here lead to dangerous situations. There is not enough room for all the people waiting. So they line up where that is actually not allowed. On the left hand side of the crossing or at another location altogether. People wanting to pass, to cycle in a different direction, have trouble passing the many people waiting. Some dismount and walk through. Others try to squeeze past and yet others ride around the congested area on the sidewalk.
Once the light turns green the swarm of bicycles is quickly on the other side of the road. But not always as it should be. That leads to annoyance with people who do follow the rules when they come into conflict with people who don’t. If there would be more green time, this would not need to happen. Here too, something is so fundamentally wrong that people are forced to break the rules to improve the flow of traffic.
I have not heard that the Utrecht authorities responded to this protest yet. But at least it is known again that there is still room for improvement, even in the Netherlands. All these people cycling should be applauded and they should get more appreciation from the authorities by giving them better infrastructure. Better adapted to their huge numbers. The Cyclists’ Union and Kracht van Utrecht still have hopes to see their ambition fulfilled. They want all the signalised intersections in Utrecht to be better for cycling by 2015. So you no longer have the time to eat a sweet roll while you are waiting.
My video for this week: Why are we waiting? Campaigning for better signalised intersections in Utrecht.
After the protest the city of Utrecht changed the timing of the lights and the lights for cycling now get green twice in every green cycle.
* Kracht van Utrecht (Power of Utrecht) is a group of independent Utrecht residents and experts who try to think out-of-the-box about an integral approach for accessibility, economic development and quality of the city and its environment.