Why are we waiting? Protest for longer green times

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.

Annoying: people cycling have to wait for this crossing, while at the same time the light for pedestrians for the same crossing is green.

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.

Traffic jam in Nachtegaalstraat
The bicycle traffic jam in Nachtegaalstraat in Utrecht at the intersection with Maliebaan. Picture used with the kind permission of “De Utrechtse Internet Courant”; DUIC

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.

The Utrecht alderman for traffic announced on Twitter that the lights were malfunctioning and would have 5x longer green from now on.

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 protest at Ledig Erf in Utrecht by the Utrecht chapter of the Cyclist’ Union and Kracht van Utrecht.

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.

This girl accepts the offered sweet roll to eat while she waits for the light to turn green at Ledig Erf in Utrecht. The wait is two minutes so she has all the time she needs to eat it.

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.

13 thoughts on “Why are we waiting? Protest for longer green times

  1. Some routes in my city have many lights to deal with. On a route with two of them being light rail intersections, both with LRT preemption, and another one, having a rather annoying light that would work rather well if it only had yield signs. Oh, that is another thing. The city I live in, have far too many stop sign intersections. I asked the UK how they decide where to place a stop sign if it was based exclusively on visibility, and almost all of the places I see stop signs will qualify, even more so if the speed limit was reduced to 30 km/h.

  2. Interesting. In Madrid (where you are supposed to do the vehicular cycling thingy), the other day, I tested an alternative route away from the busy and annoying main streets.

    It was so full of traffic lights (about 15 in 5 Km) and so indirect that it took me an insane amount of time. Average speed was 10,5 Km/h!

    When compared to just walking (where you can take the direct route because, you know, modes are segregated so it’s not a pain in the ass to walk), cycling was barely competitive, being just slightly faster than walking, but requiring a longer route.

  3. I agree with mikey, shame on the dutch police for fining cyclists, for what was the result of primarily the fault of the local authority who were responsible for the fualty traffic lights. Mark’s excellent viseo here, highlights several traffic light common problems I hear cyclists all over the world complain about. Cyclists who jump red lights, cut corners within infrastructure, long green light waiting times.

    Here in the UK, I have recently discovered three simular cycle route ‘traffic lights’ across busy roads, where the green light times were over 4 mins in each case (yes, 240secs+ !!) and none of them were at particulalry busy or major junctions! While I am very against cyclists who jump red signal light normally due to laziness, even I can sympathise when such excessively long waiting times are not repaired by responsible authorities. To those people who are either new to cycling, or who are debating whether to continue to or not, such things can be damaging to pro-cycling efforts to get more daily commuters to cycle.

    I think the union were very right to protest here, simply because it was not a luxury to have shorter reasonable waiting times, but actually the right of all cyclists using the system!

    In the UK, sadly many people have the bad attitude that bicycles “are for immature people or children only, or people who cannot be bothered to conform to our motoring society” and therefore such infrastructure faults (by my experiances) in the UK, can also take many months to receive attention.

    An excellent video Mark.

  4. I thought only the police in UK operated such traps, sorry to hear the Dutch are targeted in the same underhand way!
    I also hope that they payed their fines marked “Under Protest” and then challenged them en masse. After all, you say the fault was known in advance, or the police would not have been there, they had been tipped off. So the bills should be charged to the authority responsible for the lights. What is the word for this behaviour by officials? Is it., ‘conspiracy’ for ‘entrapment’? is this ambush legal in Holland?
    Maybe I am reading too much into it and Dutch people enjoy paying €90 fines as an entertainment . 😉

  5. Wow, 6 seconds of green time, even with no other traffic around. No wonder people would run the lights. But very refreshing to see this problem being addressed, and that there’s effort to get the general public involved. Increasing, that seems to be the only way to get any meaningful change. I wonder if there’s already a system in place in the Netherlands that would address a malfunctioning detector loop, so that when that happens, the lights would still change if there were no other traffic around. In my city, there are many intersections where the minor road will never change to green if there’s no motor vehicles on it, which is a big hassle for cyclists who choose to obey the lights.

  6. Out of curiosity, starting from 1:45, what’s the light flashing white on top the when the main signal is green?
    It doesn’t seem present on the Google Street View image.

      1. Hum, I didn’t know of this kind of signal in the Dutch system.
        Would you know the official name or have a link to some traffic guide where it is mentioned?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.