All about cycling in the Netherlands
To improve traffic situations for pedestrians and people cycling, road managers can decide to build extravagant infrastructure. Most of the time, however, it is much easier and much more effective to relocate motor traffic and to unbundle routes. When motor traffic is diverted to routes where fewer people live and away from areas where most amenities are, you can make those people’s places much more attractive.
A good example of how this can work is the reconstruction of a large junction in ʼs-Hertogenbosch (aka Den Bosch). This was one of the worst intersections in the Netherlands, located at the edge of the city centre for 48 years. It was nicknamed “Heetmanplein” after the traffic engineer who designed it.
In 1965, the intersection was built with only the specific needs for motor traffic in mind. That made it a terrible place for anyone, but especially for people walking and cycling. Reconstruction started late 2013 and was finished in the spring of 2014. The number of traffic lanes went back from 11 to 4, at several locations, which is a considerable road diet! Consequently, the new intersection wastes much less space and people walking and cycling can traverse it much easier.
So let’s look at this intersection and its history in more detail.
It was built at the location of the former city wall. When the fortifications were dismantled in the 1880s, the city decided to turn the newly available space into a nice city park.
But traffic increased and the main north-south route of the country ran through this park. So in 1935 the lovely park got two large roundabouts. By the time the private car became mainstream, these roundabouts were not able to handle the increased traffic.
The incredible traffic increase at this location (motor vehicles per day)
Source: Bossche Bladen
In the 1960s the city, therefore, looked for a new solution for this double roundabout. A lengthy fly-over was considered, but it was too expensive and in the end the intersection went from two clear roundabouts to a very unconventional intersection that was designed by a professor from Eindhoven, Mr Heetman.
In later interviews he boasted that he had designed it on the back of a cigar box. This may even have been true in the time before computers. Mr Heetman came up with an intersection that gave every possible direction a separate route. This required all the space of the entire former park and it led to many separate lanes for motor traffic. The routes passed each other in such ways, that traffic was even driving on the left hand side at several locations and the 30,000 vehicles per day had to be managed by 50 separate lights. Contemporary traffic engineers were very critical of the design, that they called incomplete and needlessly complicated. So on the opening day, 22nd October 1965, people really held their breath. But the wacky design worked; it was able to handle all those vehicles. People at the time were apparently very happy with that outcome.
For 5 years all traffic in the main north-south route of the country used this intersection, until on 29th of December 1970 the new motorway A2 was opened, that bypassed the city to the east.
That meant the traffic volume at this location dropped considerably and some people tried to get the intersection downgraded. But this wasn’t the time for downgrading roads, so the city hesitated. In the end the ever-increasing traffic volumes in the 1970s made the council decide to keep the intersection as it was. In 2010 there were again 29,000 vehicles using the by then notorious intersection daily.
It wasn’t until another bypass, the South Ring Road, was opened on 18th March 2011, that the city took the opportunity to finally downgrade the intersection. This was possible because that South Ring Road almost halved the motor traffic volume. The times had also changed considerably since the 1970s. When bypasses are built now, the original routes usually do get downgraded. Often the original and shorter routes are then used as cycle routes. This has the advantages that people cycling have the more direct route and that traffic types are separated on route level, leading to much fewer conflict points. This is a policy called unbundling or unravelling. From the second half of 2013 the vast reconstruction works started and they took until June 2014. There are now two simple T-Junctions with traffic signals at the edge of the former intersection.
With now about 16,000 vehicles per day, traffic flows very smoothly again. The modern signals are all demand driven and loops detect traffic, including people cycling. The waiting times are very acceptable and the routes for all types of traffic are now much more direct and intuitive.
On top of that the new junction requires a lot less space! A large open area remains. So what to do with that valuable open space? Right in the middle of that now open area was a former city gate and many people would like to reconstruct it. Even though that city gate was already destroyed in 1891, so in my opinion that would be a falsification of history.
In 2012, the Bosch Architectuur Initiatief (BAI) joined forces with the Bond van Nederlandse Architecten (BNA) and the municipality of ʼs-Hertogenbosch and they organized a design-competition open to the general public, called ‘Reset het Heetmanplein’ – Welkom in Den Bosch! (Reset Heetmanplein, Welcome to Den Bosch!). The task for the participants was ‘design a new entrance for ʼs-Hertogenbosch and by doing so, give new meaning to this location’. A perfect way for the city to get more inspiration for this location. A staggering 62 models were sent in and they were shown at an exhibition in city hall.
The competition had a winner, but the winning design is completely different from what the city already had in mind for this location. Two years after the competition, still no decision was taken about what will happen with the central area. The council is not in a hurry to redevelop this area and sufficient funds need to be allocated. If the city does decide that the old city gate will come back in some form, the cycleway will go through it. That means that some of the newly constructed cycleways will have to be altered. That’s why those cycleways are not surfaced with asphalt. This indicates that they are not completely final yet.
Whatever is decided, at least the intersection has already been hugely improved. It wastes a lot less space and it is a lot friendlier to people walking and cycling. Thanks to the relocation of the main flow of motor traffic, the remaining volumes of traffic are lower than they were in the early 1960s and they can be handled by this dramatically downgraded intersection. It gives the city the opportunity to redesign this area much more as a people’s place.
My video showing the total reconstruction of an intersection in ’s-Hertogenbosch