Can there ever be too many people cycling?

The Dutch have been very good at making cycling the best transport option for many journeys. So good, some argue, that the downsides are now becoming apparent and even annoying.

There is a weakness in every strength. I have shown you some of the downsides of cycling in The Netherlands in earlier blog posts. There is the ever present challenge to create enough space for parking bicycles. There is the annoyance of mopeds and scooters on the narrow cycle tracks, the massive road works in the Utrecht city centre and, more recently, I showed you how faulty traffic lights caused long delays in that same city.

People in Utrecht, arriving at a busy cycling crossroads from the building site around Utrecht central station, are already checking out the stream of other cyclists.

Today I would like to show you a very busy junction in Utrecht. It is a four-arm crossroads of cycle ways. From all four directions people cycling arrive at the junction in huge numbers. This is even enhanced by traffic lights in other locations, which group together droves of people cycling.

This week’s video: a ‘group dance’ of people cycling on a busy junction in Utrecht

It is very interesting to see that the people cycling do not observe the basic traffic rules of priority. That would mean that everybody coming from the right would have priority. But since this is a four arm crossroads with heavy cycle traffic arriving from all directions at the same time, that basic rule couldn’t even be observed. So the cyclists stick to their own set of rules. As I have also shown you before, they try to make sure that they themselves, as well as other people cycling, do not have to stop. (At least as much as possible.) So they will look around to observe everybody’s actions and locations and slightly adjust their speed and use their situational awareness that acts like a sixth sense, to flow smoothly around each other. This swarm-like behaviour was first discribed by British writer Virginia Woolf. After a visit to Amsterdam in 1935 she wrote in her diary: the cyclists go in flocks like starlings, gathering together, skimming in and out. (From the famous book by Pete Jordan). More recently Marco te Brömmelstroet has revived the term in reports of the thorough investigations of cyclists’ behaviour on Amsterdam’s junctions that he and his colleagues recently did. But as you can see the people cycling in Utrecht are exactly like those in Amsterdam. Their swarm-like behaviour makes the junction look like a complicated and intriguing group dance performance.

People cycling are grouped together because of traffic lights in other locations.
People cycling are grouped together because of traffic lights in other locations.

However, even with these high numbers of people, I have not observed a single incident in the 30 minutes I filmed there. There was no bumping into each other, nor was there any bad word muttered. On the contrary, you can see and hear people laughing and one person even whistles a happy tune while he passes. Most you hear is the rattling of all those bicycles passing, and yet this was at the busiest time in the morning rush hour. Even during that busiest moment of the day the junction was completely empty at times and then again completely crowded seconds later. Nobody seemed bothered or annoyed and even children on their bicycles seem to have little difficulties navigating this particular junction.

Children navigate the intersection without real problems. Smaller children are accompanied by a parent but the children aged 12 and above cycle alone.
Children navigate the intersection without real problems. Smaller children are accompanied by a parent but on average the children aged 9 and above cycle alone.

But apparently some people are bothered. A project in Utrecht has just started this week. In which people are asked to vote for their biggest frustration of cycling in Utrecht. The organisers say they want to try and find a creative solution to solve the top frustration for people. Five types of frustrations are mentioned of which people can choose.

  • Frustration 1: Busy cycle tracks
  • Frustration 2: Cars and other vehicles
  • Frustration 3: Other people cycling
  • Frustration 4: Building sites
  • Frustration 5: Traffic lights

These frustrations overlap with the downsides I just mentioned and that I showed you earlier. As a Dutchman I do get frustrated when I am held up by other people cycling or while I am waiting at traffic lights. On the other hand I have also learned to look with foreign eyes at cycling in The Netherlands and then I agree with foreign observers who will call this ‘first world problems’ that ‘would be nice to have’. I also miss my own biggest frustration and that is being able to park my bicycle where I would like to.

At certain times the junction was deserted but it could be crowded again within seconds.
At certain times the junction was deserted but it could be crowded again within seconds.

What is striking in the project’s accompanying video is that the people interviewed first acknowledge that cycling is really great. It is faster than going by car or bus, you can reach all destinations very easily and it is a relaxed way to get from A to B. The organisers themselves also emphasise that cycling in Utrecht is booming, with most distance cycled of the four largest cities in The Netherlands. But that growth comes with pains and that is nothing new. The Cyclists’ Union also urged to allocate more space to cycling before.

The cycle tracks leading to the junction are very wide, but there are also high numbers of people cycling.
The cycle tracks leading to the junction are very wide, but there are also high numbers of people cycling.

It is never wrong to make clear again to the big public and the authorities, that cycling is good for a society and that it could do with some more recognition. Even though, as you could see in my video, it isn’t really that bad on even the busiest places at the busiest times. But yes, maybe we can make cycling even more fun. If the Happy Biking project can help out there, it would only be good.

The location of the junction of this video (red dot). It is close to Central Station and to the crossing of the railway tracks. The few crossing places act like a funnel. Since there are so few places where you can cross the number of people cycling right there is very high.
The location of the junction of this video (red dot). It is close to Central Station and to the crossings of the railway tracks. These crossing places act like a funnel. Since there are so few places where you can cross the number of people cycling right there is very high.

29 thoughts on “Can there ever be too many people cycling?

  1. Imagine in 15 years that bicycling has become so popular that dual carriageway cycle tracks, two, two metre wide lanes each for each direction, that has every junction a freeway, just like cars have now. And the national government building bicycle freeways, maybe even with shoulders. I know of a bicycle freeway in Minneapolis, to the extent that it has no junctions with motor traffic. There are some at grade bicycle traffic though, and pedestrians. Next we will be separating bicycles and pedestrians on an elevation level.

  2. I would very much like to see this first hand as an American who loves to cycle and I also commute by bike part of my journey. It seems to me that a cycle only roundabout is in order and but it is amazing how quickly people sort their way through this. Really more Americans should consider a cycling vacation in the Netherlands nothing is more educating than to see it firsthand, it is inspiring for us bicycle advocates. I have friends in Germany and have learned that language and hope to visit soon however I haven’t been to the Netherlands in quite a while. It Is my dream to see Amsterdam and other cities again on a bicycle. If you are an English speaker with some real ability to speak and understand German, I think you can learn and comprehend some Dutch fairly quickly, there are even YouTube lessons on line, making a trip to the Netherlands that much better.

  3. I think the answer to whether a locality has “too many” cyclists crowding at the same time, is a simple matter of whether or not those cyclists are alert and have excellent riding skills, as well as good manners towards others – which of course most dutch people do! This is in part, due to the easygoing and tolerant culture the netherlands has, which is why so few accidents or arguements occur there. I have still not yet experiance cycling in NL myself, but I already know thre is a huge difference to cycling in the UK, even on ‘cycle paths’.

    Some people comment that Amsterdam at rush hour, is a classic example of too many ‘confused’ cyclists all struggling for space. But I think that so long as you are used to the expectations and riding style of the dutch, that even this is not a significant risk to safety or convinience. It is all a matter of developing the right skills to the right standards. So long as one remains alert, navigating through crowds of cyclists is easily possible.

  4. I love all your work and think you can do no wrong but I will say I think I’d appreciate the video a little more without music. I like the sound of quiet bicycle traffic and occasional wind in the background as they people negotiate the right of way.

      1. If viewers have doubts about minor points in your videos, it must surely mean that the major ones are greatly appreciated. So in a strange way you can see it as a compliment.

      2. 🙂

        I think the music successfully makes the footage a playful piece, and this can make the video more accessible to non-bikey folks. On the other hand, the very quiet nature of these “traffic jams” and negotiations is fascinating in itself. Without the music, I fee this subtle element can be appreciated more.

        Like I said, you can do no wrong and I continue to be amazed with the amount and quality of content you produce. But as someone who has followed your videos since the beginning I always worry you’ll run out of things to post about!

    1. Yes, there are several, for instance in Delft, Arnhem and Eindhoven. I plan to show you examples of these smaller bicycle roundabouts, which are sometimes quite old, in the new year.

      1. There’s two in Leiden (Lammenschansplein and Haagweg×Churchillaan), but I’m not a big fan of them. You have to make three relatively sharp turns (right, left, right) just to go straight ahead, and I’ve actually wiped out at one of them when the surface was wet. Both are there because they’re junctions with limited visibility at the bottom of a ramp where people come down at high speeds.

  5. Yes, I could understand the frustrations, but remember when cars are in traffic, it looks like a parking lot. They bicyclists, however, are still moving at a relative speed.

    I love the video!

  6. No one crashed. Seems like the uncertainty prevents most people going too fast. I can see the problem for less assertive riders, but didn’t see much of that here. Most people know the culture and what’s expected.

  7. I would like to see a similar poll taken of drivers, pedestrians, bus and train passengers. I’d expect very similar results inasmuch as people find ‘other people’ frustrating, and transport would be so much easier without them.

    However, it is very important to discriminate between ‘frustration’ and ‘problems’. Do lots of other people cause frustration when cycling? Yes. Is this actually a problem (either for the user, or wider society)? Almost certainly not, and definitely not in the same way that ‘too many motor vehicles’ is.

  8. This is obviously a temporary situation. The city is under construction in that area. Normally the traffic would be much more guided. This spot in Utrecht is very busy but I am sure that It would be a lot smoother in a stable situation after all the construction work is finished. the most ideal situation is that you hardly have to think and don’t have to stop, except for traffic lights. Which is not the case here.
    How nice would it be to film this from above.

  9. From an American perspective, you don’t know how good you have it. Recently, I had the joyful pleasure of cycling in Utrecht and Amsterdam for more than a week and was astonished, amazed, charmed, and delighted at the whole scene. I was able to glide along with peletons of cyclists who know what they are doing, are confident and courteous, and instinctively work out the complexities of traffic together. And most amazing of all: drivers who seemed to understand and accept that everyone has a right to be present! Remember, that the video depicts an awkward intersection, compounded by nearby construction, and is ready for some improvement, and yet, the cyclists are handling the situation with relative aplomb! No helmets, no crashes, cycling at its best! Long live Dutch cycling!

    1. If it is so good, why not live there, I imagine you have valuable skills that the Dutch would like to have in their and possibly soon to be your country. Also, this sort of process would be even easier if you have citizenship of any other EU country.

  10. To me, one conclusion that can be gleaned from this is that traffic lights designed for car traffic cause these “bunchings” or “swarms” to form. If there were no traffic lights, it seems reasonable to assume bike traffic would be more even and there would be less of these huge swarms… But i’m just guessing 😉

    As always, nice video and post. Thanks!

  11. I managed to spot at least four riders who have resolved the bike parking issue for themselves in that clip. Three Bromptons and a Dahon at the last count – going to watch it again just to check. 🙂

  12. “Who has right of way?” my Australian visitor to Amsterdam asks me.

    “The most confident, aggressive rider wins,” I reply. Then I add, “I hardly ever have right of way.”

    1. I must have missed the agression in the video. They seemed to work out priority quite nicely without it, even with construction going on so close to a rail station. I’ll watch it again to see if I can spot it too.

  13. I think I’ve biked through a few intersections like this in the Netherlands, although not in Utrecht.

    You said that the four-way junction has a lot of cycle traffic in all directions. Has there been a proposal to subtly reroute (encourage another route) some of the cyclists so that there’s no longer equal or near-equal traffic in all four directions?

    1. On the busiest road: 2300 per hour in the busiest direction (plus 67 busses and 350 cars). The (conservative!) prognosis for 2030 is 3600 per hour (a nice round one per second) plus 90 busses and 350 cars) (, page 19. That text also states that some crossings already are over capacity and that there are few bicycle traffic jams because cyclists skip red lights)

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