A bicycle roundabout that shouldn’t have been built

Some weeks ago I cycled just 7 kilometres to the subject of this post. It was nice that going there didn’t involve a three-hour train journey first. Since I had read a lot about this ‘bicycle roundabout’ during construction, I had high expectations. It was a very sunny day but there was an ice-cold wind and that gave a wind chill of minus 5 degrees Celsius. That cold hadn’t hit me as hard as the bicycle roundabout did though. What a disappointment!

My tweet about the Sint-Michielsgestel bicycle roundabout. (The date proved wrong, it was two days later.)

I decided to take some pictures and tweeted them without any comment, just to see what would happen. Yes, the pictures were re-tweeted a lot, but it also didn’t take very long before the first questions were asked. It’s good to know that my Twitter followers are even smarter than I had hoped.

Looks like fun, but also a bit unnecessary?! Rangifer Revolution

It does look unnecessary doesn’t it? Only three side ‘streets’. Treating bicycles like mini-cars? Helmet Freedom

What’s the purpose ? It seems that there’s only two directions isn’t it ? So the only option is to go straight. Is the purpose to slow down cyclists ? Or other paths connected to the roundabout are planned to be built? Mon Cher Vélo

The tweet of bicycle expert Herbert Tiemens was the clearest of them all (even though it was in Dutch)

Aye yai yai, such bizarrely bad details. I don’t understand how you can come up with a design this bad for so much money

So what was going on here?

The bicycle roundabout that shouldn’t have been built.

This roundabout is part of a reconstruction of the N617. That is a regional through road from ’s-Hertogenbosch to Sint-Michielsgestel and further east. The province was one of the road managers in this matter, together with Rijkswaterstaat, the national agency for roads. A stretch of 5 km had to be adapted to the Duurzaam Veilig (Sustainable Safety) Principles. That meant the road itself was re-designed, but also that three unsafe level crossings for cycling, walking and agricultural vehicles had to be closed. They were replaced by two safe underpasses. One large intersection was reconstructed to become a Turbo-Roundabout.

The works had started on 27 January 2014 and the road was opened on 26 January 2015. In exactly one year the total 5 km reconstruction was executed for the sum of 10.8 million euro. So far so good…

The opening festivities took place at the new bicycle roundabout that was built below the Turbo-roundabout. The builders called this bicycle roundabout the “heart of the reconstruction”. So why am I so negative about it then?

The problem is in the details. Or maybe it isn’t. I think there shouldn’t have been a roundabout in the first place.

My video about the bicycle roundabout of Sint-Michielsgestel

The turbo-roundabout for motor traffic is a good idea. It replaces a signalised intersection and fewer traffic lights is what we are after in this country. Turbo-roundabouts are designed to speed-up the traffic flow for a higher traffic throughput. That means cycling on a Turbo-roundabout, or even level crossings near a Turbo-roundabout for cycling, are out of the question. And it is good to see that the road managers here made sure there are underpasses for people cycling. The cycleways come together in a lower level under the Turbo-roundabout in what the Dutch call a “berenkuil” or bear pit. Because it reminds them of the old-fashioned way to keep bears in zoos. Utrecht has a “berenkuil” from 1943. Arnhem has one from shortly after WWII and also Eindhoven has a bear pit. Now the small town of Sint-Michielsgestel joined this list.

An actual bear pit in Bern (Switzerland)

And as I mentioned before, they created a bicycle roundabout at the bottom of the ‘pit’. There is one thing they overlooked, however. Motor traffic can go in four directions, but that is not the case for people cycling! Since the N617 running east-west is a road for motor traffic only, people cycling can only go north-south. There is a bi-directional cycleway north of this intersection and there are two cycleways on either side of the road on the south-side. These flows do not cross each other’s paths. There is only one extra possibility to cycle from a minor side street to this intersection. That means there is only one potential conflict point. So it makes absolutely no sense to make all cyclists go in a tiny circle with horrible pointy corners. A Y-shaped connection would have sufficed.

Left: the bicycle roundabout as it was built. Right: a Y-junction would have been perfect for this location, given the traffic flows and the fact that there is only one potential conflict point. (map OpenStreetMaps)

This roundabout reduces people’s speed, right at the point where they would need some momentum to go up the ramps out of the pit again. These ramps are not steep and they are not long, because motor traffic is going up artificial inclines. That means the bottom of the pit is only slightly below the normal level. But even so; you would like to use your momentum! The sharp corners force you to go even slower. I had not been standing there too long with my camera, when a man on his bike stopped and started to speak to me. “Looks great, doesn’t it? But it was a mistake! They should never have built it with these sharp corners!” And sure enough, while he kept me from filming it, someone passed of whom you could hear that he scraped his pedals on one of these corners, he barely stayed upright.

Left: a corner in a cycleway that was constructed by the book. Right: the corners of the cycle roundabout are not round at all! This design defies all recommendations and best-practice.

Not everything the Dutch build is a success. This certainly isn’t! (And I haven’t even mentioned the odd centre line on the roundabout itself.) Do not copy this mistake. The tunnels are of course a good idea. There’s almost nothing wrong with those (apart from the fact that the sides of the tunnels should have sloped more). But the roundabout was a mistake, that I think should be corrected. And it could easily be corrected. Get rid of that strange circle in the middle. Round the corners and you’ll have a great intersection. To summarize my feelings about the bicycle roundabout of Sint-Michielsgestel I can quote the local here: “It looks great, but it was a mistake!”

In ʼs-Hertogenbosch there is a Turbo-Roundabout that also has three cycleways in the lower level. A simple T-junction makes a perfect connection. Simpler is often better!

Update November 2017

The sharp corners of this roundabout have finally been fixed! It is now much easier to cycle through the roundabout. The centre circle was not levelled, but with the corners rounded the roundabout proves not so bad anymore.

The original terribly sharp corners.
The sharp edges were literally rounded to make the corners far better for cycling.
The roundabout shortly after it was opened. With the very pointy corners.
The smooth rounded corners that the roundabout has now makes it far better to cycle through.


21 thoughts on “A bicycle roundabout that shouldn’t have been built

  1. Joe, It’s nice to know that even the Dutch traffic engineers get it wrong from time to time (just as the English do).There was no need to take a swipe at the English.If we had the history the Dutch have of building cycle infrastructure then I’m sure we could contribute initiative solutions. Not all English designs need to be poked fun at.

  2. Hi Mark,

    My compliments, good post and video clip pointing out the design issues with this roundabout. They already had – and still have – the attention of myself and several other council members. However, this roundabout was built by (and is the responsibility of) the provincial government. It’s them that we will have to convince to fix this. There is an easy fix though: simply replace the center with level asphalt. Maybe in a contrasting color to keep the look & feel of a mini-roundabout, but without the need to actually slow down and cycle around it. Cyclists can – and will – figure out any conflicting situation themselves, no need to force them into these stringent traffic flows. As you rightfully state, the current design applied car design logic to bicycle paths. Well meant, but the end result simply isn’t right.

    Roel Bouwman, D66 Sint-Michielsgestel.

    1. Good to hear that you and some other council members are on this. Thanks for letting me (and my readers) know. Removing that centre “feature” was my proposal as well. That shouldn’t cost too much, so let’s hope the Province (as road manager) can be convinced! Good luck with it!

  3. It looks like the Dutch asked an English traffic engineer to design it!! What a mess and what waste of money. Seems the Dutch have different politicians in charge, everything recently has been a slap in the face of Cycling Union.

  4. A major problem with this roundabout is the exit to Sint-Michielsgestel. The first hundered meters the road appears to for cars only. Cyclists do join the road there, which makes it less safe then in the old situation. They should have made a bicycle path that leads to (at the very least) the first exit on the left. There is a small industrial area there that attracts a lot of (big truck) traffic; once you pass that, the road is much safer. (i’ll admit that I don’t know if it’s actually less safe, or just appears that way; I haven’t heard anything about actual accidents there. But they do have a path on the other side of the road (to Den Dungen), and I don’t think that road has more traffic.)

    Another problem with the sharp turn that you have to take (when you enter the roundabout above) is the little pole in the middle of the path at the beginning (to prevent cars going in I guess): if you have a cart for children (fietskar; don’t know the English word) or a ‘bakfiets’ it’s a very difficult turn.

    Still; I do prefer this to the old situation with the traffic lights. The waiting was more annoying then this.

  5. The way the cyclepath to the south is running, I think there is a leg to the southeast to be created in the future. This might mean that there will be more traffic between the south and the southwest legs in the future than there is now. Because of that, a traditional 3-way intersection (like in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch example) might be better than the Y-shaped one you propose. But a roundabout is definitely over-engineered either way.

  6. Don’t worry, it could be worse: Norfolk built a roundabout with a bi directional cycleway doing uncontrolled level crossings of two arms just last year: in 2015!

  7. I hope enough people using this roundabout will speak up about the issues that it will it be amended. Otherwise it may be a long time before anything gets done about it, if ever.

  8. There’s two of these things in Leiden (Haagweg × Churchilllaan and at Lammenschansplein). I’m not a big fan of them, but I can see why they built them: they’re both at the bottom of multiple converging ramps which all pass through tunnels, which means people approach them at relatively high speeds and with poor visibility. The roundabout structure forces people to not just blast through the crossing without looking.

  9. Looks like a Madurodam version of the roundabout above it: perhaps they had some concrete left over. Le Corbusier would have loved it.

      1. Roundabouts of any kind are fairly rare in the U.S. I discovered this video, produced by a consulting firm, which goes over a few bicycle features at the University of Davis campus.

        This university installed their first bicycle roundabout in the 1970’s. The difference between the need at the campus and the Netherlands might be that a lot of the students had not regularly ridden a bicycle before becoming a student there. So their skill at handling a bicycle among other cyclists may not be too great and they might be in a hurry to get to their next class.

        Most of the bicycle infrastructure at Davis is typical of what can be found in other U.S. cities. Its the quantity of it that sets them apart. The city of Davis encompasses 10 square miles. There are 50 miles of bike lanes applied on 95% of its major streets and an equal amount of bike path miles. I know of no large city in the U.S. that can come close to matching that.

        The city of Los Angeles department of transportation has mentioned using mini roundabouts on residential streets to slow down cars. I was one of the guinea pigs for testing of sharrows while riding a bicycle along six different streets over a wide area of Los Angeles for the DOT. One location on a residential street close to the campus of UCLA had a mini roundabout that I always became uncomfortable when I reached it while the car behind me was directed into that small space. Research found on the Federal Department of Transportation website shows a decrease in safety for bicycling from using mini roundabouts on streets.

      2. I thought I’d throw in an example of a bicycle roundabout (or rotary, as we call them here) in Massachusetts, where two branches of the Cape Cod Rail Trail intersect. Hopefully the photo link below will make clear, but it is rather large, with a little park in the middle for folks to stop, check the map, have a snack, etc. Note that this trail is very much a recreational trail for visitors, though I imagine some of the locals make use of it for commuting as well.


    1. I don’t think that’s something you have to fear for here: I couldn’t find the latest figures for Sint-Michielsgestel, but the amount of muggings has been going down nationally for years. In 2012 no one was mugged in the municipality, in 2011 there was one mugging (straatroof). There is always a chance of course, but it’s pretty unlikely. (I’m not saying that it’s a crime-free paradise here; there are some burgleries, hennep-growing, etc.) but it’s pretty unlikely that something will happen if you just walk/cycle around. Besides, it’s not an unsafe construction: it’s not isolated and you can see what’s going on there from pretty far away.

      1. Yes, being able to see from a long way away is important. Brits complained about the wind, unthinking engineers designed out the wind by putting in tight bends on the entrance, giving neerdowells a place to hide 😦

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