Leeuwarden has very different types of infrastructure for different types of streets. When I filmed rush hour at two locations in the city last month, the end result seems to be of two entirely different places with entirely different transport views. In reality, however, these two locations are very close to each other. This only emphasises that the Dutch build specific types of infrastructure, tailor-made for specific locations. There is an array of possible solutions and each can and will be used for the location it suits best.
So let’s look at the two rush hours in Leeuwarden that I filmed on two consecutive mornings before the meetings of the Winter Cycling Congress started.
This first video was recorded in the historic city centre, inside the ring formed by the old city moat. This area has quaint little brick paved streets, lined with brick houses that could be hundreds of years old. The crossroads here has been designed as ‘shared space’. This densely built mediaeval street pattern doesn’t lend itself well to car traffic. After trying in the 1960s and 1970s to adapt such streets to ‘modern’ traffic, the Dutch realised in the 1980s and 1990s that that was impossible without damaging the fabric of the cities beyond recognition.
So they decided that this was clearly not the way forward. Subsequently many cities closed their historic city centres to motor traffic almost completely. This is also the case in Leeuwarden and a very quiet crossroads could now be built. They call it ‘shared space’ here, but it reminded me of similar examples in Utrecht and ʼs-Hertogenbosch where we don’t call it that.
To be able to also reach these city centres by car, to get to shopping streets and other end destinations such as restaurants, cinemas and theatres, city councils created larger through roads just outside these people’s areas.
The second video shows such a large road just outside the city centre at the point where it is crossed by a main cycle route. The two situations could hardly be more different. That means the design solutions of the infrastructure for both locations are also very different, and perhaps most important: they could not be interchanged. Traffic lights in the car-free city centre would be ridiculous and giving the signalised intersection a ‘shared space’ treatment would be equally ridiculous.
The four-arm crossroads in the traffic calmed city centre seems to work as ‘shared space’ because private motorised traffic can only traverse the junction. Two of the four arms cannot be used by private motorised traffic (we only see a few delivery vans using that street) and the other two (left to right in most of the images) are only used by traffic going from the ring-road around the city centre to a parking garage inside that city centre. So this is much more about traffic calming than it is about sharing. The video shows only 12 cars and hundreds of people cycling. Only with those ratios ‘shared space’ can really work. The number of children cycling to school (this video was recorded shortly after 8 in the morning) and the appearance of a handcycle at this location (at 1:16) shows that this is generally considered a safe place.
Cycle Rush Hour in the old – mostly car-free – city centre
But even in this video we see 2 of the 12 passing cars in conflicts. The very first car appears at 00:41. The driver of that white mini pressures a boy on his bicycle, on his way to school, to clear the junction faster that he should have, because the mini-driver accelerates at a pace that is not appropriate for this location. At 04:41 a driver of another car honks at some people cycling, because this driver apparently feels the people cycling do something they shouldn’t have. The only thing that driver would have had to do was adjust the speed of his/her vehicle slightly, and the car could simply have passed behind the group of cyclists without anyone having to stop. That is the way people behave (on foot or on their bicycle) in ‘shared space’: they simply adjust their speed in such a way that everybody can pass everyone else, without conflict and without stopping. But for motor vehicles that doesn’t work. Motor vehicles need lines and lanes to find their way, and these lanes have to be cleared of other traffic by signals. This is clearly demonstrated in the second video.
Cycle Rush Hour in Leeuwarden, crossing a major road for car-traffic
The video shows the ring-road around the historic city centre where it intersects with another road that leads motor traffic from further outside the city to this ring-road. Motor traffic needs signals to be able to negotiate the right of way and separate turning lanes. So it needs a lot of space because it is relatively slow to traverse through, and clear a junction. This means that the time the signal for cycling needs to be red, is much longer to get these motor vehicles through the intersection. In this case the green-time for cycling is only 11 seconds, while the red-time is 1 minute and 41 seconds. In modern road design that would be an unacceptable difference. It is no wonder you see people taking a head start when the pedestrian light changes just prior of the light for cycling. And it is also no surprise that people keep on cycling when the light turns orange; they know how long the waiting time is. When you count the number of vehicles passing during those green cycles, we see that in those 11 seconds as many as 36 bicycles cross (from 1:49 to 2:00) and in that exponentially longer time of 1 minute 41 seconds the number of motor vehicles passing is just 41 (from 2:00 to 3:41).
You can only conclude that a motor vehicle is a very inefficient means of transport in the cities. It is good to keep motor traffic out of the centres and to try to constrain it on just a few corridors. But the amount of motor traffic we still see in our cities is huge. The crossing of this particular corridor shows that we are at another crossroads in history and that we should perhaps reconsider how much space each type of transport gets in our cities. Many people in the Netherlands feel that the liveability in cities would improve if we gave people cycling even more room and even more priority than we already do. More rush hours of the first type, fewer of the second type. I would be all for that. But that is for the long-term. A quick fix for this particular crossing would be an extra green cycle for cycling. So twice green for cycling in the full traffic lights cycle.