All about cycling in the Netherlands
Utrecht has built quite a number of bicycle streets recently. Surprising, because Utrecht also built the very first bicycle street of the country, which was a complete disaster. So what does the city do differently now?
What is the definition of a bicycle street? (“Fietsstraat” in Dutch, or ‘bicycle boulevard’ as they are mostly called in the US.) Nowadays a bicycle street is considered to be a route in a residential area that is a main route for cycling, but only a minor route for motor traffic. It is essential that cycle traffic is the dominating form of traffic and that the route looks clearly designed for cycling. This makes it immediately clear to drivers of a motor vehicle that they are guest in a space that is not theirs. (CROW recommendation in publication 216) Note, that we are talking about a route rather than a street. The Dutch always construct cycle routes, never individual streets, even if they call those routes ‘street’. Parking motor vehicles in a cycle street is also possible. The word cycle street does not imply that there are no cars. There are, parked and moving, but they are the minority form of transport. That the streets are in a residential area automatically means that the speed limit for motor traffic is 30km/h. (With the exception of rural cycle roads where that would be 60km/h.)
The world’s very first cycle street was constructed in Bremen (Germany) as early as 1980. But cycle streets never really took off in Germany. The German fondness for rules made it very complicated to give cycling priority at junctions. That first street was at the same time made one-way for motor traffic and two-way for cycling. The Bremen example required 193 road signs to accomplish that in a street of just a couple of hundred metres long. The concept of the bicycle street was later incorporated in German road law (in 1997). The picture above shows a service street in Potsdam (near Berlin) that was designed as a bicycle street. Legally it is a mandatory cycleway on which it is allowed for residents to drive with their motor vehicles and where they can also park them. This seems to be a good example, but you don’t see many (good) bicycle streets in Germany. The requirements to be allowed to even construct a bicycle street became so complicated, that many road managers don’t even think of going down that road (no pun intended).
The very first bicycle street in The Netherlands wasn’t a success either. And that is putting it very mildly. It seemed such a great idea. One of the main cycle routes to the Utrecht University, Burgemeester Reigerstraat, was completely transformed and re-opened as a bicycle street in November 1996. The street got a median barrier to prevent motor vehicles from overtaking people cycling. That made the experiment a complete disaster. The street design was too far ahead of its time: drivers were not used to such an arrangement and they had no desire to trail behind people cycling. The median barrier made overtaking impossible, even when it was necessary. Bus passengers could sometimes be seen walking down the street instead of waiting 10 or more minutes in their bus, stuck behind a lorry unloading (the street has a lot of shops). To pass a lorry – blocking the full width of the lane – people cycling used the side-walk, or, even more dangerous, the opposite lane! Emergency services also complained and they warned about dangerous situations because they were held up. Impatient car drivers were seen overtaking cyclists with two wheels on the barrier. This scared people cycling onto the narrow side-walk and that in turn frightened pedestrians. A good two years later (in January 1999) a new Utrecht council terminated the experiment. The centre barriers were removed and so were the signs that forbade to overtake people cycling.
It took 10 years before Utrecht tried again. This time after several other Dutch cities had gone through successful experiments. So what did those cities do differently? That has everything to do with traffic calming. For cycle streets to work, motor vehicles must have a different route than people cycling. In recent years unravelling routes has become more common. When you unravel routes you get exactly what you need: motor traffic is diverted around a residential area, so the original (and usually shorter) route through that residential area is then dominated by people cycling.
The CROW recommendation is very clear. There should at least be double the number of people cycling than there are motor vehicles. So the ratio between cycling and motor traffic should be 1 motor vehicle to 2 people cycling, or preferably 1 motor vehicle to 4 people cycling or even more. The cycle street should also have priority over all side streets. This is not usual in a residential area or 30 km/h (18mph) zone, where normally all traffic from the right has the right of way at junctions. That means the street will have to be clearly marked as a cycle route so everybody will understand that non-standard priority arrangement. To further enhance the comfort for cycling the route should be surfaced in smooth asphalt (not bricks!). And finally, if the route winds through a residential area it should be self-explanatory which turns you have to take. That is why cycle streets are usually in red asphalt, so you can follow that ‘red carpet’ for cycling intuitively.
A bicycle street requires a lot less space than a road with separate cycleways alongside of it. The low volume of motor traffic in such a street also doesn’t really require separate cycleways. The traffic volume on a bicycle street should not exceed 2,000 motor vehicles per day. Due to the requirement of a much higher volume of cycling there should then be at least 4,000 (but preferably up to 8,000 or more) people cycling in such a street.
It is interesting perhaps, that the bicycle street does not have any legal status in the Netherlands. Unlike the Germans, the Dutch like to experiment without being constrained by rules and regulations. They will first try out what works (bending the rules if necessary) and then they might change their laws, but only when that is absolutely necessary and as little as possible. The modern experiments do no longer forbid motor traffic to overtake cyclists (as was the case in the 1996 Utrecht trial) and the priority crossings can be arranged within existing law. This means there is no official sign (needed) to indicate a bicycle street. Every municipality has its own way of indicating a bicycle street, or councils opt for not having a sign at all. ʼs-Hertogenbosch does not put up signs, it feels the street layout should speak for itself. And it does.
One early example of a successful second attempt at a bicycle street in Utrecht is the Van Humboldtstraat. This residential street was made one-way for motor traffic and two-way for cycling. It has a motor traffic volume of 500 vehicles per day and it sees about 3,000 people cycling. A ratio of 1 motor vehicle to every 6 cyclists. This is a perfect ratio to make cycling in the cycle street convenient and subjectively safe.
Another example in Utrecht is considered less successful by some. Prins Hendriklaan is a route that sees about 14,000 people cycling a day, but there are also about 3,000 motor vehicles. Even though that ratio is within the acceptable range, that absolute number of 3,000 motor vehicles is too high. The street therefore doesn’t feel completely (subjectively) safe. Motor traffic should indeed be calmed more than it is now to get those numbers down. (See also the post about that street by Mark Treasure at As Easy As Riding A Bike).
Another relatively new bicycle street in Utrecht is the one that features in my video for this week: Troelstralaan, which was finished in 2014. Here the ratio for motor traffic and people cycling is again perfect. That is because motor traffic has a main route parallel to this new bicycle street. So there are really only motor vehicles of the residents in this particular street. The street got a new surface of smooth red asphalt and priority at every junction. So all the requirements are met and that shows.
My video for this week shows the bicycle street in Troelstralaan in Utrecht, before and after the transformation.