Dutch roundabouts are terrifying. At least in the eyes of foreign planners and engineers. Dutch road users, including the most vulnerable ones – people walking and cycling – prefer roundabouts over signalised intersections. And so do Dutch planners and engineers, who know that roundabouts have proven to be a lot safer than traditional intersections. The reconstruction of a lot of those Dutch intersections into roundabouts is getting more and more attention abroad. That is why I made a video with a further look into the Dutch roundabout.
My videos are often used in presentations all over the world. The Amsterdam alderman for traffic once showed my ‘How the Dutch got their cycle paths’ video to an audience in London, which included the minister for traffic. I had given permission. Usually people pick a video that suits them best. Only a few times people have asked me to make a video about a specific subject. I only do that if I could also have made such a video without being asked. The video for this week’s post is such a video. I made it at the request of Dick van Veen, who is a senior traffic expert at Mobycon, a Dutch consultancy company also working in North-America, who wanted to better explain the Dutch roundabout to several audiences in North-America. I’ve worked with Dick before. He had asked me to give an overview of the broad number of solutions that we have in this country for intersections. But now he gave me a list of features that he would like to show in a video about roundabouts. Most of these were already available in my vast video collection, (so vast that it has grown too big for my 2 TB external hard drive now!) but some of the features were not visible enough in my opinion, so I shot new video. We were a bit in a hurry, but luck helped us. Dick wanted to show a type of central refuge islands that I knew no examples of. When I mailed him that, he replied that he knew a good example in the town of Baarn. Coincidentally, I read the mail while I was riding the bike in Baarn! I hadn’t been there for ages, but right that day I had to be there for my day job and I could easily ride to that particular roundabout to film later.
I spoke with Dick van Veen after he had returned from North-America and it was great to hear his enthusiastic story: “It is so good to see that the Americans are no longer only occupied with on street cycle lanes. They get that paint is just not good enough. It is all about protected bike lanes now. And more and more the protected intersection as well. Planners and engineers now understand how necessary it is to connect stretches of roads with protected cycle lanes with well-planned intersections. They are studying protected intersections all over North-America. A number has just been finished or are under construction. I designed the one in Davis (CA) myself, but there are now also examples in Austin, Salt Lake City and Boston. Canada is also working on them. Vancouver is doing great stuff on the Burrard Bridge intersection, while a design I made for Churchill Avenue in Ottawa was recently opened, even though the protected intersections in that route were more simple versions of it, with a cycle route along a corridor, crossing smaller side streets.”
“The main focus abroad is still on signalised intersections”, Dick tells me. “In The Netherlands they are no longer the only solution to use. The SWOV (Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research) has investigated signalised intersections and they are not at all so safe as people think they are. They are not designed for safety but for a high traffic flow. For a high traffic throughput it is then automatically accepted that they are less safe. Why is that? Because signals make people lazy. They only focus on their own light to turn green and they don’t look at other traffic. That gives problems when two flows of traffic have green at the same time, which happens a lot, vehicles turning in the path of pedestrians for instance. To eliminate that risk we tried to design out these sub-conflicts in The Netherlands, but that turns people into small robots even further and this increases the risk that they just stop thinking for themselves.”
Switching off the signals outside peak times is something that Dick welcomes. “You see that more and more in The Netherlands. Signals that blink yellow when there is not so much traffic, for instance during the night hours. This forces people to be attentive again. The flow improves, because cars and cyclists don’t have to stop unnecessary for red lights at empty intersections, and especially drivers in motor vehicles learn again to look around their metal boxes. This gets them used to solving traffic situations by themselves and not just rely on lights.” They must learn to do that, because on the ever-increasing number of roundabouts they have to work out traffic situations on their own. These situations are structured well, but there are no lights to help them. Dick explains: “On roundabouts we re-introduce conflicts and that is something traffic users have to get used to. But it terrifies foreign planners and engineers!” So why do it then? That is because roundabouts have a very good safety record. “I show a telling slide in my presentation. You can see that roundabouts with about 15,000 to 20,000 motor vehicles per day are two times as safe as signalised intersections.” Of course, they would have to be Dutch style roundabouts and not the typical North-American roundabout.
“Abroad there is a desire to have most roads and intersections with two lanes in each direction. Emergency vehicles must be able to stop anywhere and traffic can then still go around it. This is not very common in The Netherlands.” Dick continues to explain. “That 2×2 concept is then brought to roundabouts with meagre results. Weaving is not easy on a roundabout, so people tend to only use the most outer lanes. With the wide entrances and the large circle speeds increase. And they speed up even further because of the rotational forces, almost as with a flywheel. Bring people walking and cycling into this system and the result won’t be good.”
So it is a good thing that planners and engineers abroad are now studying Dutch style roundabouts. They won’t be built in the streets soon, but in time they might. It also took a lot of time before the protected intersection was fully understood and appreciated.
Roundabouts in The Netherlands
Dick van Veen has used this video on conferences in North America. The most recent one was in Toronto. “Designing Safe Intersections for All Users: Cycle Tracks at Signalized Intersections and Roundabouts” was a one day master class presented by Mobycon in partnership with Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) and the 2015 Complete Streets Forum.