Explaining the Dutch roundabout abroad

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.

Vulnerable road users on a roundabout with priority for walking and cycling in Zwolle.
Vulnerable road users on a roundabout with priority for walking and cycling in Zwolle. (Still from the video)

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.

Roundabouts in The Netherlands have a good capacity, they are easy to understand and use and have a good safety record.
Roundabouts in The Netherlands have a good capacity, they are easy to understand, easy to use and have a good safety record. (Still from the video)

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.”

In the Toronto master class engineers tried out designing a protected intersection.
In the Toronto master class engineers tried out designing a protected intersection themselves. Tweet by Marvin Macaraig.

“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.”

On this roundabout outside the built-up area of Baarn, people cycling should yield to motor traffic. The signs, the markings and the straight crossing make that clear. There are two refuge islands between the three lanes of traffic to cross. But the crossing is now so clear, that the driver of that car could exactly predict when the boy would reach the crossing and he or she decided to let that boy go first, so he didn’t have to stop. That is what a clear road-design also does: it makes people very forgiving towards each other. One essential element of the Sustainable Safety policies. (Still from the video) (Note that the two blue traffic signs on the left have been turned 180 degrees by someone with a bad sense of humour.)

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.

Swov comparisson of safety between different styles of intersections with different motor vehicle volumes.
SWOV comparison of safety between different styles of intersections with different motor vehicle volumes.

“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.

39 thoughts on “Explaining the Dutch roundabout abroad

  1. As a dutch person I really hate roundabouts that give priority to cyclists over exiting motorists, most roundabouts are the other way around and the nasty surprise is a cause for many accidents and emergency stops.

    1. Sorry Maartje, but your perception is not correct when you look at the facts. Of all 2,448 roundabouts in the built-up area in the Netherlands there are 749 where cycling does not have priority, or 31%. That means that on a large majority of all roundabouts, namely 69%, cycling does have priority. You may live in the north of the Netherlands, because that is the region where relatively most roundabouts are located that do not meet the design recommendations which are: “roundabouts should give cycling priority”. Roundabouts are also very safe; of all cycling crashes only 2% happen on a roundabout. In fact, CROW established that single car lane roundabouts are the safest type of intersection.
      Figures from the CROW investigation into roundabout safety from December 2019: “Verkenning verbetering verkeersveiligheid fietsers op rotondes”

  2. How wide are the roundabouts? Both the traffic circle alone and including the pedestrian and cycle crossings?

  3. Exactly what were the changes to the give way rules mentioned in the video and when did they take place?
    The roundabout combined with the overpass does not have a ring for cyclists, but I have seen other footage on this blog showing other examples where the bike ring is on a different level from that for motor traffic. Having given the steps for left turns at various intersections (which would be right here in Australasia) I’ll now give the steps for taking the first or second exist of a four way roundabout:

    First exist:
    1. Signal left, use indicator lights if fitted and operations, otherwise gesture it.
    2. If there is a slip lane, enter that, otherwise wait if anything already on the ring could hit you without accelerating or taking any other counter-evasive action. Otherwise…
    3. Proceed with the turn.

    Second exit:
    1. Approach the roundabout without signalling.
    2. If anything already on the ring could hit you, wait! Otherwise…
    3. Enter the roundabout, not stopping on the ring if possible, and signal right after passing the first exit.

  4. I have been to Europe (but Spain mostly – I live in Calgary, Alberta) and I really like the roundabouts, great idea. I feel sometimes these problems compound themselves when you over think them. Nothing will be perfect unless you build “single” direction bridges for intersections (not practical). I find the bigger the roundabout for high volume traffic works better and all roundabouts need to be a minimum size (because many are built to small). Two or three lanes roundabouts are fine once people know how to use them properly (this should be standardized world wide). I know one roundabout in Colombia that is probably 60m inside diameter and works great for high volume but there are no lanes in the traffic circle. Keep pedestrian crossing several meters from the roundabout, controlled via signals that do not stop traffic every time someone wants to cross the road. As well, we need to get away from the mentality that not everyone deserves a license to drive – get bad drivers off the road, then things will get safer. One more thing, the more rules you introduce, the more problems you will encounter.

  5. As a cyclist and motorist from the UK, in the Netherlands for the past 3 years, I have to say that the Dutch roundabouts can be pretty scary, especially in urban areas of bicycle commuter traffic.

    All is well on a nice sunny day with light traffic, as shown in the photos, but throw in a dark morning with a wet road reflecting bright streetlights, bright headlights, and cyclists emerging from the shadows at a wide range of speeds, with dim lights and dark clothing, and the whole safety picture changes.

    1. Well, it doesn’t. These roundabouts are still incredibly safe precisely because they make motorists really worried about cyclists, unlike the UK where bikes are an afterthought for most motorists.

  6. Great video. Our local regional government has started implementing roundabouts with somewhat mixed results. As a foreign traffic control device in our area, many people were confused at the start (so terrified in fact as to come to a complete stop and wait until no other vehicles were in sight, before proceeding….[occasionally the wrong way] around the circle). However, now that we have many, driving has improved substantially, and only visitors become confused. I’m sure this learning period is only temporary. Safety wise, they have proven to be far safer and provide better traffic flow than traditional intersections. Of course, sadly, almost none of the design features which make them safe for pedestrians or bikes have been implemented. Generally our bike lanes disappear prior to the circle and reappear after, and while drivers are required to yield to pedestrians, this doesn’t often happen. Features shown in your video would definitely improve things here.

    Out of curiosity, what does a flashing yellow light mean in the Netherlands? Several of our intersections do convert from a signalized mode at peak time to a non-signalized mode in the evening, but ours always flash red, which is equivalent to a stop sign. A yellow flashing light is only a caution light indicating a (usually dangerous) crossroad. If both directions were flashing yellow, both drivers could proceed, with caution, but without slowing down. Generally, only one direction can flash yellow at a time here.

    1. And regarding the Churchill bike lane, it is excellent, but it has one issue that bugs me very much here. Our designers cannot figure out how to transition between a paved trail, and a crossing without putting a curb between the two, which invariable makes an uncomfortable ride. Most frustrating thing ever.

    2. In the Netherlands, signalized crossing usually also have their priority rules. So in case the lights are out or blinking, priority signs and road markings make very clear who has priority in that situation.

      As for unsignalized crossings with no clear priority, the rule in the Netherlands is that traffic coming from the right (now including bicycles!) have the right of way. Only in the case that for example cars from four different sides approach an intersection at the same time, it will be necessary for the drivers to work it out among themselves. But that is only for low volume intersections

  7. “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.”

    Can you expand on this? Presumably emergency vehicles in The Netherlands also need to be able to stop anywhere – how is this managed differently such that the 2×2 concept (two travel lanes in each direction) isn’t needed?

  8. Excellent and very informative video! Tons of practical details and observations.

    A popular US TV show – Mythbusters did a physical test of 4-way-Stop intersections vs Roundabouts. The results indicated a 20% improvement with roundabouts. Adam and Jamie recommended that the US adopt roundabouts. Here is a 10 minute video of their test.


    My community – Fayetteville GA is switching some intersections to roundabouts. The first intersection which frequently had traffic congestion before, rarely experiences congestion now.

      1. We already have enough of a challenge getting the US and Canada to adopt roundabouts without cycle paths, it’s going to be really hard to get them to build them with roundabouts. We can do it though.

  9. meanwhile in the UK, we’re making our roundabouts even scarier for cyclists and pedestrians by engineering them for faster traffic flows…

    Cyclists and pedestrians end up being forced into the caged areas to use the ridiculously slow to change Toucan crossings…

    Here’s a recent example of a re-build to improve motor vehicle capacity in Gloucester…

    they’ve increased the carriageway width, given it three lanes from two, added traffic lights and spiralised it… It’s not really a roundabout anymore, just a sequence of traffic light controlled junctions all engineered to get machines through as quickly as possible. Motor vehicles come flying off it and then are immediately faced with a set-back Toucan crossing which many of them simply drive through the red as it came up on them so ‘suddenly’


    1. Exactly… High speeds leave no time for interaction or “solving traffic situations by themselves and not just rely on lights.” It takes a change from thinking of traffic throughput as priority no.1 to livability, safety and general quality of life. I think letting go of the fear of congestion and of public outcry may prove the hardest there.

  10. Maybe you can make an animation like your “Standard Dutch junction” video, and soon we could be talking about “protected roundabouts” in our everyday lives. Perhaps without saying it is standard because that led to confusion last time. And no doubt David Hembrow is about to hop on board to this conversation and declare things about the safety of roundabouts where cyclists do not have priority.

    1. Yes, it is true, these roundabouts without priority are the safest- he does have real statistics to prove this. I personally have to agree with the idea that the convenience for an average use of the roundabout (improvement on right turns due to removed need to yield to oncoming cyclists, net zero on straights, perhaps a slight delay on left turns) is probably not substantially altered from the cyclist priority/annular ring type when engineered to allow two way crossings with one way cycle tracks or cycle lanes adjoining at both ends, but the time and momentum lost is reduced with bidirectional cycle paths (no need to ride the whole way around the roundabout).

      My frame of reference is Assen. I would also say that the statistics also show that cyclist priority becomes far safer without the silly one way annular ring and with proper bidirectional, fully segregated bidrectional cycle paths with perpendicular, bidirectional crossings for cyclists.

      1. Now that I thought more about it, I think that something similar to Assen’s Roundabouts but with priority for cycling would make a safe junction with very fast throughput. The Annular Ring design is awful.
        I think that a roundabout with priority would have to have more measures to slow cars than otherwise. I think they should slow traffic, with not only with narrow lanes, tight radii, and adverse camber but also through speed tables all around the roundabout and textured pavement (brick, granite setts, etc). I think that there should also be two tables on every arm of the roundabout; one should be a raised pedestrian crossing and the other should be the cycle crossing.

        1. The annular ring is especially awful without the waiting areas. I thought I would clarify.

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