How to prevent rat running

Bollards have a bad reputation. They are considered dangerous for cycling and indeed many people get injured when they hit one, but bollards also have a very good side. They can regulate the traffic volumes in areas inside and outside the cities. This prevents rat running and increases the safety for walking and cycling. It also improves an area’s liveability, even more so when automatic retractable bollards are used.

billet en français

Cycling past bollards to prevent rat running is usually very easy. Still many people hit the bollards. Leading to injuries for people cycling and damage to the bollards and vehicles when motorists crash into the bollards.

With out of the ground rising bollards the city can be divided. This leads to areas that only residents or people with a business in that certain area will enter. Eliminating through traffic is a very good measure to improve the living environment of a residential area. It can also make a shopping area more attractive to people. Almost all bollards can be lowered in some way (usually with a key) to let emergency services pass the bollard when that is necessary.

When bollards are automatically retractable that can be done in a very easy way. That makes those bollards very suitable to filter traffic. Most often to let buses pass, but also to let residents or other permit holders pass the bollard easily and quickly. Through traffic will not be permitted to lower the bollards and that means only a fraction of the traffic volume remains. Every time the bollard is lowered only one motor vehicle can pass. The bollards will then go up whether there is another vehicle trying to pass or not. This can lead to dramatic consequences but more on that later in this post.

Filtering traffic with bollards is not unique to The Netherlands (even in the UK there are some streets that have a so-called filtered permeability) but the scale of how often you find such bollards in The Netherlands may be exceptional compared to the rest of the world.

Rather than making streets a dead-end, diagonal dividers can create loops in an area. The area is still accessible to motor traffic but only in specific ways.

An especially ingenious form of diverter is the diagonal traffic diverter on a four-arm junction. Effectively this creates two loops. Motor traffic can only turn from one street to one of the side-streets. Driving straight-on or turning in the opposite side-street is made impossible, because of the line of bollards which is placed diagonally across the junction. And even that is not typically Dutch. There is an example in Portland (Oregon, USA).

The diagonal divider of the above map in Utrecht. The bollards can be lowered for emergency services and permit holders.

These loops help create an area that is divided into compartments. We know this policy of ‘compartmentalisation’ from Groningen, where it was retrofitted in the 1970s, and Houten, where it was in the original town’s design from around the same time. Many cities and towns in The Netherlands have since adopted that successful policy. Combined with a speed limit of 30km/h, it creates neighbourhoods which are traffic calmed so well, that other – more expensive – measures to improve walking and cycling become unnecessary.

The larger context of the diagonal dividers in Utrecht shown in the previous picture. The area, bordered by a small distributor street (in green) and a rail road, is divided into 5 segments. Any of the segments can only be accessed from the distributor street. None of these segments can be directly accessed from another one. You always need to go back to the main street first. Most of these smaller residential streets are also one-way for motor traffic and two-way for cycling.

Filtered permeability is not restricted to the built-up area. Bollards can also be used to regulate traffic in the countryside. This can mean that smaller roads do not have to get separate cycling infrastructure, simply because the volume of motor traffic is so low. Especially when the speed limits are also kept low (usually 60km/h outside the built-up area), mixing cycling and motor traffic is not too dangerous.

This retractable bollard in the countryside filters traffic. It is made unattractive to use this road as through traffic, because lowering the bollard takes 45 seconds per vehicle.

You can achieve low volumes by only admitting residents, but there are other solutions too. A bollard near ʼs-Hertogenbosch can only be lowered once in every 45 seconds. That is not too long if you are the only vehicle waiting, a normal traffic light could require such waiting times, but if there are 4 or 5 vehicles waiting ahead of you in the morning or evening rush hour, it could become very annoying. The waiting times must be so long that taking the slightly longer main road becomes favourable over this shortcut on a small country road. So in the end only people who really have to be on the country road are using it.

“One vehicle per green signal. Waiting time per vehicle 45 seconds” And it really took that long…

As said in the introduction bollards do have disadvantages. Many people cycling hit them and a lot of injuries are reported caused by bollards. Motor vehicles hit the bollards as well. That causes high repair costs especially when retracting bollards are crashed into and damaged. There are lots of videos on YouTube of people severely damaging their vehicle when they are ‘launched’ by a rising bollard.

The decision to lower all pyramids in ‘s-Hertogenbosch kept the newspaper busy. After residents complained the city changed the plan and it now calls the first year a “trial”.

In my hometown of ʼs-Hertogenbosch, where the first automatic bollard – in the shape of a pyramid – was placed in 1994, the system with a dozen or so pyramids costs 250.000 Euro per year. On average vehicles crash into one of the bollards once a month leading to these high costs. Even when some of the pyramids were replaced with normal bollards, which are more resilient against crashes, the costs were still high. So ʼs-Hertogenbosch will do a trial to get rid of the automatic bollards. From 1 January 2016 all retracting bollards will be lowered and kept that way. If the trial is a success (meaning unauthorised vehicles will not go past them) it would save the city 100,000 euro per year just on maintenance costs. The residents were not too happy when this trial was announced. They fear motor vehicles driving around in circles again, which would effectively be the end of the traffic calmed area. But since it is a one year trial they did agree to it. It might just work. When The Netherlands tried to do something against parking on the sidewalks, practically the whole country was littered with bollards on those sidewalks in the 1980s. You no longer see them everywhere. After a generation of drivers got used to not being able to park on the sidewalks they didn’t even do it on sidewalks without bollards. They had been educated. Slowly the bollards were removed everywhere. Let’s hope a similar process may have happened with regard to respecting areas that are closed to general motor traffic as well.

Rising bollards were replaced by this sign and a camera in Leeuwarden. Picture courtesy of Leeuwarder Courant.

If not, there is another way to prevent unauthorised vehicles from entering an area. Leeuwarden uses it in a street that is for buses only. It replaced retracting bollards with a camera. This camerea with license plate detection takes care of fines sent to every driver illegally entering the bus only street. That is a viable alternative to the often damaged and thus expensive retracting bollards, or is it? You can debate how effective the camera is. In one year Leeuwarden detected 5,732 vehicles entering illegally, about 1 per hour during the day. They all got a 140 euro fine, but the whole idea was that you didn’t want them in the area in the first place.

video with this week’s post: how to prevent rat running

Other alternatives – that do work – are narrow bridges and tunnels with only one lane for motor traffic. That lane can only be used in alternating directions, regulated by a signal. This leads to waiting times similar to that bollard that retracts only once every 45 seconds, which does scare away through motor traffic.

In short, bollards can be good to filter motor traffic and they can improve the conditions in an area, but they have down sides and they are not the only solution. So the Dutch keep experimenting with new and different techniques to keep their country livable.

Do you have an end of the year break starting soon? Not this blog, there’ll be a post on every Tuesday in December! Next week I have the traditional Happy Holidays video for you (but with a twist this time) and then on the last Tuesday of the year I will publish a 7+ minute recap video with high lights of all my blog posts and videos of 2015. This gives you the opportunity to quickly see if you missed anything important this year. So do come back for both these posts, it will be nice to step away from all your celebrations and relaxing activities for a moment!

34 thoughts on “How to prevent rat running

  1. I didn’t realise that bollards had a reputation for being a danger to cyclists. But if a street is two way for bicycles, it seems like it would be a simple matter to put the bollard between bikes going in opposite directions with space for bicycle to keep clear of them.
    Would it be possible to design better bollards that can absorb impact better?

  2. As you say in your in post, “Bollards have a bad reputation. They are considered dangerous for cycling and indeed many people get injured when they hit one…”

    Bollards are indeed dangerous. Did you know that bollard crashes have resulted in cycling fatalities in the U.S.? Read my blog series, “The Trail Bollard Hazard: A Closer Look” to learn more ————- >

    With the lower height bollards pictured in your post, I would anticipate more headers by cyclists who collide with them. And since the Dutch are not known for using helmets, I suspect the potential for more serious injury is even greater. (Although a helmet would not prevent one from breaking one’s neck.)

    I am curious as to whether any statistical data is kept regarding cycling bollard crashes in the Netherlands.

    Ohio Bikeways

  3. @ Edmonton. As a child you get a bike, because it is an every day transport thing. Sometimes you get the one from your older brother or sister and not necessarily as a gift. You simply need it to get around with your parents or other children. When I was fifteen or sixteen I bought a second bike for touring. A kind of racing bike with fenders. I did two years of odd jobs to earn the money. At sixteen my parents asked me, if I wanted a motorbike to go to school with, since I cycled 30 km a day. I said, I´d rather have a new bike for going to school. Money was an issue in my family, so my parents happily agreed. My sister decided for the motorbike. When I was a student, google cycling in Groningen, going by bike was the easiest means of transport. At 30 I got my first company car and drove 20 years around the country for work. The other errands I still did with bikes. Shopping, visiting people, going to concerts etc. etc. My wife came from a car centred country, but quickly picked up cycling as a means of transport as well, First alone, with one kid, with two kids, groceries etc. etc. At 50 I was laid off and decided not to buy a car. Two years now I get around by bike, public transport and occassionally I rent a car. Saves a lot of money as well. Having 5 bikes helps too :). I write this to emphasize the fact, that it is nothing special. Bikes are like trousers, you wear them every day, don´t leave home without them, but also you don´t give it much thought.

  4. Compartmentalising a city may reduce ‘rat-running’ but always puts more pressure on the main roads making them even nastier for cyclists with not only more traffic but frustrated drivers. Also the extra journey length adds to the overall pollution levels. Rather than stopping rat-running, surely it’s better to offer drivers better routes for them – including upgrading rat-runs so they accommodate the traffic better.

    Similarly, without one-way roads, drivers would be permitted to choose efficient routes rather than be sent the long way round – increasing pollution and extending the time each vehicle is on the road network adding to the congestion.

    1. I couldn’t disagree more. First of all the main routes drivers are to use *are* the best routes. Secondly all those main streets have adequate cycling infrastructure. So the situation there for cycling is not influenced by the volume of motor traffic. That situation *is* influenced in the residential streets where traffic volumes are reduced: for the better. Thirdly these residential streets must be one-way, there is simply no room for two-way motor traffic. Lastly there have been investigations if there really is increased pollution when areas are closed to motor traffic, that is not the case. On top of everything: making the routes for motor traffic longer makes cycling more attractive, and because more people cycle the pollution drops.

      1. And, of course, having fewer streets opening up to the through streets means less stopping and starting, a better flow of car traffic. Slowly but steadily is better than racing and stopping. Not half as good though as having more incentive for cycling.

  5. The dutch term for “rat running” is the slightly more neutral term “sluipverkeer” (“cut through traffic”) and to my feeling applies to a wider range of infrastructure. By definition, these roads are not designed to accommodate that volume of traffic and for the very same reason do not have cycling specific facilities. This leads in my experience regularly to very intense conflicts which were very common elsewhere 20 years ago. So on these roads my feeling shifts gradually towards “rat running”.

  6. Here in England we put in weak plastic bollards like those in Vineyard Street, Colchester, which drivers run down. It then takes the local council six weeks to notice they’re broken and another two months to replace them. Two nights later…

  7. There are a bunch of these kinds of traffic calming devices in Cambridge. Some work better than others. One thing that annoys me is seeing motorists going at high speed in between the traffic calming devices. Defeats the purpose. I’m not sure how to resolve that issue though. More cameras, I suppose.

  8. Excellent video. Good old human nature wanting to take shortcuts, break in line, and cheat on taxes. It sounds like the bollards and automated fines are both reasonable deterrents for the rat runners. It’s a shame that the “dumb factor” comes into play with people frequently running over the bollards. 🙂

    I’m curious to see what other solutions will be developed.

    1. to be honest it seems to me like the council or local authority should just send a penalty charge to the driver that runs over the bollards (perhaps ANPR cameras are needed) and recoup the costs of the bollards. additionally penalty points or whatever the local equivalent is should be issued to the driver for damaging property.

      1. And now I made a typo. What kind of a cyclist would need a trough? I wonder how often it is reported in the news in Den Bosch/Utrecht that a collision occurs on a road or cycleway. You shown that even a minor injury provoked the outrage of the whole city a few years ago, then again the driver wasn’t remorseful like they usually are.

  9. Hope you will have enough time to go and visit your family for the holidays Mark. Of course visiting them with your bicycle, maybe a train and OV fiets. I think it might help people understand you as knowing what you’re doing if you tell us what your educational background is and why it would matter. I mean a certification to be good at welding wouldn’t help with cycling, but a degree in planning or engineering would.

    1. No need to worry about my family, I have plenty time to give them attention. My day job has no relation to this blog, nor has my education. But teaching yourself by looking at everything that happens around you for over fourty years is also very helpful.

      1. What was your relation to bicycles when you were a boy? Obviously you cycled to a lot of places, even showing pictures of your childhood bicycle and ride to school, but what did you think of cycling? Did it feel like it would be nice to have a scooter or car, feel fun to drive, or at least while learning to, that it was going to hurt the environment or people, did it feel like cycling was good for you and that it let your meet your friends without your parents needing to know? It would even be nice to know if Dutch parents give their kids bike stuff as Christmas/Sinterklaas gifts.

        1. Here in the UK ‘bike stuff’ consists largely of hi-vis, bike helmets, high tech lights and team gear, not all of which might be deemed necessary or even welcome for everyday cycling in the Netherlands…

        2. In Holland, bikes are everyday appliances. So children get bikes on birthdays and sometimes for Xmas or Sinterklaas, but they’re generally bought at the time a kid is ready to start cycling. Of course, starting in spring is a better option than getting a bike in early winter with worse weather and shorter days.

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