All about cycling in the Netherlands
It was in the news again: Dutch cycleways are getting overcrowded. It was not the first time this made headlines. I have shown you “bicycle traffic jams” before. In 2014 there was one in Utrecht that became famous and already in 2012 you could see one in Wageningen. But this phenomenon is not just mentioned in news items, the Dutch road safety board SWOV recently published the results of their investigation of how busy cycleways really are. They confirm: half of the investigated cycleways are getting too busy during morning rush hour. Of course Dutch experts have already picked this up, trying to find a solution. That seems very simple: there should be more space for cycling. But how do you give cycling more space in an already full urban space? One answer could be: design the city in a completely different way.
The Dutch have so far classified traffic in three types, motor traffic, cycling and walking, and they design space for all three in most of their streets (although some ‘unravelling’ of routes is also taking place). However, this system, which worked so well for almost half a century, and which was key to reviving cycling in The Netherlands since the 1970s, is reaching its limitations.
After the earlier reports about the busy cycleways, ANWB felt it had to live up to its social responsibility. (ANWB is a travelers’ club. With over four million members – in a country of almost 17 million – it is the largest nonprofit association in the Netherlands to support all modes of travel.) ANWB called on experts from a range of fields and disciplines to help find a solution. They now published a radical proposal for a sustainable solution to this challenge. They found it can indeed not be so simple as widening the cycleways, the total process of urban planning has to be revised. This is how I understood the report.
If it were up to ANWB there will be two new basic principles for urban design in future:
This completely new approach to urban design, titled Verkeer in de Stad (Traffic in the City), was developed for ANWB by four specialized consultancies, Ben Immers Advies, Bart Egeter Advies, Mobycon and Awareness. Key issues to address were the previously mentioned desire to create more space for cycling, but also making sure that walking will be seen as a viable transport option. Another point of concern was that the private car takes up far more space in the built-up areas than it would deserve if you look at the modal share. Lastly, a range of new vehicles have entered public space that do not fit in the traditional order. Think of the high-speed e-bike and the segway, the hoverboard and the type of mobility scooter that looks like a mini-car.
Traffic experts from a wide range of disciplines were involved in expert meetings. Several of the Dutch current policies were incorporated in the new system. The mass and speed of vehicles is already taken into account in the Sustainable Safety principles, as is the need for a space to be instantly recognisable. You can also already identify some specific types of urban space, such as the Shared Space zone, the Woonerf (Home zone), the Fietsstraat (Cycle Street) and the pedestrianized city centre. Three cities are involved as pilot-cities to try and test some of the ideas. These pilot-cities are Utrecht, Rotterdam and Helmond. The goal of this design method is to come to a better balance between spatial functions, the quality of the urban space and the mobility in the city. In an ideal world there would be a win-win situation, resulting in better city environments as well as a better flow of all types of traffic.
My video in which I try to explain the proposal for a whole new way of designing city space in The Netherlands.
Traffic users are to be categorised on the basis of their weight and width in six so-called “traffic families”. Each family consists of vehicles that have a similar weight class and which can be operated within a certain width. Mass is an important risk factor in a crash, so keeping vehicle types apart that are too different will improve safety, especially if you also harmonise the speeds. As explained in the video, these six groups are the following.
Group A People Walking. That needs little further explanation. But giving the pedestrian its rightful place in city design can make walking a viable option for a short distance trip. If it is more attractive than taking the bicycle this can lead to a reduction in cycling in the busiest areas. Including a reduction in the number of parked bicycles.
Group B People cycling on vehicles with a maximum weight of 35 kilograms and a width of 1.5 metres. This includes for the largest part the ordinary person on a pedal powered two-wheeler going from A to B. Racing cyclists will also be part of this group, as well as most types of bakfietsen (cargobikes) and also the e-bikes.
Group C A new type of road user family. The light motorised vehicle up to 350 kilograms with a width of under 2 metres. Mopeds, scooters but also motor bikes! Because most motorcycles are under that weight limit. This means motorbikes will no longer be seen as cars and different laws can influence how both will be treated. Also included in this group are mobility scooters. This means the ones that look like tiny cars will be separated from cycling and grouped with these Light Motor Vehicles.
Group D Cars and “car like” vehicles. The weight limit is 3,500 kilograms and that is such that light vans and small trucks will also be included in this vehicle family of vehicles with a maximum width of 2 metres. (An example is the Cargohopper.)
Group E The group of the largest vehicles in the urban area. Buses and Trucks. They have a very different function but their (big) impact on the city environment can be very similar.
Group F The group of urban vehicles that have their own tracks. This makes their behaviour more predictable. Think of trams (streetcars if you like).
Trains and the metro network are excluded from this classification because they don’t really use the public space in the cities. Categorisation by mass and width is future proof. Any new type of vehicle can be categorised in one of the classes.
The second pillar of these new urban design principles is the plan to categorise city space in four types of areas. How such an area is used is one of the leading factors in this classification. The private car is no longer the yardstick of city design. Meaning that speeds in the city are not determined by the vehicles anymore, but rather by how an area of the city is used and by which type of road-user family. It is even important to see how this group moves about. Is that slow or fast and is that in an organised direction or in a more random way. Pedestrians on a square move in a totally different way than cars on a through route. Once you have determined the dominant user you can design such an area for that road user. The speed limits then derive from the space and its design. The reduced differences in speed and mass lead to safer traffic environments.
All this would lead to 4 main types of cityscape.
The first area is the Pedestrian Zone. The parts of the city where walking is the dominant form of traffic. This can be the shopping area or the place where people go to bars and restaurants. The speed limit is 10 km/h.
The second area is the Cycling Zone. Here people cycling are the yardstick. The speed limit is 20 km/h. Sometimes walking and cycling can be mixed. Current cycle streets would fit in this category in that case the light motor vehicles and the cars can be guests. More on how that works later.
The third area is the Light Motor Vehicle Zone. The speed limit will be 30km/h. This area can be for mixed use with cycling, and even with the car group. But again car drivers will have to behave as guest.
The fourth and last area is the Motor Vehicle Zone. Here the speed is 50km/h. Other user groups can be allowed in this area but in their own space. This goes for pedestrians and cycling. Vehicles of type E and F can share the space designed for type D.
The interesting factor in these categories of vehicle families and cityscapes is that any road user group can always use the space as designed for a vehicle family of one class higher. So walking is possible without specific design alterations in the cycle zone. Cycling can take place in the Light Motor Vehicle zone et cetera (See the design schematics for a clear explanation). Road users can also be allowed to use a space designed for a lower category, but that area will then also not be altered for their specific needs. Think of cars using the cycle space in Fietsstraten (Cycle streets). They remain designed for the bicycle family, but cars may use that space if they also observe the speed limit of (then) 20km/h (now 30km/h). That there will be a speed limit for the cycling area is completely new. Because the racing cyclist and the fast e-bikes are part of the “cycling family” it means they too will no longer be allowed to go faster than 20km/h (in the cycle zone). Again, because reducing speed differences leads to a safer city traffic environment.
These different cityscapes will have to be connected in a traffic structure to be accessible. Not necessarily in a separate network for each road user family (some mixing is possible after all) but it must be possible for each road user group to reach their specific areas safely.
A lot more can be said about this 69 page report. A lot of questions can be asked as well. Is it really necessary to design an area for Light Motor Vehicles? Or is that just so you don’t have two types of areas for cars? More questions will have to be answered, but in general I believe the report was received with great interest, also by people who need to decide about allocating city space on a daily basis. ANWB quotes the Minister for Infrastructure and the Environment as follows: “I appreciate this initiative of ANWB. Together with other road managers I would like to test this proposal in real-life situations (…) This tool helps road managers to make and implement choices. I call on all road managers to take advantage of this opportunity they’re given.”
It will be interesting to follow the upcoming real-life tests in the pilot cities and to study the results. I feel this planning tool has a great potential in the Dutch situation where trial and error are traditionally part of the urban design process. In this case too, many details have yet to be determined, but this design approach may indeed lead to cities designed in a smarter way. It may also put an end to the crowded cycleways, the motive to come to this design approach in the first place.
In May 2020 a revised version of this design method was published by ANWB. This version includes the test results of the pilots in a number of cities. Article about the 2020 version of this design method (both in Dutch only).