A four kilometre long cycle path – straight as a line – with priority at all but two of the 15 intersections with motor traffic. Does that sound too good to be true? Well, according to the Neighbourhood Advisory Board it is indeed not at all so good as it sounds. So let’s see what the Utrecht Rijnkennemerlaan is really like.
Long straight streets are very unusual in the Netherlands and maybe even in Europe in general. Utrecht has one straight street that was built by Napoleon as part of the road between Amsterdam and Paris. It has now become an ordinary – but straight – city street that I showed you long ago. The street in this post can be found in the latest development of Utrecht, Leidsche Rijn. A neighbourhood the size of Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland. Since 1973, long before this area was residential, a pipeline for water from the river Rhine exists. The big pipes, with a diameter of 1.2m, are used to pump Rhine water to the sand dunes on the North Sea coast, to let the sand filter that water clean. After some more purification it can then be used as drinking water for the people of Amsterdam and its surroundings. It was obviously not permitted nor possible to build on top of the pipeline and so the urban planners decided to make it a feature in the new part of the city. The 20 metre wide grass avenue on top of the pipes is lined with poplars. A very common tree in the Netherlands of which the wood was used for clogs. This transformed the pipe line into a seemingly endless beautiful linear park.
There is a problem, however, and that is the fact that the rest of street pattern of the new neighbourhood was designed at a different angle. That means that all the crossings are at a non-right angle. This causes some visibility issues, especially since this skewed cycle route mostly has priority. One of the intersections – with Musicallaan – is considered particularly problematic. The Neighbourhood Advisory Board has long been in contact with the municipality about this intersection.
The board – run by residents in their free time – is there to give the city council requested and unsolicited advice. Most of their recent advice is about the traffic situation in Leidsche Rijn. The board expressed concern that the city seems unable to identify and remedy design mistakes. Mistakes, they feel, that shouldn’t have been made in the first place, considering the city had an almost blank canvas.
In my research for this post I found a newspaper article from 2014. with an interview with a representative of the board about the problem intersection. Some adjustments had been made, but they were not enough to make the intersection safe enough. The representative’s name struck me, because Roel Meeuwsen and I are immediate colleague’s in our day job. That meant I could easily ask him if the further changes he demanded on behalf of the board were now made to satisfaction, in the two years that passed.
The answer was a clear “no!”. Yes, changes have been made, also after that article was published, but it is still not enough. Roel pointed out that the council has put the intersection on the city’s hot spot list. Measure 27 it is called and on their website the city mentions what has been done and what will be done at this location.
To improve sight lines a mailbox was relocated and a wall was partly removed. The yield-signs were replaced with stop-signs and the red asphalt of the cycle route was continued on the intersection. To decrease motor vehicle speeds, the intersection is on a raised table and speed humps were built on the streets leading to the crossing. But it was established that these speed humps are not high enough, so they don’t decrease speeds enough. The municipality will raise the speed humps.
A bus stop shelter was planned to be moved to also improve visibility, but that has not been done yet. Residents of the homes that the shelter was to be moved in front of have very clearly expressed that they don’t want that shelter. Some residents would like the bus route to be rerouted away from this street altogether, others want to keep it. The council has contact with the province about the bus route and the current situation of the bus stop. The city would like to find a solution in which the bus route remains and the shelter gets a suitable location that is acceptable for the residents. Until this solution is found the works have been shut down.
The fact that it took two years to make just a few small changes to one intersection serves as an example of what is wrong here, according to the Neighbourhood Advisory Board. “When it comes to traffic safety, the council doesn’t take solutions seriously, which are brought forward by the residents. The city doesn’t seem to be able to correct traffic situations that are unsafe from the design phase, nor is the city capable to learn from past mistakes. We therefore advise the council to improve the quality and the capacity of the civil servants in their administration.”
That is quite something to advise. But the responsible alderman for traffic did respond. She issued a thorough investigation of her organisation by the city itself. The results were published in September this year.
In short the researchers wanted to answer the following questions. “Does the city do the right things?” and “Does the city do the things right?” The researchers made an analysis on the basis of existing programs, accidents figures, talks with stakeholders (including residents), communications advisors, traffic managers and program managers. They visited information gatherings for residents and there even was a cycle tour with the alderman to visit the problem sites in the neighbourhood in person. The conclusion of this investigation is that some projects were executed well and some were not. In the latter category there is insufficient leadership and inadequate planning. Sometimes the planning phase takes too long. Participation of stakeholders is not always well organised and it can take too long to upscale when problems or conflicts of interests arise, for reasons of insufficient expertise and knowledge.
The researchers advise an improvement in the Traffic Safety Program management. The council needs to appoint a program manager, a communications advisor and project leaders who need to better guard the execution of the program and monitor if its goals are met. They also need to adjust proceedings if needed. The project management needs to be enforced with more capacity. The plans need to be communicated in an open and transparent way and with clear regulations, well-defined roles for stake holders and a good planning. In a letter to the council the alderman wrote:
“I acknowledge the analysis and the conclusions of the report and I will implement the recommendations.”
Interestingly, the report also mentions some figures. Only 4% of all traffic incidents in Utrecht take place in this neighbourhood, but there is an increase in ‘the feeling of being unsafe in traffic’ over recent years. This went from 13% in 2013, to 16% in 2014 and 17% in 2015. In the rest of Utrecht it is 24%. This means the feeling that traffic is unsafe is actually well below the average of the rest of the city. Then why does it seem so bad then? The researchers feel this could be because there is a lot of interest for traffic safety in this neighbourhood. Possibly because most types of traffic are separated, which makes problem areas stand out. Also, there are relatively many families with young children and most of the neighbourhood is very new.
When I cycled and filmed the route last summer, I thought it was very comfortable, but indeed, some of the intersections feel a bit unclear. The one with Musicallaan did stand out in a negative way. Possibly also because a bus was approaching and I wasn’t sure if the driver was going to give me priority. (He did!) All in all I feel that the route is good, but it is never wrong to make the priority clearer at some locations.
Video showing a ride on the Rijnkennemerlaan in Utrecht
(I counted all crossings of motor traffic)