Can urban intersections be designed in such a way that motor traffic, cycling and walking flow smoothly and that the potential conflicts of these very different types of traffic crossing each other’s paths are made less complicated and less dangerous? In my opinion the answer is “yes”. Intersections are most important in making cycling safer and more attractive. They can be the weakest link in the chain that is your journey and one nasty junction can put people off cycling. In this week’s post I would like to show you a common intersection between a distributor road with protected cycleways and a smaller neighbourhood access street. How do the Dutch design an intersection between two streets like that and how does everything work?
I would like to emphasise that this intersection is not special in any way. You can find many similar examples all over the country. That is because the design features stem from the design manuals which are used throughout the country. This particular intersection is in ʼs-Hertogenbosch, between the recently rebuilt Bartenbrug, that I wrote about earlier, and the Graafseweg, a main street with service streets, that I also wrote about before. This distributor road has a speed limit of 50km/h, a surface of black asphalt and dedicated cycle infrastructure. Cycling takes place shared with cars on the service street and also on completely separated cycleways connecting the service street parts. The neighbourhood access street has a surface of bricks and a speed limit of 30km/h. The traffic volume here is low, since only residents will use this street. That makes mixing traffic possible and therefore there are no protected cycleways in the side street.
The intersection feels like a T-junction, but in fact it is a 4 arm-crossroads. The fourth arm, however, is a very minor residential street and that arm of the intersection is therefore designed differently. With far less turning movements, meaning far less potential conflicts, it is not necessary that the cycleway bends out the way it does for on the other side of the street with the crossing of the more important neighbourhood access road. Due to its different nature I will not discuss that fourth arm in this post. Other typical design features of the intersection are the differences in road surface and a split main street. Splitting the lanes for the two directions leads to room for refuge islands in the centre and a big central area where turning motor vehicles can wait out-of-the-way of vehicles that go straight-on. There is also enough space between the main road and its parallel cycleway, where drivers of cars wanting to turn into the side street can wait for people cycling, again, out-of-the-way of other traffic. The entire crossroads is raised to emphasise this area as a point of potential conflict at which people need to pay attention. There are of course yield signs in the side street, complimented with shark’s teeth in the surface. Last but not least the cycleway surface continues over the crossing, to make very clear cycling has priority over motor traffic in the side street. There is but one thing missing here: there should have been elephant’s feet in the surface alongside the cycleway on the crossing itself. I have no idea why they are omitted here, but maybe the city thought the contrast between the red asphalt of the cycleway and the reddish-brown bricks of the side street is already big enough as it is. What is perhaps also striking is the fact that there are no traffic signals. The Dutch generally feel that traffic signals are a last resort and that they should be used with care. Even the traffic signal expert of this city of ’s-Hertogenbosch is convinced that people are much better at negotiating who goes first than you can ever arrange with traffic signals. Without traffic signals people really must interact here, but their decisions are made easy by the clear design features of the intersection.
Let’s look at the intersection from the viewpoint of the different type of road users.
The intersection is crystal clear for drivers of motorised vehicles. On the main road they drive on black asphalt. That signals it is a 50km/h priority road. Parking is not allowed on the main roadway. This improves sight lines and it also signals that this is a main route. When drivers approach this intersection, even on the main road, they experience a speed bump, forcing them to slow down. They will also notice the two traffic lanes split with a space in between. This is to signal that attention needs to be given to turning traffic and the possibility of pedestrians crossing the street. There are no zebra crossings here, so there is no need to give pedestrians or any other road user the right of way. That changes the minute a driver would like to turn here. In that case priority must first be given to oncoming other motor traffic. The corner has a tight radius, so speed must really come down. For a left turn, a driver can wait out-of-the-way of other traffic in the median. This central waiting space is 6 metres wide, so there is more than enough space for even a larger vehicle. Once that stage is sorted, or when drivers make a right turn, the driver has to deal with crossing the cycleway. This crossing needs to be at least 5 metres from the main roadway, at this particular location it is 5.5 metres. That space reduces the blind spot to an absolute minimum, even for truck drivers. The cycleway is continuous and there are yield signs and yield markings (the shark’s teeth in the surface). Fortunately, thanks to the distance from the roadway, a driver can wait out-of-the-way again. The driver can look for pedestrians at the same time. Even though the driver is now at a straight angle, he or she is still making a turn and turning traffic must let pedestrians go first, because they are considered traffic on the same road and going straight-on. A driver may only continue when there are no pedestrians or people cycling.
When you approach from the side street, as a driver, the order of dealing with other traffic is different, but the priority is similar. First you will notice a speed bump. The complete intersection is on a raised table. Pedestrians would not have priority if the street was level, but now that it isn’t the “exit construction” rule could apply and in that case a crossing pedestrian would have priority. But for that rule to apply the footway should be continuous, and that is not the case here. As a driver I would let a pedestrian go first at all time, to avoid any misunderstandings. You need to wait for other traffic anyway. As a pedestrian I would see whether a driver lets me go first or not. That way it doesn’t really matter whether you know the exact rule or not. What is very clear, is that people crossing on a bicycle have priority. Once you have dealt with that crossing you finally reach the main road. All traffic there, whether going straight-on or turning, has priority. You must wait until everything is clear and then you can turn into the main street.
When you ride on the cycleway alongside the main road it is clear that you have priority over all motor traffic, whether it turns across your path from the main road or whether it comes from the side street. The cycleway bends out, but the turns are not sharp, so you only have to slightly decrease your speed to take these curves. That way you can also make sure all other road users saw you. Preferably by looking them in the eyes one by one. Pedestrians who would want to cross the cycleway must wait for you to pass. They do not have the right of way.
If you were to turn into the side street on a bicycle you would have to let pedestrians crossing that side street go first. I would also do that if I were to cycle from that side street onto the cycleway of the main road. Even though pedestrians don’t officially have that priority here. When you want to turn left, onto the cycleway alongside the main road, you need to cross that main road first. In that case you can also do that in two stages, exactly like the motor traffic drivers do. First you deal with traffic coming from the left. Once that lane is clear you can go to the central waiting area and once there are no vehicles coming from the right you can cross that lane as well and turn into the cycleway.
It could already be clear from the above paragraphs what the rights of pedestrians are. But I’d like to repeat everything from the view of a pedestrian nevertheless. When you walk straight-on on the main road you will have to cross the side street. For traffic turning into that side street from the main road, whether motor vehicles or people on bicycles, it is certain that you must get the right of way from those road users. The ground rule is namely, that turning traffic must give way to traffic going straight-on on the same road. And in this case pedestrians are consided traffic. It is a bit different for traffic from the side street, that is obviously not on the same road. And as explained previously, the tricky part is the fact that the intersection is raised, but that at the same time the footway is not continuous. Often when road users experience a level change in their path they must give priority, when they exit a driveway for instance. But that also goes for intersections that have a continuous and raised footway. I’m pretty sure many in the Netherlands would not be 100% certain about the priority here, or they think it is different from what it really is. To prevent problems due to such misunderstandings it is best to look the other road user in the eyes, read what they are going to do and act accordingly.
When it comes to crossing the main road, everything is plain and simple again. As a pedestrian that crossing is divided into four parts. First you cross the cycleway. You must wait for the cycleway to be clear, because you have no priority. That would be different if there were zebra stripes, in that case you would have priority. The cycleway is 2.3 metres wide. That means you can get to the other side in 3 to 4 steps, so you need only a little gap in the stream of people cycling. There is a waiting space between the cycleway and the first lane of the roadway. There you can wait for a gap in motor traffic, because, here too, you have no priority due to the absence of a zebra crossing. The motor traffic lane is 3.3 metres wide here, a pretty standard width. That means most people will be able to cross this lane in 4 to 5 steps. This means you also only need a small gap in the motor traffic flow. That is one reason why you see so much movement in the video. Nobody really needs to stop for longer times. Once you have also walked the 5 metres of the central traffic island, you can deal with traffic coming from the opposite direction. First one lane of motor traffic and then the cycleway. The crossing is completely level. This makes crossing the road easy for people in wheel chairs or mobility scooters and for parents with a stroller.
This type of intersection is perfectly clear for all road users. Mainly because all the moments and locations, where you have to negotiate the right of way with different types of other road users, are separated. You can make one decision at the time and then quickly move to the next point. This makes that traffic can flow smoothly in a safe way.
In this week’s video I explain how a typical Dutch intersection works.
You may have noticed that I numbered the types of traffic and that we Dutch distinguish three different types of traffic. Not only do we acknowledge we have three types, we also design our infrastructure specifically for these three types of traffic. As Tim Burns, Perth Biker, noticed, this is what sets the Dutch apart from most of the world and he wrote an interesting post about it years ago. Always good to remember this key element of the Dutch traffic system!