Testing cycle signage in a ‘Living Lab’

Brand new cycle destination signs, reminding of metro-line information signs, were placed alongside a test route in Tilburg. That city and the province of North Brabant are testing this new type of signposting (and another type) for the future fast cycle routes in the entire province, possibly in the rest of the Netherlands too. A test panel was asked to give their opinion, but the public was also allowed to answer an online questionnaire.

The Living Lab included tests with new centre lines, such as this one. All in an effort to make the main cycle routes more recognisable as a fast cycle route. In the foreground a reminder that people in mobility scooters also use the fast cycle routes in the Netherlands.

This type of signposting looks quite different from what the Dutch have been used to for about a century now. In 1919 a now common type of “mushroom”-shaped wayfinding sign was first placed in Baarn by a cycleway society. Anther type is the tall sign that developed from the ones the tourist board ANWB first designed. White signs with red lettering on a blue and white post.

This set of signs stays very close to the current design. I think this type is unclear. Way too much information to process in the few seconds you get when you ride past it.

The desire to distinguish the fast cycle routes from the ordinary cycleways has led to earlier experiments with a different type of signposting. The city of Nijmegen tested signs with purple letters. On the ‘Rijnwaalpad’, the fast cycle route to Arnhem, the city also tried a new type of sign that you could see from further away. Unlike the tall ANWB signs, that are placed right at the junction and for which you need to slow down to be able to really see them, these signs were placed ahead of the intersection, so that slowing down became unnecessary. Unfortunately, the signs were rejected by the board that supervises all signage in the Netherlands. The introduction of a new colour would confuse road users, who are conditioned to know blue signs with white letters are for motorists and white signs with red letters are for cycling.

This new sign is very clear. You recognise this design from metro-signage which makes it easy to understand it quickly. If you cycle on the route longer all you need to focus on is the “U bent hier” (you are here) part. The rest will be a repetition of what you have seen before.
At the point of the turns these signs are much clearer than the first type. Not all the information needs to be given as most was on the ‘metro-sign’ before. Now you only need to see the route numbers and their direction and only the main destinations (the first next few ones and the final destination), with the distance in kilometres.

Perhaps the failed Nijmegen attempt is why the colour red is the main colour again in the Tilburg tests. Especially the first set of signs that are tested stay very close to what is usual today. But this type of signs does not make me happy. Putting much information on a common sign makes that sign hard to comprehend in a fast way. And you need to do it fast because you ride past these signs rather quickly. Making the important information stand out by using different sizes of letters doesn’t really help. The signs appear cluttered and I almost needed to stop to see what they were actually saying. Having the main destination in a large size letter may work in Tilburg, but I dread to see the size of the signs pointing to cities with a longer name. Living in ʼs-Hertogenbosch makes you sensitive to such things.

This tiny sticker on a street light post is handy as a reminder after you have made a turn. Small but useful.
These dots to guide you across a roundabout were not very clear in my opinion. Not very useful. Right before the roundabout there was a sign telling you to go straight and most people will understand that is the second exit of the roundabout anyway.

When you want to do something new it may be a good idea to completely break with what you have been doing so far. On the other hand, it is good to relate to something people already know and recognise. The new “metro-style” signs in Tilburg are doing just that. These signs are not placed near an intersection but rather on a longer straight stretch. That is a place where you can easily read the signs, without the stress of needing to do it before you get to the intersection, in time to deal with the other traffic users there. These signs remind you of where you are in the route and which names the road manager choses to use in this particular route. Right before you approach a junction you see more traditional signs with those same names. That makes processing those signs even quicker. I found this set of signs very promising. Even if the supervising board would have problems again with the choice for black letters for the smaller signs they could easily be made with red letters too.

These reminders of the route number on the cycleway surface were not very well attached. Many had come loose even in the test phase. This coarse type of asphalt is not an easy surface to glue anything on.

But those signs were not the only thing that was tested in the “Living-Lab” the city of Tilburg built with the help of the province, a design company and a university. Different types of asphalt, different types of road markings and new types of lines were tested too. I could see the differences in asphalt when I rode there, but on the video that is almost invisible. The survey didn’t ask anything about the asphalt either, so, even though I did have my preferences, I have no further comments about that. Reminders of the cycle route number you were cycling on were stuck to the surface. But the different types of asphalt made them stick better or worse. Many markers had come loose and were scattered in the surroundings. Tiny stickers on the light posts were much better visible, also because they were placed at eye level. But they are so tiny that not everyone may have noticed them. That also goes for the lines in the surface. It took me a while before I understood what a series of white dots could mean. It turned out they were guiding you across a roundabout. I doubt that is very helpful. I think white lines are telling you something about the road design normally, not about the route. So that is not a good colour. But the green lines, that were used here to make the fast cycle route more recognisable, were also confusing. Since a white solid line is something you cannot cross, the solid green line made me frown. Was or wasn’t I allowed to ride over it? The wider solid green line, with the traditional white interrupted stripes on top of it, made that perfectly clear again in the blink of an eye. The human mind works in mysterious ways. Tiny differences in appearance can make the difference between instant understanding and utter confusion. That works different for different people as well. Which is precisely the reason for these tests of course.

A schematic representation of some of the fast cycle routes in the province of North-Brabant. Not very detailed, but certainly enough to find your way between towns and cities. This sign is centered on Tilburg. The signs in ʼs-Hertogenbosch, Eindhoven or Breda would look different as there are fast cycle routes in all directions from these three, not just to Tilburg as this sign seems to indicate.
The sign informing the Tilburg public of the fact that they cycle in a Living Lab test site, co-financed by the Province of North Brabant and the European Union organisation CHIPS.

This test is done in collaboration with the European Union organisation CHIPS. In that respect I feel it is a missed opportunity that different countries are doing different things helped by the same organisation at the same time. In my opinion it would be much better if international standards were to be developed, similar to the ones we have for motorway signage, but that is apparently a bridge too far right now. That will mean that when you cross the border to Belgium the signage for main cycle routes will look quite different.

The cycle signage in Belgium on the F14 test route from Antwerp to the border with the Netherlands. The signs in Belgium are different, but also based on metro style signs. (Picture Province of Antwerp, via Fietssnelwegen Belgium)

Maybe we should first wait and see what comes out of these tests though. New fast cycle route signage for Brabant or maybe for the Netherlands as a whole. Not even that is clear yet, and it is striking that the Province of Utrecht is also doing a test right now (with lines at least), so it will be interesting to follow these developments.

The ‘Living Lab’ cycle signage test in Tilburg
in this week’s video.

15 thoughts on “Testing cycle signage in a ‘Living Lab’

  1. According to me, these cycleways look like a sort of “highways for bicycles” and not just ordinary cycleways. Unfortunately in Italy we don’t have these beautiful infrastructures!

  2. Hi Mark

    You say that it was unfortunate that the Nijmegen signs were rejected by the road sign authorities but it’s worth pointing out that most colourblind road users like myself can’t reliably differentiate blue from purple. About 8% of males and around 0.5% females suffer from colourblindness so I’d say that the Nijmegen decision was the right one. Personally I’d have trouble picking out the central green stripe from the dark tarmac as well, no problem where it was reinforced by the white dashes but then there’s no real point in wasting the green paint.

    1. I wasn’t clear enough. I know the colour purple was a problem for people who are colourblind. But what I find unfortunate is that the lower early warning signs were rejected. They could have been red in my opinion and still be very valuable. There is a real problem with these tall signs we have now, only at the intersections. We need some pre-warning signs.

  3. What is the purpose of the cycle signs? Are they to be read without slowing the cyclists down, without having to stop? Are they important for cyclists who don’t already know the network? I would imagine on fast cycle routes these might be design goals. Then look to the example of main roads for cars. In the UK road signs were completely redesigned in the 1960s and became much, much, larger and cleared of any irrelevant detail. I sometimes cycle underneath one on a cycle track next to a 50mph (80kph). road. I’d estimate the sign area is 5 x 6m high, they are huge. Scaled to bicycle size (20kph) for similar readability that would still be a large sign, bigger than the ones shown and with a lot less detail. This is a sign in advance of a junction showing road numbers and main destinations. A similar sign could well be designed for your fast route junctions so the cyclist would know which way to go well before the actual junction, where there could be signs as shown in your 4th picture. Whether such large signs would be considered acceptable is another matter. There were certainly some protests when ours were introduced, but they met a design goal to be safely and easily readable on the move.

    1. I think they are mostly for people who don’t already know the network. And I’m going to guess this is a lot of people, because there are probably a lot of people making intercity trips for the first time every day. (For me, as a tourist who lived there for the summer, it was every week that I was going on routes for the first time.)

    2. It is the same as signs for motor traffic. You need some help with the route when these routes are lesser known and longer. If you cycle a route every day you wouldn’t need them, but many people cycle only some times in a certain area and they need every help they can get, preferably without having to slow down every time.

    3. Completely agree. From a communication design perspective the current and proposed new signs are not great. I can see no good reason why cycling signs should not follow identically the same principles as UK motoring signs: readable at traffic speed without having to turn your head more than 10°, a hierarchy of information presented without superfluous distraction on a need-to-know basis by different types of signs including advance direction (rectangular stacked/ diagram, before turn), direction flag (pointy irregular pentagon, at turn) and route confirmation (rectangular tabular distances, after turn).

      For a 45 km/h cycleway, each sign would ideally start at a [single] x-height of ~48 mm and increased by R20 Renard series (× ~1.122) for each additional destination—never more than 7 for an exceptional reading time of allegedly 4 seconds—and the same again when sited on the opposite side of an adjacent 2.5 m walkway ∴ max. ~120 mm. The metro and schematic signs, which users won’t need to read every time and can be expected to stop to look at, can be at a constant x-height of ~15 mm.

      The vertical metro style is every bit as compromised as the [non-] legible London signs—would be much better if placed parallel to the cycleway and arranged horizontally without redundant orientation arrow, also less susceptible to prankster ‘reversals’ and only need one for both directions. For maximum contrast and visibility, the red legend can be opaque (transparent vinyl/ ink tends to fade) against a retro­reflective white background. Try to keep the top edge of cycle signage ≤1 m above ground when lit only by cycle headlamps at night, like the old mushrooms!

  4. Hello Mark, thanks for the nice article of ‘our’ Living Lab. Pity the designers (Mijksenaar wayfinding experts) of the new design concept where not mentioned. The tiny street light post stickers, where indeed too small, mistake in the production proces.
    Cheers Thoas

  5. I assume that they made the continuous green center line in resemblance of the continuous green center line on the motorways, which indicates that you are allowed to drive faster.

  6. I like the metro-line information signs. Further,I also like this new type of signposting, but, in the forests we should keep the mushrooms. Such a big signposting in a forest would be overdone. And also it isn’t necessary for the recreational type of cycling that is done in a forest of other type of rural area.

    The signpost in the fourth picture looks good. Enough white with red to be recognized as being for cycling. And because of the enhanced contrast the black text on a white surface makes it easier to read for people who have deteriorated eye sight than red text on a white surface.

  7. Those wide green paint stripes will get very slippery in rain and ice. Last year, I had an elderly lady fall just in front of my car because her front wheel slipped on paint. She suffered a double ankle break. Luckily my wife was with me, as she’s a nurse.

  8. I really like the metro-style signage, coupled with the larger red/white turn signs that you also like. Here’s why: When I’ve been cycling long distance in the Netherlands, I am constantly looking for the red/white turn signs (the existing ones, atop the blue and white pole) that have my destination written on them. I am constantly afraid that I will miss one of the turn signs and cycle too far onward and have to return.

    The existing turn signs, which are only at intersections, are often not present if the route to your destination doesn’t require a turn, but I get confused because sometimes there are signs that simply indicate “continue forward” (they don’t indicate a turn). If I don’t see one of those and I don’t see a turn sign, does that mean I’ve missed a turn?

    The metro-style signage would update after every turn and indicate which towns are ahead. If the next metro-style signage I see no longer includes my destination town’s name, then I know I’ve missed a turn. But it also seems less likely to miss a turn with the proposed signs that would be placed *before* the intersection.

    (My comment is probably confusing to someone who hasn’t cycled in the Netherlands.)

    1. Dear Steven, there is also something similar in an Italian town called Pesaro and it’s called Bicipolitana; the signs looks the same as an underground map with eleven lines with different colours. It takes you everywhere, simply following the lines. There is also one in Florence. There also other good cities where cycling in Italy like Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna and Padua.
      But there is according to me, the best town for cycling, and It’s Bolzano/Bozen, in the upper Northern Italy, where German is also spoken besides Italian. There you have lots of cycleways like in Austria or Germany and a ring round the town: very well organized!
      Of course signs for cyclists are not the same as in the Netherlands. Dutch people are lucky! I think they don’t get lost while cycling!
      Best greetings from Italy.

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