Seeking Harmony

When you follow my blog and Twitter stream and saw my recent posts, you could get the impression that we have much snow in the Netherlands and that we constantly have busy rush hours. That is of course not the case, but we humans tend to focus on the unusual and I am no exception. That means it may be time to focus on the ordinary, the mundane again.

Quite often the intersection I portray in this post is not busy at all. These three people can simply ride through, unhindered by other people, on the cycleway that has priority over the cycleways approaching it.
Moments later, often when the lights here are green, there can be a peloton of people arriving at (and leaving) the intersection at the same time.

Some time ago I was at a meeting in the CROW office in Utrecht. CROW is the organisation that issued the manual for cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands (including the previous versions). The meeting included lunch and from the lunch room on the third floor there is an interesting view on an intersection of cycleways. Coincidentally I had already filmed that intersection some years ago from the ground and in rush hour. It became one of my videos that makes cycling look very intimidating. Now I had the chance to set that straight. From a high view-point and on a Friday around noon you can see that cycling here is not intimidating at all for most of the time. There was a downside to my position. I needed to film through the windows and that means I didn’t capture the street sounds but the sounds of people having lunch with a discussion about the meeting right behind me. That means I had to use background music. I know that is not something everybody likes, but there was no other option in this case.

This man walks across the intersection diagonally. That is not legally allowed, but many people do it and the people on wheels just weave around him and the others doing this.
The two delivery men on their bicycles should have given the ladies priority as they turn in their path. But the women did not expect that to happen. In-stead they slightly decreased their pace so the men could keep their speed and nobody really had to stop.

Even though it was not the morning rush hour, it is a bit busier during lunch too, with people going to get a sandwich or just changing location. Around noon you can also already see the first school children cycling home when they end school early. But while it can be busy for a few seconds, moments later the intersection can be completely empty again. People walking and cycling arrive in pelotons due to the nearby traffic lights, which – in turn – are only there to regulate the interactions with drivers of motor traffic. This intersection, where only people on foot and on bicycles meet, doesn’t need traffic signals. People who can look each other in the eye can negotiate who goes first without many rules.

These two men also crossed diagonally. Even the man in the wheel chair. No problem at all, especially now that there is nobody on a bicycle near them.
The man in the wheel chair then decided to line up for the red traffic light with the people on bicycles. And why wouldn’t he? This way he saved himself several kerbs (curbs) that he would otherwise have to mount and dismount.

Officially there are priority regulations at this intersection. One of the paths has priority over the other, as indicated by the sharks’ teeth. Pedestrians have to wait for a gap in the cycle traffic, unless the cyclists turn in their path going straight-on. Especially that last rule is not really observed. In-stead, pedestrians cross when they can and they even do that diagonally. People cycling just weave around them. The unwritten rule – you don’t force someone on a bike to stop – is observed by almost everyone. The Dutch are almost all cycling every now and then and they know what amount of energy is lost when you come to a full standstill with your bicycle and how much extra energy you need to get the momentum of riding again. Forcing people to use that extra energy is avoided at all cost. Even if that means you can’t take your priority as a pedestrian. I believe this behaviour of the Dutch is the cause for many misunderstandings with visitors to the Netherlands. Yet, all we seek in this country is harmony! A constant weaving around each other on bicycles and on foot. Observing that desire for harmony from above looks beautiful, I think.

At times the intersection was very crowed, but everybody is just taking a certain course and trying to avoid a collision with everybody else. Thanks to the low speeds it all works in perfect harmony.
Some people seemed to dance around each other.

My video for this week:
People on a cycle intersection on Jaarbeursplein in Utrecht from above.

7 thoughts on “Seeking Harmony

  1. Hi, I live in Canada, but I’ve cycled many times in the Netherlands, and absolutely love it.

    A question, I noticed most (maybe all?) intersections with traffic signals also have yield signs. Is this so that if the traffic light is not operating, then priority is determined with the signs? Or do they also have a function with the lights operating? Are most junctions designed for operation without traffic lights if needed?

    In North America having traffic lights and yield or stop controls together is not permitted, though if the lights go off, it does get chaotic sometimes, even though everyone is supposed to treat the intersection as an all-way stop.

  2. Indeed good to show this. This is exactly what cycling in the Netherlands is about. There is a shared space and everybody feels responsible for a smooth process. And you rather don’t stop as a cyclist but you always have to keep watching the other road users. Give and take according to a set of informal rules. A cyclist knows those rules and gives subtle signs to the others. As you mention, almost everybody is a cyclist in the Netherlands. Pedestrians and even car drivers know the mindset of a cyclist by their own experience as cyclist. That common knowledge makes daily traffic as smooth as possible. And don’t forget this. Usually we are not cycling for fun. This group of cyclists during rush hour wants to be as quickly as possible from A to B. For that reason they use the bike. It’s a rational choice and a smooth ride is in everybody’s interest.

  3. When I had driving lessons in a car, they taught me to keep te flow of traffic. This meant not taking priority when it disrupted the flow of traffic, even of cyclists.

    1. Most bike trips are relatively short, typically below 30 minutes. With decent clothing, dutch temperatures are not a problem. Rain and snow is. Looking at the bike parking here, i can clearly see a lot of empty spots on rainy and snowy days, but when cold and dry, its packed like usual.

      So to answer your question: Long enough, up to 30 minutes at least.

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