All about cycling in the Netherlands
Some people express concerns about pedestrians, when they see my videos of the very busy cycleways in the Netherlands. They feel it must be very hard to cross there and ask why there are no zebra crossings on the cycle paths. Is it really so hard to cross the cycleways that zebra crossings would be necessary? Let’s find out.
There are sometimes zebra crossings on the Dutch cycleways, but there are no simple rules as to why, where and when you should create them and thus we see different choices in the different municipalities. Most of the guidebooks only talk about zebra crossings on the roadway and even there we see that municipalities interpret the rules differently. Nevertheless, there do seem to be some rules of thumb that most road designers use.
The basic rule for crossing the streets is that anyone on foot may cross any roadway (and also the cycleway) wherever that person would like to. This is very different from societies which have much stricter rules, such as the United States with their rules on ‘jay walking’. I wrote a post about crossing the road before. Because of this huge difference at a very basic level, everything else regarding crossing streets, derived from this ground rule, will be different too. Since people cross at many locations the need for zebra crossings is only felt at locations where a large and constant flow of pedestrians would like to cross. Such specific locations and pedestrian flows exist mainly near public transport hubs and the routes to main shopping areas. If such a crossing is not already regulated by traffic lights a road manager could opt for a zebra crossing depending also on the number of vehicles on the road people need to cross. Pedestrians who show the intent to cross the zebra – for instance because it is clear they are walking in the direction of it – already have priority in the Netherlands and all other traffic must then wait until these people have crossed it. Whether drivers do this depends on things like their speed (when motor vehicles drive at a speed of 40km/h or more their drivers are less inclined to stop for pedestrians and also people cycling) and also on how clearly drivers can see the pedestrians. At very busy locations where drivers have to process a lot of visual input they are more likely to overlook a pedestrian on the footpath, because they focus first and foremost on what happens on the roadway. When pedestrians do not get their priority on zebra crossings these crossings offer a false sense of security and that is never good. Clarity is one of the corner stones of the Dutch Sustainable Safety principles and therefore most Dutch municipalities try to place zebra crossings only where they would make sense: at places without traffic signals, where a lot of pedestrians will cross and where most drivers are willing to give them their priority. This also applies to zebra crossings on the cycleways. They should only be created where they make sense. So the question is: do they ever?
When you walk you may also cross the cycle path wherever you like. Crossing a cycleway is different from crossing a roadway in a number of ways. The cycleways are narrower and can be crossed quicker. You often only need about 4 or 5 steps to reach the other side. The speed of cycling is much lower than motor traffic so you also need smaller gaps in traffic. The footprint of a bicycle is also much smaller than that of a motor vehicle which also decreases the gap you need to cross safely. Everything combined it leads to the fact that crossing the cycleway is much easier than crossing the roadway. This is also true for people with a disability. Dutch pedestrians are almost all cyclists too at some time. They know that losing momentum on your bicycle is not what you want. The Dutch like to think for themselves, before following rules. This leads to a typical Dutch phenomenon: all traffic users seem to prefer to avoid forcing anyone on a bicycle to stop over following the rules strictly. Especially pedestrians seem to rather wait a second than to take priority over a person on a bicycle, even if they legally have it. With this common mindset zebra crossings with absolute priority for walking make little sense and can even be counter intuitive. So when do you see zebra crossings on a cycle path? Sometimes when the main roadway has a zebra crossing, that zebra crossing on the roadway may then be extended across the cycle way too. Sometimes where extremely high numbers of pedestrians cross the cycleway at the same location you may also see a zebra, even though there isn’t even a road near the place. A video on YouTube shows an example in the pedestrianised shopping area of Groningen. In Utrecht you can find a zebra crossing where the pedestrians coming from the railway station cross a cycleway to get to the halls of the country’s biggest convention centre. And even at such very busy crossings people simply take turns. There is no way a Dutch person on a bicycle will wait until the whole zebra is clear. They will pass right in front or right behind people walking and that would be considered completely normal. The total opposite of the United Kingdom where a pedestrian was filmed stepping back to confront a cyclist who wanted to pass behind him. That pedestrian’s behaviour would be considered outrageously rude in the Netherlands. That sense of entitlement is unacceptable from any road user in an egalitarian society.
How people use zebra crossings or respond to them is not always the same in the entire country. Amsterdam has a bad name for disrespecting the pedestrian’s rights on zebra crossings but the facts are not as bad as the reputation. In ʼs-Hertogenbosch zebras seemed to be respected in general when I filmed for this week’s video at a busy location, by car drivers and people cycling alike. And that is what I experience too; I use these zebra crossings two times per working day as a pedestrian. In Eindhoven I witnessed different behaviour with different people. All-in-all I think it is wise to create zebra crossings with care. Have them only where they really make sense. Does that make crossing the cycle path more difficult? I think not. The ground rule is to respect each other and that can mean reducing your speed to let people cross the cycle way when you are on your bicycle and sometimes waiting a little to let people pass on the cycleway when you are approaching it on foot.
My video: how hard is it to cross the cycleway on foot?