How hard is it to cross the cycle path?

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.

In 2011 the municipality of Heerhugowaard showed this flow chart on a congress which can help make a decision about a zebra crossing on a roadway. Just seeing how many questions this involves makes clear that the rules and regulations aren’t straightforward.

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.

This zebra crossing in front of the station in ʼs-Hertogenbosch is well respected by people cycling. These people stopped or braked to let the pedestrians go first.
These boys in in Eindhoven saw that a handful of people arrived on their bicycles and decided to just wait a few seconds and force nobody to stop for them even though they have priority.

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?

A lot of crossings in the Netherlands are not zebra crossings. That doesn’t mean they are not well designed for people with disabilities. This crossing in ʼs-Hertogenbosch has flush kerbs (curbs) for people in wheel chairs (or when you push a baby carriage) and tactile markings for people with reduced eyesight.

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.

Things don’t always go well if you don’t understand the unwritten rules and cycling in the first place. This woman wanting to cross in Amsterdam behaves in an a-typical way for the Netherlands.
In the previous picture she was already on the crossing and the man on his bicycle reduced his speed so she could have walked. But he didn’t fully stop and that confused her. She then stopped in stead of walked.
That forced the man to make a full stop and maybe she realised she made a mistake. In stead of going then (he even waves that she should) she stepped even further back in panic. At the same time the man in the yellow shirt did make the crossing.
She then decides to pretend not wanting to cross, so all the people cycling can go first.
Which takes a while…
And then she finally rushes across. It did not have to go this way. She would not even have had to adjust her speed. Had she just walked the first time, she would have not lost 10 seconds and nobody would have had to stop for her. No real harm done of course. But she must have felt uncomfortable and that was simply not necessary.

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?

21 thoughts on “How hard is it to cross the cycle path?

  1. I think if everyone stopped in front of the pedestrian crossing as they should, walkers would not need to guess whether the cyclist would stop. I do not think many have the capacity to look in each cyclist’s legs to determine whether they will brake neither they have to do it.
    At the same time, where are the people rushing? What about mutual respect and forget about those 10s that hypothetically you ”wasted” while stopping the bike?
    What about actually teaching your friends and relatives how to follow the rules safely?

    1. The energy a bicyclist uses to come to a full stop and start again is the equivalent of bicycling for 400 meters. It is a balancing act that is best not interrupted, as explained on this page.

      Just meandering through the crowd of pedestrians while I cross the city centre is not problematic at all. But coming to a full stop for each pedestrian renders bicycling futile and I’d better walk. Which I do if it fits my route: if I can leave my bicycle and continue by foot, picking it up on my way back.

      1. Full stop is equivalent to 400 meters cycled? I think this is an exaggeration. CROW manual says, that full stop equals 75-100 metres cycled (Design manual for bicycle traffic (2017), page 45)
        A single stop takes up as much energy as cycling 75-100 metres (depending on speed). For each stop, be this due to a red traffic light or another traffic-related cause, the kinetic energy built up by human effort is wasted. This subsequently has to be built up again during acceleration by overcoming resistance due to friction and mass inertia.

        1. I once read 400 meters on a webpage from a cycling enthusiast that does not exist anymore. I guess his speed was higher. But 100 or 400, it does not change much from the perspective of the bicyclist: it can render bicycling futile. Stopping for traffic lights is different by the way. When you see a red light in the distance with a few other bicyclists waiting you lower your speed to make sure to make it for the light turning green.

  2. It was my understanding that the rules regarding Jaywalking are actually not that absolute. Basically, what they say is that if one crosses outside of a crosswalk, one does not have right of way, and that failing to yield to oncoming car traffic if you are crossing outside of the crosswalk will trigger a fine. But who would just cross randomly into the middle of a street full of cars unless it were by design something like a 30km/h zone anyway? It’s very much like the Dutch “No Cycling on the Carriageway Laws” in practice.
    Some municipalities probably do have stricter laws, but the police usually never enforce jaywalking laws anyway, even if someone jaywalks within eyesight, because they have better things to do with their time.
    I should know. As an American, if those laws were actually enforced, I would probably have accrued at least a million dollars in traffic fines by now (and I am not even out of college yet) and in places like New York City and other major cities there would substantial civil unrest. People just don’t give a dime about that kind of nonsense here, for the most part. And I have crossed diagonally before, in the US, in full view of the police, without being ticketed. So the laws are there, but there is a clear policy of salutary neglect toward Jaywalking laws in the US.
    I wonder how much longer Jaywalking laws will remain in place anyway. With the way things are changing, they might just be repealed soon in many parts.

  3. This is a problem of spatial awareness. Have you ever taught a young child to cross a road? They tend not to cross if there is a car in sight moving towards them, even if the car is a large distance away and they would be safely over the road long before the car would get to them. They can’t judge how long it will take the car to get to them. Most people develop this awareness as they mature, but some people never do.The lady in the image sequence can’t recognise that the freewheeling bicycle is not going to get to her before she is over the road if she walks.
    In fact, it looks like she has decided to wait on the crossing until the man crosses in front of her like the preceding cyclist. However, the man expects her to cross, so aims his cycle to the left so that once she is walking he can cycle behind her. However, what she sees is a cycle aiming straight at her, and because she hasn’t decided to cross, it alarms her and she steps back off the crossing.
    She is like a small child: she’s not going to cross if there is a cyclist in sight.
    The interesting question of course is whether infrastructure should account for these people, and, if so, how?

  4. Great explaining Mark. The NL should really teach road safety to the world – which I know it does try to – and the world should by and large only learn the Dutch philosophy and method.

  5. I enjoy watching the livecam at Grote Markt Groningen. Every type of vehicle imaginable is represented plus pedestrians. No stop signs, no traffic lights, no zebra stripes, yet everything functions smoothly. Practically miraculous. No running, no dodging, no slamming on brakes.

  6. Thanks for this post Mark.
    This is something I have tried to explain many times in Australia. It is so easy to walk across a bicycle path that usually a zebra crossing is not necessary. Most people understand that it takes extra effort to get going again on the bike.
    Recently there have been two zebra crossings installed across bicycle paths in Brisbane. When there is a large number of people walking across, most people riding will stop. But when there is only one or two pedestrians most riders will just slow down a little to let them through, or the person walking will slow down a little to let the rider through, even though people walking have priority.

  7. “Crossing a cycleway is different from crossing a roadway in a number of ways.” is the problem with visitors of the Netherlands. Even residents who grew up elsewhere can’t always get used to it. They insist on bicycles coming to a full stop before they cross the road! As shown in the picture.

    Pedestrians who are not bicyclist do not understand a very, very important sign from a bicyclist saying to please proceed with crossing: the bicyclist stops pedalling. Just look at the legs of the bicyclist. Do they stop moving all of a sudden? This means the bicyclist is ready to brake. Perhaps already slowing down. Aiming for a spot about a meter behind where you, as a pedestrian, will be if you continue walking at the current pace.

    Tourists in Amsterdam don’t seem to understand this and think the bicyclist is trying to run them over or intimidate them back onto the sidewalk. The suggested happy trajectory for both is then completely destroyed! The bicyclist has to come to a full stop… The pedestrian is confused because s/he is convinced that the bicyclist intended harm. And ran back to safety on the sidewalk. While there was no danger to begin with!

    All this can’t be explained in passing to the tourist. The whole situation is then summarised by the bicyclist with expletives or some mumbling. Again, this is not entirely addressed at the tourist, but the bicyclist also regrets to have misjudged the situation. If only these pedestrians would understand bicyclists! The situation confirms the misunderstanding that the bicyclist tries to intimidate the pedestrian, asif the bicyclist was a motorist (their frame of reference). What a terrible shame…

    1. This is exactly what happens in New York on the West Side Cycle path. Having spent many years in the Netherlands, it is quite frustrating for those of us who have experienced the smooth flow of pedestrian and bike traffic in the Netherlands. However, as the bike culture here in New York continues to grow (and it is growing!) I have high hopes for a more integrated pedestrian/bike culture.

  8. It is strange, that you didn’t mention main reason for implementing zebra crossing: it is a facility to enable pedestrians to cross the road ONLY WHEN crossing without priority is impossible within some defined time period.
    So, if pedestrians can find a gap to cross in less than 7 seconds – zebra acts AGAINST sustainable safety principle, because people usually doesn’t obey legal requirements and no accidents happens, so they treat road rules as some kind of nonsense.

  9. Do you have somewhere arround the original source of the first flowchart? I can’t read it and couldn’t find the original.

  10. Good post Mark but one thing that always comes up back in the UK with this is that someone who is visually impaired (not necessarily blind and using a stick) often has to cross a cycle lane to get to a push button signalised road crossing and this is perceived as not an easy thing to do, especially as bikes are so quiet.

    I think you have to look at sight specifics but say in a high street environment or near a hospital this is something where a bit of extra assistance would be welcome for these people who to the cyclist may not have an obvious disability.

    How is this dealt with?


    1. Organisations that come up for the rights of people with disabilities always have their say. When Utrecht removed traffic lights on Neude, they expressed concern for visually impaired people. So the city installed a new light. Only yellow and red. That could be operated by people who wanted to stop traffic completely. Tactile markings guide these people also to the lights and the buttons. So we also have different solutions for different locations where they are necessary.

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