Cycle lanes are a bit special in the Dutch traffic system. On-street cycle lanes do exist in many streets but under the current Dutch traffic safety policies they almost shouldn’t. Paint is generally not seen as infrastructure and that is a good thing. So why do road managers, even in the Netherlands, keep existing cycle lanes and why do they even create new ones? Space is often an excuse, although – when you follow the guidebook correctly – cycle lanes take up almost as much space as a separate cycle path.
The topic of cycle lanes is one I generally avoid. That is because I want to promote the good things about the Dutch cycling culture and cycle lanes are not exactly that. Cycle lanes don’t really fit in the current Dutch traffic policies of Sustainable Safety. Under these policies you either mix traffic completely, on streets with low volumes of motor traffic and a speed of 30km/h, or you create genuine separation. On (distributor) streets and roads with a speed limit of 50km/h Sustainable Safety dictates that people must be able to cycle at a safe distance from motor traffic.
The CROW manual states:
“Ideally, a segregated cycle path will be used to this end, though cycle lanes are also permissible. In such cases the cycle lane will have to genuinely delineate a discrete domain for the cyclist. To this end, a continuous stripe between the cycle lane and the main carriageway can be introduced.”
Dutch law only mentions one type of cycle lane, but they come with two types of lines. When the cycle lane is separated from the main carriageway with a dashed or broken line it means that motorists can use the cycle lanes if absolutely necessary. That means they can pass other road users or they are allowed to carefully drive in the cycle lanes to avoid on-coming traffic for instance. Motorists may only drive in the cycle lanes when it is safe to do so, without endangering people cycling. Motorists may also cross the cycle lanes with broken lines to reach a parking bay, a drive way or a side street. You sometimes see streets where the cycle lanes are the recommended width and the central rest space is to be used by car traffic even when that is very little space. That motor vehicles are allowed to drive on cycle lanes with a broken line makes that possible. Driving on a cycleway with a motor vehicle is not allowed when the cycle lane is separated from the motor travel lanes with a continuous, solid line. In that case the lanes for motor traffic – next to such cycle lanes – must be wide enough to make it possible for motorists to stay in their lanes and keep out of the cycle lanes completely. A width of 2.9m for such motor traffic lanes is then recommended. Stopping the vehicle, for an errand or to let a passenger in or out of the car, or parking in a cycle lane is never allowed, regardless of the type of lines. Unlike some other countries cycle lanes do not have operating times in the Netherlands. They are always a cycle lane, not just in specific times.
The recommended width for a cycle lane, in the latest guidebooks, is 2m to 2.25m with an absolute minimum width of 1.7m (excluding the lines which need to be 10cm wide). Cycle lanes are only legally a cycle lane when they have bicycle symbols. The symbols must be placed at intervals of 50 to 100 metres in the built-up area and 500 to 750 metres outside the built-up area. They must also be repeated after every side-street. The guidebooks in the Netherlands are only recommendations though; road managers can always make a different decision about the width of a cycle lane.
So far this seems understandable enough, but there is a complicating factor. Road managers often create strips along the outside of streets and roads that are not really cycle lanes but some sort of strips to optically narrow the roadway. To make matters worse these are called fietssuggestiestroken in Dutch. Literally: bicycle suggestion lanes. The English version of the CROW manual from 2007 even used the term “suggestion lane”, but the (latest) 2016 version uses: “advisory cycle lanes”. Still ambiguous, because as a cyclist you are not advised to cycle in them, on the contrary. Once a car driver hit a cyclist who was cycling on the left side of the lines and that driver claimed the cyclist was to blame for using the wrong part of the roadway. This case went to court and in 2017 the judge ruled that the cyclist’s action was perfectly legal because an advisory lane is not a cycle lane. This meant that the driver was to blame for driving into the cyclist.
The CROW manual from a year earlier already stated that: “So-called advisory cycle lanes do not have any legal status. […] Clear decisions are advised: either go for a fully-fledged cycle lane (with sufficient width and markings) or create a fully mixed profile.”
“A bicycle advisory lane (broken line without a bicycle symbol) is a fake cycle lane, motorists can stop their vehicle with impunity and even park in such lanes. Nowadays, you see advisory lanes more and more often because road managers are trying to decrease the speed of car traffic with these fake lanes. As a cyclist you are not obliged to ride in them, although many motorists think so. The Cyclists’ Union is not in favour of fake cycle lanes because they do not protect cyclists. […]
When a road is too narrow for real cycle lanes of at least 1.70 metres, road managers get creative sometimes, they may add stripes 50 centimetres away from the edge of the road or street. Many cyclists and motorists think that this means a cycle lane was created. Cycling is very uncomfortable on such a strip.
According to the Cyclists’ Union, there are only two possibilities: either a road manager chooses a so-called edging strip (a strip to ensure that the roadside remains intact) of 25 to 30 centimetres wide, or a road manager opts for a real cycle lane. When road managers start to build strips resembling lanes – wider than 30 cm and narrower than 1.70m – it only creates confusion.”
So why would road managers create such strips? In an article from December 2019 of Verkeerskunde (Traffic knowledge) Fietsberaad and consultancy Ligtermoet & Partners advocate the end of the ambiguous advisory lanes. “Create at least 1.7m wide cycle lanes. Where that is not possible mix traffic or make a cycle street.” In the following paragraph you can read what traffic experts have to say in response to that proposal:
Arnold Bongers of the municipality of ‘s-Hertogenbosch feels the minimum width of 1.70 meters for a cycle lane is ‘completely right’, “but what to do with streets where that space is not available? Do you then automatically have to use a mixed profile? That will lead to many unclear roads again. I also have reservations about roads outside the built-up areas. In the rural parts of our municipality we have many roads with a width of 5.5 metres, there we sometimes have 1.2m wide lanes. I believe that is better than nothing at all.” Cor van der Klaauw from the province of Groningen agrees: “In the countryside there are many roads of about six meters wide. I find it too easy to not do anything there. For some roads I would still consider using narrower bicycle lanes. People will simply have to cycle single file for a while. I do think it is good that we are having this discussion.”
Not a discussion that I expect to end anytime soon. Without legally binding minimum widths road managers will continue to create narrower lanes than recommend on narrower roads. Cycle streets (Fietsstraten) are not always the answer when the motor traffic volume is too high and separate cycleways may be too complicated or costly to construct. Unfortunately, there will always be a difference between the ideal world of the guidebooks and the real world.
This week’s video: On-street Cycle lanes in the Netherlands