Cycle lanes in the Netherlands

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.

billet en français

This is an on-street cycle lane with the [now obsolete] absolute minimum width of 1.7 metres, which – clearly – is not wide enough to safely cycle side by side with your child. Motor traffic often stays in their lane and that is too close in this case.
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.”

An on-street cycle lane in Uden. Why broken lines were chosen here is a mystery. There is absolutely no reason to allow motor traffic to use the lanes here. The broken lines in the foreground do make sense, otherwise the side street could not be reached. These lanes will not see the end of 2020 though. They will be replaced by separate cycleways.
This cycle lane in Utrecht has the previously recommended width of between 2 metres and 2.2 metres. That makes the lane wider than a lot of Dutch cars and also wide enough to ride around opening doors and still be in the cycle lane.

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.

Another reason to avoid designing cycle lanes: it always becomes messy at intersections. This is not a good example to follow. Beware of such situations when you find them on Google Streetview. Just because this exists in the Netherlands doesn’t make it a good idea. Fortunately, these situations are the exception.

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) [Update: in Spring 2022 the absolute minimum width was increased to 2m, the recommended width is now 2.3m]. 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.

Advisory lanes done right. There is no confusion here as to what they are. Merely lines to optically narrow the road (a cycle street in this case, that is why the asphalt is red) to get the speed of motor traffic down.
Advisory lanes that most people would mistake for cycle lanes. This could lead to dangerous situations when drivers expect people cycling to cycle to the right of the lines. There is no legal reason for them to do that. This particular road just outside ‘s-Hertogenbosch was reconstructed already. It is now a cycle street with red asphalt.

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.

A cycle street in Oss. The strips on the far side of the street act as rumble strips and optically narrow this cycle street. The central strip is slightly raised to also act as a rumble strip and to force drivers to overtake at a safe distance (completely in the opposite lane).
This is a strange hybrid between a cycle street and an ordinary road. The red lanes are advisory lanes because they have no bicycle symbols. That means there is no legal obligation to use them as a cyclist. The rest space in the centre is for cars, but they can actually drive where they like here. So why do this when both car drivers or people cycling can use either part of the road? This design only seems to want to indicate that this is an important route for cycling and a not so important route for motor traffic. We see these designs more often and they should generally not be seen as cycle lanes but more as ‘nearly’ cycle streets.

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.”

The Cyclists’ Union is also clearly against advisory lanes:

“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.”

In other countries cycle lanes are treated quite differently than in the Netherlands. Parking in the cycle lane is not done in the Netherlands. If you park your car in a cycle lane it will be towed away at a hefty cost in fines and tow costs. Photo: London.
Other things you will never see in the Netherlands: a combined bus/cycle lane. They do not exist here because buses and bicycles are too different in size and mass and can therefore not safely use the same space in one lane on streets with a speed limit of 50km/h or more. Sharrows are also non-existent in the Netherlands. Photo: Budapest.

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.

Left: original image from the CROW manual for bicycle infrastructure design. This is how the minimal width was calculated. Based on the width of a cyclist, how they move sideways generally at starting speeds mostly and at cruising speeds and then doubling it, because the Dutch feel cycling is a social activity that must be possible side-by-side. Right: a translation of that image to the situation in the US. Very striking: the height is different due to the other type of riding. Hunched or upright makes quite a difference in height on average. (Left from CROW manual 2006. Right from: Bicycle Road Safety Audit, Guidelines and Prompt Lists, Federal Highway Administration Office of Safety, May 2012)

This week’s video: On-street Cycle lanes in the Netherlands

27 thoughts on “Cycle lanes in the Netherlands

  1. Hey, I would be very happy to get advise from you guys:
    The City of Cologne is planning to redesign a mayor Street (Neusser Straße).

    There are planned Cycle lanes which are just 1,9m wide. The car lanes are 3m wide, so they can’t make them any narrower (there are buses using the road too) Total Width: 9,8m

    In the Central section the whole road narrows further to 8,8m

    How would a dutch planner redesign the street, working with just 8,8m?

    Its a mayor route for bikes as well as for cars.

  2. I do want to add that if you want to follow mostly 30 km/h streets from the cyclepath from Terneuzen to the cyclepath toward further south there’s the unofficial Oudeweg – Bastionstraat – Tuinstraat – Gentsevaartstraat (but go through the parallel Noordstraat on saturday when there’s market) – small part of Weststraat to go to the Zeestraat – Oranjestraat. As I said: unofficial. It’s also about 4 to 5 minutes longer according to Google Maps…. Again: my town is a good example how not to do it right.

  3. So in my Dutch town we have a sort of main route for the traffic. Go to Google Maps and search on Axel. You can see the streets where the bus rides clearly: Rooseveltlaan, Bijlockestraat, part of Singelweg, north part of Stationstraat to the roundabout – keep this in mind – from that to Buitenweg, Crijssenstraat, Kanaalkade. On all these streets we have cyclelanes. Fully on the Kanaalkade so you can cycle to the Kinderdijk. And from the roundabout I told you to keep in mind there are cyclelanes to reach the path to all the middle schools in Terneuzen.

    Not only that, but this is the through-route through Axel, say for example from Terneuzen to Zuiddorpe, which lies three kilometres south of Axel. And I can complain about the route to that well.. dorp, but this is about cyclelanes.

    Axel is a good example on how it’s not suppose to be. I live there.

    1. Oh you can turn left at such locations, but you wait in the right hand corner of the intersection until the lights for the side streets are green, but it is not very elegant.

      1. But doesn’t the sign in the first link explicitly ban it? Ahead and right turn arrow in a blue circle with a cycle symbol underneath?

        1. Oh I missed that. Yes, it officially does, but you can go straight on from the side street and you can even do that legally. When you jump off your bicycle in the far corner. Walk two steps as a pedestrian on the side walk, turn your bicycle around, put it back on the road and mount again. You can go straight-on from there while cycling again. Unusual solution to a very unusual sign. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that anywhere else.

  4. 1,20m cycle lanes dont take in account there are many bicycles wider than the 0,75m which is used as standard here. In my humble opinion it is better to make cycleroads (mixed roads) wherever seperate cyclelanes are not possible. So prioritizing bicycles over cars.
    It might be better to rethink roads. Throughroads 50, with fully seperated cyclelanes, every other road 30, with cyclelanes if necessary or otherwise preferable or cycleroads if not, and suburban roads just 10 to 15kmh. If ‘d love to see a revival of the so called ‘woonerf ‘ in this respect.

  5. The „Red Carpet“ with 2,00 > 2,20m is a good idea for roads with 6,50m.
    You cannot build everywhere separated bikeways!!

  6. We have strong discussion about cycling infrastructure in Prague. We have low modal share and politicians will not reduce parking spots, so we need space efficient solution.

    There is an opinion that cycle lane are more meaningful than curb saparated oneway paths (like Danish ones), because cycle lanes gets rid of death angles on crossings and it works well in Switzerland.

    Do you have any comment on Swiss infrastructure that uses cycle lanes frequently and – in conditons of lower cycling modal share – quite succesfully?

  7. In my town Deventer i see a trend to replace actual bike paths with bike lanes. The other day I had a discussion with a member of our local Fietsersbond and he was quite content because those streets have low traffic volume and this way it’s easier to mix different speeds on the bike lane. ‘i thought you’d be happy, since you’re riding a velomobile’.
    I see his point, but I fear that fewer parents with small kids will use it now (there’s a school along the road)

    1. Exactly. Those kind of make xed roads is a way to go back to the fifties and sixties. Those roads are narrowed to 5,5m, confronting cyclists with oncoming cars on speeds as high as 50 (regardless the 30 limit) passing bicyles on the other side of the street. Those cars pass two bikes within a distance less then a meter, which can be rather confronting. And dangerous when all goes wrong. You get driven of your bike with speeds between 50kmh at least. You wont survive.
      CROW advised, widely followed. But utterly wrong!

  8. Hi Mark, You echo my own sentiments regarding ‘bike lanes’! The Port Adelaide Bicycle User Group (‘PortBUG’ – I’m its secretary) has spent the last 20+ years focussing on creation of properly (ie; ‘physically’) separated bikeways within our very large Council area. We have been remarkably successful as any visit to our website ( will attest. Our Council is however about to embark on its third 5-year bike plan and we are hoping that this time it will find itself able to address the issue that no-one seems willing to confront – cycling safety on (or alongside) our major ‘main’ roads. Being close to Adelaide’s port these roads are frequently shared with heavy vehicles and commercial traffic as well as commuter car drivers. The road traffic authorities are very proud that they feature ‘bike lanes’ but of course regular bicycle users have a very different p.o.v! We have identified several opportunities to locate off-road bikeways on the wide reserves alongside these main roads but of course this challenges engineering views as to ‘what is safe’ – they are often worried about cars backing out of domestic driveways. And of course the costs of moving existing infrastructure (power poles, bus shelters etc). But sooner of later the inadequacy of painted ‘bike lanes’ needs to be recognised… Sam Powrie.

  9. Thanks for discussing this topic Mark. It is very useful for infrastructure backward countries like Australia to see that even the Netherlands has difficulty sometimes in providing the “ideal”, and what your thinking is about how to move forward nevertheless. The top two cycle lane pictures above are still far better than many of ours – wider, and of a different colour to the road.

    1. I don’t follow exactly what you mean. The SWOV report you link to concludes that edge strips are a good idea for safety provided they are narrow. They are also needed to indicate the speed limit. Not having markings is no option. The point is not to have them too far from the edge so they can’t be mistaken for cycle lanes.

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