ʼs-Hertogenbosch has finally closed a street to motor traffic

After a very long wait – according to a number of people and organisations – the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch closed a city centre street to all private motor traffic. It was decided early last June, but without a clear date. The actual closing of this former main thoroughfare (Van Berckelstraat) took place on 3 August, after that was announced only one week earlier. It made the local chapter of the Cyclists’ Union extremely happy, they say they have waited 30 years for this closing. Just a month later the ʼs-Hertogenbosch chapter proudly showed what feels as their victory to a German group which was visiting the city to learn more about its cycling policies.

Billet en français

The Van Berckelstraat in ʼs-Hertogenbosch in the first days after it was closed. A big effect with just a few concrete blocks and a flexible post at either end.

When the Van Berckelstraat was finally closed to all private motor traffic the Cyclists’ Union wrote on their local website: “It took a 30 year struggle, but on Monday 3 August 2020 it finally happened: the Van Berckelstraat in Den Bosch was closed to cars. From now on, next to cycling, only buses are allowed to pass through the narrow gate to and from the city centre.”

A banner was put up in the street where almost all residents were in favour of the closure. It reads: “A PROMISE = A PROMISE. MAKE THIS STREET CAR FREE.” diagonally on top of that: “THANKS! WE GOT IT DONE” signed: the local green party “De Bossche Groenen”.

The local green party (De Bossche Groenen) had celebrated in early June 2020, but at that time it wasn’t known when exactly the measure would take effect. This political party was one of the organisations to fight for the closing along with the residents. They feel the council took the decision to close the street in 2014. The residents, on the other hand, claim they were promised much earlier. They say the street would become car free shortly they bought their apartments in 1998. The pressure from local politicians and a petition in 2019 (in which 378 people voted in favour of the closing) finally did lead to an investigation into the possibilities at the request of the municipality in 2019.

Signs announcing the closing of the street. It was closed on the 3rd of August at 7pm. (19h). For more information the public can visit a website: denbosch.nl/vanberckelstraat.

The council didn’t share the opinion that decisions had been taken. Although a possible closing was mentioned in a traffic plan in 2009 which was repeated in its implementation proposal in 2013, the council said nothing definitive was decided. However, one of the senior local politicians tweeted that a decision was taken as far back as 1994 (and that is more in line with what the Cyclists’ Union remembers). “Thanks to the Bossche Groenen the closing finally became a reality.” I don’t think we will ever know how this unfolded exactly, but the 2019 investigation was a turning point.

The traffic wardens had a tough job. Many drivers wanted to use the street regardless of the signs and the presence of the wardens. One said in the newspapers that they had to stop about 200 cars per day in the beginning.
Buses could drive into the flexible bollards to flex it and then just drive over it. That went wrong on the second day when one driver tried to flex a concrete block instead. After a while the posts had flexed so often that they broke. They have not been replaced since.

So why would people want to close this street in the first place? Let’s look at what kind of street this was. The route is the final part of a main cycle route from the north of the city to the city centre. After priority for cycling for 5 kilometres (which I showed in an earlier post) the cycling infrastructure then suddenly stopped. For about 175 metres this was a street with a speed limit for motor traffic of 50km/h. The street ended at a very narrow bridge, after which the city centre was reached. This is of course not what you would expect for a main cycle route! The street had to handle about 4,000 motor vehicles per day (count in 2020). The figures for cycling were old (2012) and they are most likely too low, but there were 7,000 to 8,000 cyclists per day in that year. Many buses were also using this street: 20 to 24 per hour, per direction, depending on the time of day. The housing that was built in 1998/1999 used the historic alignment. Which meant that the street was too narrow for all the traffic using it. The drawbridge at the city centre side was a bottle neck. This bridge was and is extremely narrow. This had led to crashes in the past. In a video of 2011, I described one such crash. There was no way to build cycling infrastructure that would meet the standards of a main cycle route. The only real solution was banning motor traffic, but the consecutive councils didn’t want to decide that. In turn, that meant the street was not touched for over 30 years, which made the design inadequately old-fashioned.

In the before situation motor traffic had to use the same space as people cycling. In a street with a 50km/h speed limit that has become rather unusual in most places in the Netherlands. In ʼs-Hertogenbosch it was one of the last of its kind.
The bridge at the end of the street was even narrower. Dutch schoolchildren do take their space regardless, but things can be organised a lot safer than this.
It is interesting that the street looked like it was designed for cars, even though there were almost twice as many people cycling in this street than there were motor vehicles.

With these traffic volumes in mind and considering it is a main cycle route (which was confirmed in the consecutive traffic plans) it was painfully clear which type of traffic needed to give. Yet, the 2019 investigation came with no less than 21 possible solutions! They were all discussed with stakeholders ranging from residents, the bus company, emergency services, the society of entrepreneurs, the Cyclists’ Union, politicians and of course city representatives. The consultants spoke with city experts from a number of departments and backgrounds: cycle traffic, public transport, traffic light installations, urban design, design and use of public space, the environment and political decision making.

Some people complained about the detours, but if you look at the most likely destinations south of the bridge, two parking garages, and you pick random points from where people would likely drive to those places the difference in distance is small or even non-existent. Left: before 4.2km and after 4.7km. Right: before and after 3.5km.

The investigation narrowed down the number of viable solutions to five preferred solutions. Out of those five, which were discussed again with all stakeholders, one was preferred the most by all the people involved. This was the option “Cycle street with buses as guest”, as an added bonus for the municipality this was also the cheapest option. It is an unexpected solution maybe, because it doesn’t meet the Sustainable Safety standards. Buses and cycling are so different in speed and mass that the two should not be using one shared space according to the Sustainable Safety recommendations. That is why the consultants advised in their report to do a trial for at least half a year. After which a definitive design can be established. It is a pity the city does not follow all the recommendations. The consultancy advised to make the surface red during the trial. That way traffic users would better understand that this is meant as cycle space where buses are to behave as guest. Importantly it means that the buses should adapt their speed to cycling speeds. The city did try to make sure no cars can enter (another recommendation). Wardens at either end of the closed street stopped at least 200 private cars per day in the first weeks. And that was even when there were temporary flexible bollards between two fixed blocks of concrete to stop the cars from entering. The buses had to slowly drive between the concrete blocks into the centre post to flex it and then continue. That went wrong on the second day. A bus driver who had to do this for the first time had apparently misunderstood the instructions and tried to flex the concrete barrier… The bus mounted the concrete block while it pushed that block into the street for about 25 metres. I apologize for finding this very amusing. The crash nicely illustrated that road users had to get used to the new situation.

In the before situation buses and people cycling were in each other’s way. It was not pleasant to ride like this with a bus so close behind you.
With all other motor traffic gone and the gates to the street in the centre the buses stay much more in the middle of the street in the after-situation. That makes it a lot easier, more convenient and hopefully also safer to share the space like this.

Unfortunately the flexible posts were not designed to flex so often, they are normally meant to only be flexed in case of an emergency, not up to 48 times per hour. So after just days they broke and they have not been replaced. That means some drivers now use the street again, illegally. That the buses are meant to behave as guest is also not clear to all bus drivers. They seem to drive much faster than cycling speed, although I do know that may be deceiving simply because of their size. Buses seem to go faster because they are so huge and intimidating. I hope the city takes all these factors into account when the trial is evaluated. There is a risk the results will be skewed because of all these differences with the recommendations.

The atmosphere in the street changed dramatically. Without cars the noise levels and the way it smells are completely different.

Having said all that; the street does feel much better than before! I am not alone in this opinion, people expressed this on twitter for instance. The noise is almost gone (60% of all buses in ʼs-Hertogenbosch are  -very silent- electric buses) and the exhaust fumes have been reduced notably. The alderman for traffic has announced that no matter the outcome, the street will not be reopened to private motor traffic again between the end of the trial and the redesign. The quality of this street can really only get better. To be continued!

This week’s video: the closing of Van Berckelstraat in ʼs-Hertogenbosch.

Extra posts in October and November!

Now that the darker months of the year have started again (in the northern hemisphere at least) I hope to have a treat for you. Every Monday in October and November I will publish an extra post offering you a video with a bike ride somewhere in the Netherlands. They range from 19 minutes to 1 hour and 45 minutes (!) and I hope that will be a welcome diversion now that the Corona crisis keeps most people from actually cycling (in the Netherlands) themselves. The regular posts on Wednesdays will continue as usual. The nine rides will often have a link to one of my posts. I will publish the first ride on 5 October next.

9 thoughts on “ʼs-Hertogenbosch has finally closed a street to motor traffic

  1. An important factor determining the relative smoothness of interaction between cyclists and car drivers in the Netherlands is that these are largely overlapping groups. People driving a car are familiar with the perspective of a cyclist and vice versa. The choice ‘car or bicycle’ is more practical than ideological.
    Another point: also in the Netherlands one finds an equivalent to the ‘Spårviddshinder’, the ‘bussluis’.

  2. As far as signs concerned this is not a cyclestreet, but a regular street, still with a Vmax of 50km/h (sidestreets have a Vmax of 30km/h). At 3:28 you can even see “Lijnbus” painted on the road. Something you would not do on a cycle street.

    And even then… A cycle street has still no legal status. So there should be a sign stating that Vmax = 15 or 30 km/h.

    So… the buses are not speeding

  3. On Apple Maps it shows that car access is possible on this street… I guess that will change over time but do you think that this sort of routing could influence car drivers positively?

  4. Surprised to see how hard advocates have to work in the Netherlands – nearly as hard as we work in NYC. Congratulations on this – good work! For us to get Central Park “car free,” it took 52 years and 100,000 signatures. There’s still some cheating but it is vastly better.

    1. It probably differs on a case-by-case basis. But people don’t like change in general. The Dutch are no exception. Although many people did support petition in Den Bosch, there were likely others who didn’t, for whatever reason. They are so fortunate to have such a bike and people-friendly society, but most of my Dutch colleagues don’t ever think about it. They take it for granted and are by no means anti-car. Many of them already have a car or would like to own someday. While they understand and may support the things that make their cities and towns more people-friendly, it’s not like they love the inconveniences of driving in cities. My colleagues always dread having to drive to places such as Utrecht, knowing how convoluted and a pain it will be. If you were to tell them that it is going to become even more of a hassle to drive, the reaction isn’t going to be an enthusiastic one.

      It’s probably a bit different in the busier cities, where the percentage of car-free households are higher. But most of my colleagues live in smaller cities, towns or villages. None of them want to be car-free or have to rely only on public transport to go longer distances. This maybe doesn’t directly relate to the topic of this article, but I’ve talked to many of my American friends who have this idea that because it’s so bike-friendly here, the Dutch must be anti-car as a society. That is definitely not my observation.

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