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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.