Welcome to the Netherlands. We’re building roads differently. They are better, safer and less stressful for cyclists, and that also makes them better, safer and less stressful for motorists. Here is how it works:
(based on a Twitter Thread)
What does it look like?
I am living in a village. That means a speed limit of 30 km/h inside the city limits, and that is being enforced by the design of the road.
The red path is only a subordinate cycle path. On the other side of the canal, to the left, is the real cycle path. The bridge in the background is leading over to it.
It looks like this:
In the background you can see the traffic sign on the right hand side of the road, and the bridge. I am standing on the footpath, the bike path is on the left hand side.
Let’s move forward to the bridge:
In the mornings this is a very busy spot, because there are two basic schools down the road over the bridge, and of course all the children are biking to school.
School begins the day after the fourth birthday (and groep 1 and 2 is what in germany would be preschool, but it’s mandatory) and it can be reasonably expected from children of this age to be able to bike to school under their own power, but supervised. Children of group 3 and over can be expected to bike school unsupervised, and the environment must be built to enable this, and to allow them to roam around the city limits in order to go to sports or visity friends.
Dynamic traffic lights
My village is next to the N205. That is a multilane motorway, a national street, an A-road. On the other side is the Schiphol runway “Polderbaan”.
A cycling traffic light in the Netherlands looks like this. The “tikker” (call button) is only a formality, but good to hold yourself upright on the bike should you ever have to wait.
Usually you don’t. That’s because of the sensors in the road: Two here (in order to measure direction and speed), and one more directly where the Tikker is. If you are driving the design speed of the cycle path (In the Netherlands that’s 15 km/h), and the traffic allows that, you will have green exactly when you are reaching the light.
That is because almost all traffic lights around here are dynamically controlled and have variable cycle times. The moment the last car or bike is clearing the crossing the light goes yellow and the waiting time for crossing traffic is shortened.
All of that under the principle that pedestrians and cyclists have priority over car traffic at all times.
Interestingly enough: Cycle path design and rules make it possible for a cyclist to turn right at a crossing even when the light is red for motorists. It’s in the design of their crossings.
This article at Bicycle Dutch explains it in detail.
Go watch the video. But even then, let me highlight a few things from the video:
This is what is called a parking protected bike lane. The parked cars act as a protective wall against the cars on the street. Where there is room enough there is an exit zone that prevents dooring.
Also, everyone here is being drilled with the Dutch Reach, to the point where you fail your driving test in the last second if you do not exit the car properly after passing the final practical exam otherwise faultlessly.
Intersections in the Netherlands are a construct that is full of waiting pockets, staging areas that allow you to stop and wait without being pressured from the traffic behind you, until you are sure it is safe to move on.
That is true for cyclists. Here waiting cyclists can stop for the red light without being in the way of traffic that is moving straight on.
But it is even more true for cars. Motorists can handle one task (turning), and then the next one (handling crossing cyclists), avoiding dangerous multitasking and dangers from multiple directions.
If you are used to driving in Germany, that is unexpected and initially confusing. Take your time, and take the traffic step by step, it is designed this way. If the traffic designer did their job, there is only one dangerous thing happening at a time, and there is always a safe place to stop and double check. Also, the other drivers are expecting you to stop and take your time.
Danger Zone and the importance of consistency
In fact, when driving in the Netherlands you will eventually notice that the main spot to check for dangers is usually 45 degrees to the right over the hood. That is, because whenever space allows it the situation is designed so that you can wait without being pressured from behind, handle one situation at the time, and the situation is coming up at approximately this position from the front-right (or, where traffic makes it necessary, from the front-left).
Here an intersection, also with staging areas. The marked car has passed the cycle path and is now waiting to be able to safely merge, out of the way of the cycle path. A second car is coming up, waiting before the cycle path, making sure there are no cyclists coming and that the staging area is clearing.
The design and the marking of the cycle path with continous red color and shark teeth before the crossing make it clear to anyone that the cyclists have the right of way, even if the traffic signs weren’t there.
Raised curbs and patterning make the road visually smaller, encouraging drivers to stay below the speed limit.
Cycle paths are separated from the road, where possible with a soft shoulder and lawn in order to communicate that there is no roadside parking here.
The raised curb on the cycle path side also encourages cyclists to stay in the lane and make use of the marked path for crossing. That way separated types of traffic cross only in spots that are designed to make the crossing safely.
The same design language is applied everywhere, making roads readable to everyone intuitively. Here a car is turning right into a residential area. The curb is raised from street level with a bump and different paving, making it visually and haptically clear to a driver that the environment is changing. There is of course a staging area, so that turning and clearing the cycle path are two different, sequential tasks.
The cycle path makes a slight swerve to the right to allow for this. In the video it becomes clear that this does not slow down the cyclist. Again, soft lawn is being used to discourage drivers from shorting the turn and crossing the cycle path at a different angle that a clear 90 degrees.
Again, narrow roads in the Netherlands are a design tool. They make sure traffic types cross at a safe angle so that eye contact can be made, and together with speed bumps and raised curbs they help to keep speed down to safe levels. The design is built specifically so that drivers do not accelerate into a conflict zone.
The situation is built so that potential conflicts happen the 45 degress-to-the-right-over-the-hood angle that motorists are trained to double and triple check in urban areas, and with the car at rest or close to rest.
Consistent design language helps to make safety habitually automatic.
Roundabouts are safer and faster than intersections, but the same design principles and design language can be applied to this situation as well, even in historic old towns such as Amsterdam shown here.
We see the familiar Dutch design: Staging area for cars, separating the action of leaving the roundabout and clearing the cycle path. Road marking communicates bike priority. Shark teeth also help to communicate priority. The curb extension and the middle island separating the car lanes both keep the roads visually narrow and encourages drivers to position themselves properly and not cut corners.
The danger zone is positioned to the right-front for the car leaving the roundabout, traffic types intersect at 90 degree angle and with the car at rest or almost at rest. For the car entering the roundabout, the danger zone is the left-front, because there is no other option to make this possible.
Hierarchy of Mitigations
Of course, according to the OSHA Hierarchy of Mitigations, none of this is the best solution.
- Eliminate: Remove the cause of danger completely. A car-free environment.
- Substitute: Replace the hazardous work practice or machine with an alternative. Encourage and promote public transport.
- Isolate: Separate the hazard from the people at risk from injury. Cycle paths are separated from car roads with alternative routing, curbs, underpasses or other means of physical separation.
- Engineer controls: Physical changes, eg. redesign machine by adding safeguards. Speed bumps, and physical intersection design reduce risk of collision and injury.
- Administrative controls: Install signs, rotate jobs. Road signs (“Cyclists crossing!”, speed limit signs)
- PPE (Personal Protective Equipment): Provide gloves, earplugs, helmets. Bike helmets and high viz vests.
So while we have been speaking about intersection design, we have been essentially been speaking about level 4 methods from the OSHA hierarchy. Where space allows it, level 3 methods would be better.
And again, we can see them in the Dutch road design:
The roundabout shown in the video leads the cycle path through underpasses underneath the street, completely separating the car and bicycle traffic. That means no danger of collision, no traffic lights and no wait times for cyclists, ever. A way better solution that any intersection design.
The video finishes with two children passing an intersection on bikes. Again, we can see the dynamic traffic light control: The moment the second cyclist enters the intersection, the green phase is shortened and the light turns yellow. As soon as the intersection has been cleared, cross traffic can start.
This is not a space intensive design. It works in many historic old towns in the Netherlands, and any design up to code in the US (or Germany) can be converted to a safer Dutch design within the same space.
Did you say 15 km/h?
The design speed for cycle pathes in the Netherlands is for an average speed of 15 km/h.
The cycle infrastructure is excellent, and you can often and for long stretches read a much higher speed, but there are two core ideas behind the entire network that lead to the 15 km/h design speed:
“AAA”, “All Ages and Abilities” For a high cycling rates, it is important that anybody can cycle and feels safe doing so.
That leads to a design requirement in which a 4-year-old can cycle to school supervised, and a 6-year-old can cycle to school unsupervised, or an 80-year-old can use the cycle path safely and comfortably on a bike, trike or a suitable electrically assisted personal transport.
It also leads to the design requirement that two cyclists can ride abreast - parents riding with their children, or just two people riding together and chatting, like they would do in a car. A cycle path that wide (per direction) also enables overtaking, and has sufficient space for transport bikes.
The key idea is that bike pathes are a system for the many, not for the fittest.
Multimodal Transport The bike system in the Netherlands and the public transport (OV) system are designed to work together. The designers envision the bike trip of commuters to be <7.5km (<30m travel time on bike, <20m at 25 km/h), ending at a train station.
Train stations have large covered parking structures (free to use), and often offer additional services (“Bike repair while you are away to work”, “Sale of small service parts such as inner tubes or LED lights”). Haarlem station has a fairly typical station, I made a video. Note how the design language of the cycle tracks extends down even to the racks.
They also usually have NS OV Fiets lending stations. While public transport in the Netherlands is being run by a number of municipal and commercial operators, which are free to set prices and define zones as they see fit, the billing is unified and works via the nationwide OV Chipkaart - all trains, trams, buses and also the rental bikes offered at almost all train stations are being billed via one single card. Getting a rental is as easy as swiping your card, at a price of less than 3.60 EUR per day billed to the OV card.
Eltis explains multimodality in Dutch rail.
The dutch government provides Cycling Facts (PDF).
Bike use is x2.5 higher in the Netherlands than in Germany, on the average
Bike use is regionally different, and in some zones the usage quota is more than 50% of all trips shorter than 7.5km
Other Sources (in german language)
If you are looking for a more in depth discussion of all of this in german language, have a look at Wunderlösung Schutzkreuzung? by Darmstadt fährt Rad.
Be sure to also check out the detailed background references in the footers of the articles, and the details “view from the car” addenda in Teil 2, which show deadzones of cars and lorries in detail.
Also at “Darmstadt fährt Rad”:
- Kreuzung Deluxe 1: Einleitung
- Kreuzung Deluxe 2: Designelemente
- Kreuzung Deluxe 3: Funktion
- Kreuzung Deluxe 4: Fallbeispiele
- Kreuzung Deluxe 5: Neugestaltung einer deutschen Kreuzung
- Kreuzung Deluxe 6: Neugestaltung einer großen deutschen Kreuzung
These articles are a treasure trove of traffic design information in german language, and again are backed by a wealth of illustrations and linked sources.