Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Proof of the Appelgebakken

It’s well known that there are more bicycles than people in the Netherlands. It’s not surprising.  Many people own a grubby ‘station bike’ that can be parked all day at the local railway station, a nicer ‘town bike’ for doing local shopping trips.  The Dutch are not a nation of ‘cyclists’ however, they just use bikes, along with trains, buses, trams and cars as a mode of transport.  The vast majority of trips (72%) are short local trips under 5km, half of these are less than 2.5km, and only 8% over 7.5km.  The bike replaces both walking and driving as a mode of transport for short journeys compared to UK behaviour.  Cakes (especially apple cake), beer and coffee play a key role in fuelling local transport.  Imagine how pleasant our towns would be if petrol stations were gradually replaced by cake and coffee shops!

I have been fortunate to attend a number of ‘technical tours’ to the Netherlands since the 1990s, and my Masters degree was administered by the NHL University in Leeuwarden, home of the Shared Space Institute.  I have spent very little time as a casual visitor so this year I took the opportunity to catch up with some Dutch friends and take a two-week tour covering over 500 miles and taking in towns, cities and national parks around the country (I visited Den Haag, Delft, Utrecht, Houten, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Nijmegen as well as the Utrecht Ridge, Hoog Veluwe and Zeeland national parks).  I promised my wife not to bang on too much about infrastructure but here's a few observations and lessons for the UK.

 I started off by riding up the coast to Den Haag via the Hook of Holland. The vast Europort is a bit of a maze but the route to the foot ferry to the Hook of Holland is clearly signed and uses a mix of cycle tracks and quieter roads.  At Hook of Holland there was a Dutch ‘traffic jam’ as maybe 50 cyclists were waiting to get on a ferry designed to carry up to 20 bikes!
Dutch traffic jam!
This is part of the North Sea Cycle Route ‘LF1’ similar to our National Cycle Network.  For the most part it’s what the Dutch call a ‘Fietspad’ and what in Britain we would call ‘a shared use route’.  The traffic free coastal route passes through the dunes and alongside beaches and promenades is typically 4.0m wide with either a concrete or tarmac surface.  Priorities are clearly marked at road junctions, sometimes the cycle route has priority, but at the busier beach car park access roads cyclists are expected to stop for cars if necessary.  Pedestrians using the route are heavily outnumbered by cyclists and people tend to always walk or cycle on the right, moving right to let faster cyclists pass. It’s all good natured, conducted with a ping on the bell, a ‘hi’ or a wave, although a bell is very much the preferred way and the Dutch weren’t impressed that our touring bikes didn’t have them.
Fietspad:  A ‘Fietspad’ is the most basic form of provision in the Netherlands. It is not compulsory to use them, but they can offer a short-cut or quiet scenic route.  They can be anything from an unsurfaced single track footpath, a farm track, a 1.5m – 2.0m surfaced strip alongside a dirt track, or a full 3.0m or 4.0m wide two-way cycle path.  They are almost always shared with pedestrians, but there are few pedestrians because most people are on bikes.  In rural areas the surface is often gravel or sandy tracks - not great for UK style touring bikes laden with luggage but fine for big tyre Dutch bikes.
I entered Den Haag along tree-lined avenues where one side of the road was given over to a two-way cycle track, with a narrow 1.0m footway alongside it and a wider footway on the other side of the road.  This arrangement is quite typical on the main routes into towns and cities, and even in central Amsterdam cycle contraflows are provided on what used to be the canal side ‘footway’ while pedestrians use the footway on the side of the road next to buildings.  It works perfectly well, pedestrians seem to accept it and tourists who stray onto the cycle track soon learn some Dutch swear words. Would it work in the UK where there are more pedestrians than cyclists? Would it even get beyond public consultation? I’m not sure but we can only learn by trying. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has one side reserved for pedestrians, the other for cyclists and on the whole it works, even in a car-centric culture such as the USA. 
Cycle tracks: Cycle tracks are provided alongside most busy and high speed roads in the Netherlands and in such circumstances it is mandatory to use the track and illegal to use the carriageway.  The cut off point in Netherlands design guidance for providing cycle tracks is about 3000 vehicles per day.  If this rule of thumb is applied in the UK most roads require separate cycle tracks!  The cycle track will sometimes take a different and more circuitous route than the carriageway, occasionally three sides around a field or away from a big junction.  It is not uncommon for the cycle track to swap from one side of the road to another at an uncontrolled crossing point running diagonally across the road.  The tracks are generally 4.0m wide for two way use or 2.0m for one way use but older ones are narrower.  They always have a sealed surface of concrete or tarmac but concrete block paving is also widely used in urban areas, which can be slippery and uneven.  The riding surfaces are generally good, but sometimes inferior to the adjacent carriageway tarmac.

Cycle tracks are provided along busier roads and cycling is not permitted on the carriageway. 
There is usually no footway in rural and suburban areas so pedestrians (and mopeds) also use this surface. Centre line markings help to indicate two-way use. The amount of space available to the verge and cycle track is as wide as the carriageway (the Dutch guidelines recommend verge width of 4.5m to 6.0m in rural areas, 1.0m in residential areas), so cyclists are well away from fast moving traffic and bus stops, filling stations etc don't cause conflict points.  Side road crossings can be set back from the junction mouth. In the UK the highway boundary is usually not so generous and a cycle track by a major road is often just 0.5m from the carriageway which is noisy, unpleasant and potentially hazardous especially at side roads.  On motorways and trunk roads in the Netherlands, the cycle route will typically run alongside a parallel quiet road used for residential and farm access linked with short sections of cycle track at any discontinuities.  The ‘Non-Motorised User Audit’ in the UK offers the opportunity to develop this kind of approach when building or improving UK trunk roads and other major infrastructure such as High Speed rail but it requires sufficient land allocation right from the start of the design process to accommodate the cycle track.  It should be mandatory to provide this standard of track as part of the recently announced road building programme.
Turning left (right in UK) on busy roads is usually achieved by way of a two-stage turn, crossing one arm of the junction and then the other. This is often done with a push button signal control, and the cyclist may have to wait up to 30-40 seconds at each arm at busy locations during peak traffic.  This can be frustrating at dual carriageways and major intersections where what could be achieved in a single movement on the carriageway is replaced by 3 or 4 separate moves, but this is the only way to avoid mixing with the traffic.  In Amsterdam and some other cities there are count-down displays at the signals to help discourage red light jumping by cyclists. One feature that differs from the UK is that the cycle (and pedestrian) crossing operates at the same time as the green for turning motor traffic, which is obliged to give way to pedestrians and cyclists on the crossings.  This helps reduce delay at the signals but it can be a bit worrying to see an HGV turning into your path as you cross the road. The traffic does (nearly) always stop though!  This type of signal phasing needs to be trialled in the UK as it is not currently used and would require a national driver awareness programme.
At smaller signalled junctions and at less busy periods, the cyclist is detected by an induction loop in the cycle track that triggers the light automatically so it changes to green as you approach, or the cycle track has priority over the carriageway.  This works well for cyclists because on the whole you can keep moving at most junctions.  It avoids much of the ‘stop start’ effort associated with segregated facilities where they are provided in the UK.  Keeping the cyclist moving is a big part of Dutch design. The additional effort required for each stop/start on a bike is equivalent to adding 200m to the journey, significant when most journeys by bike are very short. It also helps to eliminate problems of 'red light running' by eliminating the need to stop unnecessarily (e.g. for UK equivalent of turning left out of a side road there is usually no requirement to stop as the whole turn is done within separate cycle tracks and stopping is only required to cross motor traffic lanes).

At minor road junctions it is a requirement to give way to traffic from the right, even when travelling straight ahead, so drivers and cyclists generally take more care (than in the UK) when there are other vehicles in the vicinity of a junction.
Minor Roads
Outside urban  centres the volume of motor traffic on all roads is appreciably less than in the UK.  I think this is due to several factors:
·         Nearly all short local journeys are on bike, so trips to the pub, the beach, to see friends and relations don’t generate as much suburban and rural traffic. In particular many older and younger people use bikes, so there are relatively few young drivers in ‘hot hatches’ on the road, fewer people taking kids to school and activities by car, and fewer elderly ‘Sunday driver’ types.
·         There are more quiet roads and paths available for cycling – much of the Netherlands is on a grid pattern, either in city streets or field boundaries with paths along dykes, canal banks, farm tracks, minor roads and paths alongside large rivers all forming parts of urban and rural cycle routes.  There are therefore many routes to choose from compared to hilly areas of the UK where transport is concentrated into narrow corridors, so there is a dispersal effect on traffic;
·         There is relatively little ‘out of town’ development compared to the UK, with few large supermarkets and shopping malls.  Life still revolves around compact town and city centres with the larger stores placed at the edge of the core area rather than completely separated .
·         The Netherlands has a population of under 17m (404 per sq km), much of which is concentrated in the conurbations around Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht.  The UK population is 63m, largely concentrated in England, particularly the south-east. London’s population density is 5,200 per sq km compared to 3,500 per sq km in Amsterdam and its total population is over three times greater.  The Netherlands second largest city, Rotterdam, has a population of 600,000, considerably less than Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham etc. 

·         Traffic is concentrated on the motorways and ‘A’ roads that provide good inter-urban connections.  The lower categories of road generally do not provide good direct routes for cars, and this pattern is reinforced by limited crossing points of major rivers such as the Rhine and Maas as ferry services have limited capacity for cars and don’t carry HGVs.
·         The Netherlands primary industry is agriculture which generates relatively few trips.
·       There is a much higher capacity of suburban rail services to enable bike-rail commuting.
The default provision along most minor roads with speed limits up to 60kmh is cycle lanes or a shared road with no markings at all.  The width of such roads is usually insufficient to allow a centre line and cycle lanes, so the centre line has been removed and replaced with the cycle lanes, effectively changing the road from a double traffic lane to a single lane.  This treatment is widely applied on roads with up to 300 pcu per hour (roughly 3,000 vehicles per 12 hour period) but becomes unacceptable due to the number of oncoming vehicle conflicts on roads with over 400 pcu per hour. 

The replacement of the centre line with cycle lanes makes a huge difference to the look and feel of the roads and helps reduce traffic speeds
If there is insufficient width for cycle lanes, edge of carriageway markings are sometimes provided to visually narrow the carriageway to a single lane as this helps reduce vehicle speeds.  At danger points such as bridges, crests and blind corners and sometimes at  junctions the centre line is kept and the cycle lanes are discontinued. 
The cycle lanes are often only 1.0m wide, but this is less of an issue than in the UK due to lower traffic volumes and speeds.  These roads are rarely bounded by kerbs, and the concrete surface drainage is designed to enable vehicles to over-run it on narrower roads.  This gives the cyclist a greater sense of space and separation compared to a UK road of similar width that is bounded by kerbs and walls, often with drainage gulley grates in the carriageway.


Even on narrow roads cycle lanes are used to give clear dedicated space
On block paved roads through central and residential areas the speed limit is almost always 30kmh and the cycle lane is marked by a change in the pattern of the blockwork, but rarely with any paint or signs. These are ‘virtual’ cycle lanes with no legal meaning.  They are usually narrow (as the whole road width is typically 5 – 7 m) and may run directly alongside parallel or echelon parking with no separating margin.  It’s clear that they can have no real impact on safety, but offer a sense of continuity and sometimes a smoother surface than the all purpose lane.  They are also used where cyclists are allowed to contraflow on one-way streets, which is virtually every one way street.
The key to success of these roads is adherence to low traffic speed limits and the low flows of traffic so that cyclists rarely feel threatened by passing vehicles.   Opposing vehicles move from the centre of the road into the cycle lanes to pass one another.  On the whole, Dutch drivers seem more content to hang back and wait until it’s safe to pass although at busy times there is close overtaking and cutting in as in the UK.
There are many minor roads throughout the UK where this type of provision could be introduced. It works well on quiet roads and in central areas of towns and villages with low (30kmh) speed limits.  It is of less benefit if there is extensive kerbside parking or high traffic flows.
It is difficult to know whether the Netherlands is really much 'quieter' than the UK or whether the fact that a mode share of 25% for cycling simply eliminates a high proportion of local car traffic making the roads so much more pleasant.  I spent the last few days of my holiday in Zeeland, a popular holiday destination for Belgian and German tourists with poor rail connections.  There was much more traffic on the roads and faster, more aggressive driving.  The 'fietspads' were full of pedestrians instead of cyclists and suddenly the infrastructure that had seemed so ideal for the previous 10 days was not quite working so well. Similarly in some of the hilly areas around Nijmegen, highway space was constrained and consequently the quality of cycle infrastructure was compromised by the topography.  There was some infrastructure just about everywhere, and consistently lower speed limits on roads where cyclists share the carriageway, so the almost daily UK experience of a 'near miss' when out cycling is a rarity in the Netherlands.  Dutch cyclists are pretty poor at signalling, but they do 'look' carefully and interact with each other and drivers.  There is rarely a requirement to move into the centre of the carriageway and 'take the lane' but on the other hand drivers seem to take extra care and be prepared to stop around junctions in the anticipation that cyclists will turn. This is in contrast to the UK where you may do everything correctly and still find yourself being undertaken/driven at by some outraged purple face motorist who 'pays road tax'!
The main lesson for the UK is that safety is not just about separate cycle tracks, its about the whole system of sustainable safety and minimising delays to cyclists, treating them with the same dignity and priority as other road users.  There is no 'hierarchy of users' in the Netherlands. Bicyclists and pedestrians are not deemed 'more important' than cars and buses, but all users are considered in road design and the ideal solution takes account of the function of the road, the mix of traffic and the role of the route in the wider transport network.
The cycle tracks alongside the coast road in Zeeland fill up with pedestrians from nearby campsites in the summer.