Back to the Future

Mark Wagenbuur has put together a fascinating video (thanks to David Hembrow) on the evolution of a Dutch street (in Utrecht) over time; of particular interest is the creeping automobilization of the street in the 1970s-80s, only to see a subsequent reversion to historical precedents (or what we now call “complete streets”).

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2009 at 4:21 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Cities, Commuting, Congestion, Roads. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “Back to the Future”

  1. Michael Says:

    It’s a frightening ride to me, an American used to getting around by bicycle. I read it as an endless series of automotive-death-traps we’re rolling straight through at speed, mixed with endless opportunities to smash into a pedestrian. All those very dangerous cross-streets and driveways you’d never want to cross off at the side like this in America. I see a few pedestrians in the cycle-path and some bike-salmon coming right at us, but not nearly the number I’d expect in America. Also, of course, more parked bicycles than can be imagined.

  2. John Says:

    Notice from the 30s on, as bike facilities increased, the number of cyclists decreased. This isn’t an improvement for cyclists – it’s relegation to the margins of the street, enforced by mandatory path use laws.

    I’d estimate the safe speed on that facility to be 10 mph. You were riding too fast, judging by all the cyclists you were passing. If this sort of path were installed on my 5 mile commute route, it would double my transit time. I’d wind up driving instead.

  3. fred_dot_u Says:

    Michael, your observations about how this might not work in the USA seem accurate to me. I posted a comment on the YouTube site to that effect and the video owner told me it was the infrastructure, not the operators that make it safe.

    As a cyclist with too many years and too many miles riding in the US, I believe that it is very much the operators of the motor vehicles who would make such a design impossible in our country.

    I’d be happy to ride that cycle-way in that country, but for the USA, I’m taking the lane.

  4. David Hembrow Says:

    Michael, you can’t see all details of the design from the video.

    Amongst the things you don’t see are the way that the corners at road junctions are designed. Corners here have a very small radius compared with the US or UK, and it’s simply not possible to drive around them at speed. The motorist has to slow right down to turn, and by doing so they stop the traffic on the road (cyclists can therefore make better progress on the cycle path than on the road).

    Similarly, to pull out from a side street the motorist has to drive over a raised surface which slows them down.

    As a result of the slow speed of motorists in both directions, there are actually adequate sight lines on this cycle path.

    These are but two examples of how the infrastructure causes motorists behaviour to be better, and increases the convenience of cyclists vs. motorists.

    There are cycle paths quite similar to this on some sections of my (30 km each way) commute. I have no problems with motorists at all. It’s very different from the experience I had in the UK, where infrastructure is very much like the American model, and clashes with motorists are a virtually daily experience.

    Not only is the Dutch infrastructure more pleasant and safer to use, it’s also a lot more efficient for the cyclist. I could never commute on Britain’s roads with such a high average speed as I have here on the cycle paths.

  5. Jeroen van Wilgenburg Says:

    @Michael: This is not a very good example for a typical street in Utrecht.
    In the center of Utrecht there’s much more traffic. Tourists on the cycle lanes to take pictures, unware that there are people in this world who use a bicycle. Tens of people waiting at the traffic lights (and about the same number ignoring the lights). The Amsterdamsestraatweg just isn’t going anywhere useful. Almost all the facilities are in the center of the city.

    As you can see on the map there is a highway called A2 that runs parallel to the Amsterdamsestraatweg. Everything in Utrecht is constructed in a way that it’s much more efficient to drive to the nearest onramp of a highway. The Amsterdamsestraatweg is way to slow by car. That’s why it has become such a quiet street.,5.061607&spn=0.032048,0.083599&t=h&z=14

  6. Mark Wagenbuur Says:

    Interesting to see my video here too. Judging from the comments it seems I did not get the message I tried to convey across to everybody. It is obviously hard to be clear when we all have such completely different frames of reference. I feel I do need to correct some facts that could now be misunderstood because of the comments.

    – This road is a typical heavily used major artery in the city of Utrecht. It is one of several connections between the ring around the historic city center and the city’s inner ring road from which cars can reach freeways. The ring road crosses this street at the major junction video 1 ends with and video 2 starts with. Many residential areas are connected with the city center by this road. That it is a main road is also clear from the yellow color this street has on the Google map of which Jeroen provided a link.

    – It is not the main road from Utrecht to Amsterdam, not since the late 1950s when the A2 freeway was finished. There Jeroen is correct.

    – The main objective of this movie was to show that the city of Utrecht did an excellent job here. Within the limitations of a width of the street that was designed in 1812 they succeeded in putting in all today’s functions and traffic and still make the street safe and pleasant to use for all groups of users (Peds / Cyclists/ Motorized traffic). Moreover the street’s attractiveness has notably improved since 2000 when the current design took shape. It can be seen by new better quality shops, less empty buildings and an overall improvement of the street’s (busy) atmosphere.

    – Cycling in general did indeed decrease from the 1950s onward in the Netherlands, as it did in the rest of the world. But the assumption of John that cycling decreased because of these facilities is not correct. From about 1975, when major cycling facilities started to appear in Dutch cities, not only did cycling increase again, it became a lot safer too. (The risk of non-fatal injury is 30 times higher in the US than it is in the Netherlands. Data from ‘Making cycling irresistible’). On any given day there can be a lot more cyclists than you see in this video, because it was filmed on a Monday afternoon in School Summer holidays.

    – No Dutch cyclist will perceive the current layout of this street as being pushed to the margins of the street. Nor will they see the side streets as death traps. On the contrary. I have used this street on a daily basis in the early 1980s and I know how terribly dangerous it was to have to ride with the cars, busses and trucks. There was always danger of being doored. Parking cars had to cross the cycle lane and did that in high numbers. Cyclists were a lot less visible for turning cars, because of the sharper angle when cyclists are nearer. (They are more ‘behind’ a car that way, now they are more to the right of a car that already did turn before it has to give way to the cyclists). The speed of turning cars (and that of approaching cars from the side streets) is a lot less now because the cycle path and the pedestrian area is raised, also increasing safety. David explained that very clearly in his comment.

    – This current design is not only safer, it feels more pleasant too. It shields cyclists from moving traffic by the parked cars. Pedestrians benefit as well: they are even further away from the driving cars and busses. They have both parked cars and a bicycle path between them. The clear curb between the cycle path and pedestrians makes that the latter stay out of the cycle path naturally. (At least most of the time.)

    – I cycled this street in an average speed of circa 15.5 mph (20kph). That is slightly above average hence the overtaking of cyclists. But it is well within safe margins. I would have done it even faster without the camera in one hand. I was never able to reach that average in the 1980s when I was riding on the road with motorized traffic.

    – Designs like this are very well possible in the US or elsewhere. In fact examples do exist already. See here:

  7. Michael Says:

    You can force people to slow down with small-radius curves (and maybe with bumps, though speedbumps often don’t seem to slow people down), but you can’t make them look. One thing that helps there is that motorists looking for cyclists will, in fact, often seem them and have to stop for them. Without that volume, as in America most places, people might perfunctorily glance in the general direction of the potential cyclists, but they’re going to be pretty much set to sail through because they won’t expect to see anyone. Mostly there won’t be anyone, after all.

    We (Americans, anyway) are still left with the question of how the Dutch make left turns. You’re trapped to the right of the right-turning traffic, and can’t just merge over to the leftmost lane for a normal left turn.

  8. Mark Wagenbuur Says:

    There is really no difference in making left turns where that is allowed. We simply position our car in the centre of the street and wait until there is no approaching traffic and make the turn. Approaching traffic includes pedestrians and cyclists.
    In this particular street there are lines and arrows on the street so you know exactly where it is safe to stop for your left turn.
    This can be seen very cleary in this video of the exact same street from a car: especially when you pause at 0:33/0:34.

    I really don’t see the problem with “looking”. A driver who makes a turn (left or right) and who doesn’t look will miss pedestrians as well and they have the right of way over turning cars here too. (I don’t think that is different anywhere else.) A driver overlooking pedestrians is in my opinion not qualified for driving.

    I take it you have never driven over a Dutch speedbump in high speed. We all do it… once. You are lucky if you didn’t smash your head.
    These bumps DO make you drive slow!

  9. Michael Says:

    But the *cyclists* can’t get to that left turn lane, can they? On my way to work every morning, I merge over to the left, enter the left-turn-only lane, and make my left turn along with all the people in cars. The straight-through and right-turning traffic is all to my right, and no factor. The rest of the left-turning traffic is over in the left-turning lane with me, no conflict. But if you are cycling to the right of the parked cars, to the right of the right-turning car traffic, to the right of the straight-through car traffic, to the right of the left-turning car traffic, how do you turn left?

    The feared conflict at intersections is the ‘right hook,’ right-turning cars hitting cyclists going straight through. That’s why I’m out well into the right lane as I pass through intersections. When stopped at intersections I’m either well out into, and blocking, the right lane so people can’t turn in front of me, or, time and traffic permitting, I’ll have merged into the left lane so I can wait with the rest of the straight-through traffic and not block right-turn-on-red traffic in the right lane. If you are planning to go straight through but are to the right of people who are turning right, you’ll get hit.

    Pedestrians would be wise to look and make sure the right-turning motorists are actually yielding to them. Because pedestrians are hardly moving, this is easy. And they can stop in one step if the have to. A cyclist at 25 or 30 km/hr can’t pause and look back for right-turning traffic. The motorist can fairly easily avoid pedestrians who are more-or-less right in front of him. The cyclist going 25 or 30 km/hr, though, is way back up the road. Remember that I’m assuming that nearly every time, the motorist will not encounter a cyclist, and won’t be ready for the rare conflict. You’re probably used to there being cyclists present nearly every time someone turns, and they’d darn well better be careful.

  10. Mark Wagenbuur Says:

    A cyclist makes a left turn by crossing the driveway entirely at once and in a straight line at a 90 degree angle to motorized traffic.
    Places where you can do that can be seen in video 1 at almost every side street. But for instance at 4:33 it is clearly in sight. A cyclist turning left goes to the left of the cycle path in time to slow down and turns to the crossing area. There he/she has room to fully stop and be in nobody’s way. He/she can then look left and right for motorized traffic and cross to the other side in one straight line. You don’t have to twist your head at all since all traffic is at a 90 degree angle and you have all the time in the world because you are in a safe zone and hinder absolutely no-one. Not even other cyclists. At the main junctions traffic lights control the flow of traffic and there it is even easier.

    The essence of our separated system is that there are two sorts of traffic which both have their own type of driveway/path and which only cross each other’s path at right angles.
    Ideally only where the speed difference is very low (e.g. where cars can only do 30kph) cyclists and cars use the same part of the street. And then we do everything exactly the same way you are used to do it.

  11. Bill T. Says:


    In message 6 you say you were traveling at “15.5 mph (20kph)”. 20 kph is only about 12.5 mph — what speed were you *actually* going? (-:

    If it really was 20 kph — ugh. As a bicycle commuter from Portland, Oregon, I find that I will *average* about 13 mph on an hour-long commute, and that includes all the stop lights and hills and dogs on long leashes and….

  12. Mark Wagenbuur Says:

    Bill you are right, it was ‘only’ 12.5 mph or a little over 20 kph. For such a busy street that is okay I think. On streets with less side streets outside the city center you can make a higher average. The other day I was ‘accidentally measured’ by a device that normally only informs drivers if they go too fast in a 30kph zone. To my surprise it said I was going 28kph and the device gave me thumbs up! 😉 But I never knew I went that fast on my ordinary city bike.

  13. James Says:

    There is far less accidents per bicycle rider in The Netherlands,Norway, etc then in the US, Great Britain or Australia whose countries are to car centred. In my books whatever they do we should copy….

    They also have moree cyclists so the drivers actually look out for them.

  14. James Says:

    Sorry I meant Norway & Denmark

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