100% segregation of bikes and cars

Written by David Hembrow
Monday, 2 April 2012

Source: A View from the Cycle Path

City centre street, no cars allowed. Clear signage gives loading times

Again and again I read comments of the form “even in Holland not all parts of rides are segregated” or talk of “similar road exposure” in the UK vs. the Netherlands. I’ve been accused of making out that the cycle-path network in the Netherlands is more extensive than it actually is.

Such comments are based on a misunderstanding of the differences between the way that roads and streets are designed and used in the two countries.

“Shared” street ? Not on an equal basis. It’s a through route for bikes but access only for cars.

The misunderstanding usually arises because someone notices the simple statistic which says that while the Netherlands has about 130000 km of roads, there are only about 29000 km of cycle-path.

This sounds, of course, like there is a serious short-fall of segregated cycle paths.

People look at these figures as if those 130000 km of roads are exactly the same as roads in their own country.

City centre streets are busy, but with bikes instead of cars

This is not the case and it is the wrong way to look at the figures.

Dutch people cycle on a mixture of cycle-paths and roads. However, this does not mean that cyclists in the Netherlands spend much of their time mixing with motor vehicles.

Over the last few decades, the Netherlands has unwoven the networks of car and bicycle routes. If you compare routes for the same journey by bicycle and by car, then in very many cases you will find that the two routes are very different to one another.

A child rides a bike in the middle of a bicycle street.

I’ve demonstrated this principle several times on this blog (1 2 34 5 6). In some cases the separation of routes is achieved by building of cycle-paths. However, in many others it is achieved by removing cars from the roads.

These days, very many roads and streets are not part of the route network for cars. They still allow access by car, so that people who live along them may reach their own homes, for instance, but they are not through routes by car. As a result, such streets are absolutely not dominated by cars. A cyclist using a road on such a route has much the same feelings about safety as someone using a cycle-path.

It is only when cycling doesn’t feel like an extreme sport that it can become so popular as it is in the Netherlands.

Residential street. No cycle-path, but not a through road for cars. Residents park here, but few moving cars seen.

Residential streets in the Netherlands rarely work as through roads for cars, even if they were originally designed to do so. This makes them excellent places to cycle or walk with a high degree of comfort and safety.

In some cases, this has been formalized by creation of woonerven, but many of the same characteristics can be found in residential streets which are not woonerven.

Woonerven have a speed limit of “walking pace”. However, they are not the only roads with low speed limits. In fact, over 40000 km of roads in the Netherlands, a third of the total, have a speed limit of 30 km/h or lower. This lowering of speeds on minor roads has been done to the maximum possible extent. It is now difficult to achieve more safety by this method.

In a village, primary school children cycle home unaccompanied on streets which are not through routes for cars. From an average age of 8.6, children travel unaccompanied.

The photos give examples of different roads and streets on which cyclists have the same feeling of subjective safety, and similar degree of actual safety, as on a cycle-path.

These principles are not used only in towns. They are also common in villages and in the countryside.

Minor streets in villages don’t work as through roads. This makes it possible for quite young children to cycle to school and back unaccompanied.

Between towns in the Netherlands you can often find two roads next to each other.One for cars, the other for cyclists, agricultural vehicles and access to homes. Sometimes the route for drivers isn’t visible from the route for cyclists.

Route signs in a village. Only one direction offered by car, lots by bike.

Even in the open countryside you can ride long distances by bike on “roads” and rarely see any cars at all. Such roads only make a through network by bicycle because they are joined by cycle-paths. For drivers, many roads in the countryside offer nothing more than long detours, dead-ends, and roads with rough surfaces which don’t get cleared in the winter.

Unravelling, or separating, the routes taken by motorists and cyclists has many advantages, including a reduction of noise and exhaust fumes as well as the increase in safety which comes due to a reduction in the number of chances for conflict.

Cyclists achieve subjective safety when they do not have to mix with cars, not specifically because they are on a cycle-path. Roads which have (almost) no cars on them do not require a cycle-path to parallel that road. A remarkably large proportion of roads in the Netherlands are, for all practical purposes, free of cars. This is just one reason 29000 km of cycle-path does not represent a short-fall compared with 130000 km of road.

Those roads on which there is an appreciable volume of traffic can be relied upon always to have segregated cycle-paths alongside. By this manner, very nearly full segregation of modes is possible when cycle-paths have a total length which is “only” about a quarter of the total length of the roads.

While cyclists are segregated from traffic in every photo in this blog post, this is the only photo in which this was achieved by building a cycle-path. This is a through road for cars and is used by a higher number of motor vehicles, so it needs a cycle-path.

The title of this post is deliberately provocative. However, it’s not inaccurate. This has been my experience: When cycling in the Netherlands, you are almost always segregated from traffic, whether by means of a cycle-path, or otherwise. I have ridden many tens of thousands of kilometres in the Netherlands but not yet found anywhere that felt so dangerous for cycling as did my daily commute in Cambridge. My total experience of “road rage” in this country remains just one minor incident in nearly five years.

This map, which accompanied the printed version of this article from the Fietsberaad about Enschede, shows how main routes for cycling have in large part been unravelled from main routes for motor vehicles in that city. In the article it is explained that the absolute maximum number of motor vehicles per day on these routes should 2500 – i.e. a number that you might find on a residential street. More than this and the route starts to feel unpleasant and threatening for cyclists.

This unravelling of the cycle network from the motor vehicle network is taking place all across the Netherlands. Where there are higher levels of motor vehicle usage, even within residential areas, the public shows a preference for separated cycle-paths.

Many cyclists who visit the Netherlands on holiday remain oblivious to concepts like this. It is common that people who visit on holiday report that they had few problems cycling in the Netherlands despite there being cycle-paths for only part of their journey. Often this is ascribed to better driver behaviour, perhaps through better training. However, people who make such statements have simply not noticed this “hidden” policy. Roads here are not the same as roads in other countries. Segregation of modes takes place even where there are no cycle-paths.Sustainable safety principles require that conflict is reduced and that is what results in the much better subjective safety when cycling.

Our unique experience of having lived, cycled and campaigned in both the UK and the Netherlands has led to the programme of our three day study tours in which we transfer as much as possible of this knowledge. The tours are hands-on. Or, rather, they really are tours. You use the facilities for yourself, accompanied so that we can explain about what you are experiencing. To find out more, please book a tour.

It’s not a substitute for a tour, but to get a flavour of what this is like in practice, please watch the following video. It shows a complete, normal journey by bike in the Netherlands. In this case, nothing more than the route from a fairly close by shopping centre to our home: