The Reckless Cyclist
by Marco te Brömmelstroet, Lucas Harms, Olga Sezneva and Adriaan Rottenberg firstname.lastname@example.org / L.W.J.Harms@uva.nl / O.Sezneva@uva.nl / A.Rottenberg@uva.nl
Dispelling the myth
The road behaviour of cyclists and specifically Amsterdam cyclists, is a recurring theme in the public debate. In many of these discussions, the majority of cyclists are deemed to display a strongly anarchic attitude. Although everyone can provide anecdotal evidence to confirm this allegation, there is precious little structural insight into the actual behaviour of Amsterdam’s cyclists.
This lack of research is quite surprising, not only because of the pervasiveness of the debate, but also because in many parts of the city, cyclists are by far the majority of road users. How can we design the traffic space for these – very welcome – road users if we don’t even know how they actually behave? To remedy this situation, we have charted the behaviour of more than 18,000 cyclists at a selection of junctions, which should give us a clearer picture.
World-wide, including the Netherlands itself, there’s a growing interest in the role of the bicycle as a simple solution for a host of complicated mobility problems. Cities vie with each other to formulate ever more ambitious plans, frequently referring to the Netherlands and specifically Amsterdam as the example to emulate. In many ways this is deserved, because through a long-term and consistent traffic and spatial planning policy, Amsterdam has had a continuously high share of cyclists, which is actually still growing exponentially in some parts of the city. All of which does not mean that there are no more major challenges for Amsterdam to contend with.
In the debates between foreign planners and Dutch experts it’s always striking how many different stories and theories are suggested to explain Amsterdam’s suitability for cyclists; is it the culture, the infrastructure, spatial developments or a combination of all of these? If you then start to examine academic research to try and find a better explanation, you’ll discover that there is hardly any structural knowledge about cycling. The few studies available in different academic disciplines are in sharp contrast with the large volume of knowledge about motorised road traffic and increasingly also about public transport. It’s a lack of knowledge which concerns all aspects of cycling: who are the people who cycle, why do they cycle and where do they cycle? Where is the share of cyclists in road use still growing? Which physical factors are experienced as enjoyable? What determines the route a cyclist chooses to take? How do cyclists communicate with other road users and how do they use the infrastructure?
Although the University of Amsterdam is currently researching all of these questions, for this article we will focus on the last one. Our main reason for this is that the tactical decisions cyclists make play a prominent role in the public debate: are Amsterdam cyclists really such road rogues or is that an exaggeration? Largely based on anecdotal evidence, this debate influences public opinion, thereby creating conditions for cycle policies. A recent example is Dutch journalist and television presenter Jort Kelder, who after a collision with a female cyclist wiped the floor with the protected legal status of cyclists. By doing this, Kelder has indirectly fuelled calls for this vulnerable group to go unprotected by the law. This is why the City of Amsterdam has started a project this year to gain more insight into the actual behaviour of cyclists.
Design versus behaviour
The way we give shape to our infrastructure determines in large measure the tactical opportunities for cyclists to take. However, cyclists are extremely savvy at finding their own way. If this leads to large-scale undesirable or unpredictable behaviour – e.g. ignoring red lights, cutting corners – the policy reflex is often to correct this behaviour by increasing police controls or by installing physical measures, such as raising the kerb at places where cyclists take a shortcut across a zebra crossing. By means of this research we aim to question this reflex. We think that there might be a lot to learn from cyclists’ swarm behaviour and how this interacts with the road design. Due to the exponential growth of the number of bikes, the road design is often not adequate. It looks like some junctions only continue to function by the grace of individual cyclists adopting and sharing new rules of conduct in communication with each other. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov has given a good summary of the added value this offers by stating that civil disobedience is an important signal to learn from: ‘[it] has a great signalling value, as it can indicate that the law in question doesn’t correspond to common belief or morality’. In short, the tensions and irritations witnessed at junctions are an important source of insight and a possible engine for change.
In collaboration with the City of Amsterdam ten junctions were selected which seemed to show most clearly this discrepancy between design and behaviour and which were practically suited as a focus for our research. Each junction was allocated to a group of three first-year sociology students from the University of Amsterdam. In the spring of 2014, during one hour, the students shot video material, which was then given an extensive quantitative analysis, focusing on the various routes cyclists took to cross the junction (with the use of Copenhagenize Consulting’s Desire Lines tool).
In addition, we looked at the correlation between design and behaviour, identifying three categories of cyclists, the same grouping that was used in the Copenhagen research Bicycle Choreography Copenhagenize:
- Conformists: cyclists who stick to all the formal rules and designed routes;
- Momentumists: cyclists who follow their own route and adapt certain formal rules to suit their own ends, without causing any dangerous situations (e.g. turning right through a red sign);
- Recklists: cyclists who recklessly ignore the rules, for instance crossing the road through a red light, and thereby cause conflict with other road users.
Finally, in addition to the research into the actual behaviour of cyclists, the students conducted interviews in the week after the video recordings to gain insight into the experiences and emotions of cyclists at these junctions.
The swarm explored
At all junctions, except at the Elandsgracht, a full quantitative and qualitative analysis has been carried out. Although it was relatively early in the season and most footage was shot just after the busiest peak period, these nine junctions processed a total of more than 18,500 cyclists in one hour. What is immediately striking is the high percentage of conformists. Although the research was carried out during the morning rush hour and predominantly major junctions were researched, this is still a radically different picture from what’s often suggested in the public debate, such as a recent article in the Amsterdam daily newspaper Het Parool about ‘the Amsterdam cycling rogues’. Of the remaining twelve percent the majority are momentumists who negotiate the junctions choosing informal routes – shortcuts – without creating conflicts with other road users. Only 5 percent of cyclists were classified as reckless; they go through red lights and weave between driving cars and trams, causing potential conflicts with other road users. The nine hours of video footage also did not show a single incident of verbal or physical conflict between road users. This data then refutes the claim that Amsterdam cyclists are a bunch of road rogues on the loose. It’s important to bear in mind that the cyclists were recorded during morning rush hour at relatively major, busy junctions.
The junction’s choreographyIn addition to these general insights into the conformist behaviour of the Amsterdam cyclists, it’s especially important to gain more insight into the interplay between design, formal rules and the behaviour of cyclists. What happens at each particular junction? On the basis of the video material, the various routes taken by at least two cyclists to negotiate the junction were charted. Figure x shows the results of this research for the junction of Mr. Visserplein with Jodenbreestraat. In the space of 53 minutes, 1,854 cyclists passed by at this junction. Unfortunately, the position of the camera didn’t allow for the inclusion in shot of the cycle traffic coming from Jodenbreestraat and turning right. The greatest group of cyclists went straight across the junction (F). On Jodenbreestraat these 782 cyclists joined the 48 (H) and 81 (D) cyclists to form a group totalling 911 cyclists. What’s very clear from the footage is that the waiting space for the cyclists coming from Jodenbreestraat cannot properly accommodate busyperiods. That’s why a number of cyclists (momentumists) seem to opt for a shortcut (B) instead of the conformist route (A).
This ‘cycle choreography’ is a form of revealed behaviour, showing the patterns which emerge by combining the individual choices. However, this does not explain how the behaviour forms. Does the cyclist choose the route he wants to take, or does he feel forced to make certain choices? How do cyclists experience the junction, what kind of emotions does the experience evoke? In order to gain insight into those questions, a number of interviews were conducted at each junction. For the junction we’re considering here, one of the striking results was that the sometimes chaotic situations were not always experienced as stressful. As one of the cyclists explained:“People often get irritated with each other. I don’t feel any stress because of the behaviour of others, although I can see that other people do get stressed.”
Designing from behaviour
So what does this mean for junctions? There are a great many factors determining the design of a junction. After all, safety, flow, environmental quality and clarity for all road users have to be guaranteed. It’s always a struggle to find a compromise between general guidelines and the local context. The Netherlands has achieved a high level of safety and quality by discussing these considerations in a robust and thoughtful debate, expressed in general guidelines for the design of our roads.
These general guidelines are not easily adaptable to fast and substantial changes in specific situations. Amsterdam seems to be caught right in the middle of such a change, a sudden shift in the traffic’s balance. Especially in the city centre the number of cyclists is booming. An added consideration is that because of all the positive effects associated with cycling, it’s now part of the political agenda to want to stimulate this growth even further.
Basing design on observations
Being by far the largest group of road users at many locations, the bicycle deserves a more central role in our design procedures. If we can muster the courage to do this, we should base our designs on observations to a far greater extent than we’re doing at the moment. Cyclists are flexible and hard to control. It’s the interplay between individual rules of conduct which will eventually create the choreography at a junction. There will no longer be one overall choreographer taking charge, rather the individual performers will be in control. In other words, although vulnerable road users must be considered as well, the swarm should literally be given more room to manoeuvre. The lack of space is exactly what seems to be the problem at the moment, creating conflict, stress and dangerous behaviour. By moving the stop line for cars back, creating more green zones for bicycles and designing left and right turns for cyclists which are in a more natural alignment, the junction could become a canvas on which the self-regulating potential of the swarm can be fully realized.
‘What kind of emotions does the junction evoke?’
What is interesting is that the folks from Copenhagenize Consulting have managed to make a living out of resurrecting a methodology for laying sidewalks that is as old as time. Roads and walking paths have always been created in this fashion. Any good college campus grounds keeper could give your the gist of the methodology by telling you to:
- Plant grass all over the hillside or quad area in question
- Wait until the students and faculty have had a chance to wear a path
- Lay concrete or crushed limestone over the worn areas to prevent erosion
So in essence Common Sense developed for millennia now involves buying Copenhagenize Consulting’s Desire Lines tool. Gosh I should have though to create an iPhone App that explains how to determine where to park your Lunchtime Food Truck. Let me see I could:
- Walk around the city and notice where folks are currently sitting to eat their lunches and drink their beverages
- Park my truck along the curb a couple of hundred feet away from these focal points
- Wait for customers to begin arriving
- If none showed assume that the kind of food being dispensed does not the desires of the diners
- Repeat step #1 to find a new place
Some Things Never Change
Regardless of the ‘Desire Lines‘ of a metropolis there are practical demands that must be met. No matter where you are on the planet:
- Emergency vehicles still need access to as many locations in the city as possible
- Water, sewer and electrical infrastructure dictates much of the location of any intersection
- Straight lines (i.e. grid) are still the favored format because buildings tend to be square or rectangle
- Diagonal lines generally end in intersections which are more complex, not simpler
But most important of all is the fact that the folks who ride bikes or walk streets or drive cars are seldom the ones who can tell you where the physical limitations that reside below street level will demand that what people want to do is not possible for practical reasons. If we were to design homes in this fashion it would soon become obvious that everyone in the family wanted a ground level bathroom, their own walk-in closets, three walls with windows and a huge roof skylight and doors to the outside on both sides of their room.
Either every home would be a ranch style home (1-story) or someone in the family would have to compromise. You simply cannot make everyone happy. The same goes for street designs. It is always nice to find out what ‘desire lines‘ folks have. But limitations in terms of money and physical infrastructure buried beneath a city will sometimes change your mind about what is truly possible.
Right now the simplistic approach is to simply remove as many cars as possible (with the aim of having zero vehicles) and tearing down the parking structure available to house them during the day. But as the population of walkers and bicyclists grows you suddenly realize that you still need parking structures. And depending on how far you can convince people to walk, these structures may have to be as large as the ones for automobiles they displaced. It all depends on just how many people are working in any given location in the city.
Things Change Faster Than Infrastructure
The Desire Lines of today may not be suitable tomorrow. The nature of any city is that construction goes on perpetually despite everyone’s intentions to rein it in. Part of the population makes it living building things. Homes and office buildings are a good example. Unless you plan to halt growth to keep things manageable and consistent with the Desire Lines idea you used to create your current infrastructure, you will eventually have to tear up paved areas and dig foundations and build again.
Cities have a way of discovering that the land they possess is never really enough. When that happens they dump soil and rock offshore and build out into the ocean or lake that abuts them. The point I am trying to make is that nothing is ever settled.
That college grounds keeper who has managed to pave the ‘desire lines‘ of the student body will have to get used to the idea that within his tenure at the school the pavement areas may change because the intended locations to which people are hurrying has changed. If the school builds a new cafeteria and classrooms or perhaps a new dorm or two, those vaunted ‘desire lines‘ will change. And frankly the users of the campus infrastructure may have to wait until the fundraising arm of the institution can gather enough money to repave the place according to desires.
In the meantime we have to deal with what exists and not what is preferred. The same is true of any city. But the key ingredient in our thinking is that we have to acknowledge that what is preferred is essentially as temporal as that which exists. There are no situations in which you can accommodate everyone, we all have to adapt to reality.
That Example of the Custom Home
Let us suppose that we found an architect to build that dream home where everyone in the house had what they wanted. Would our family be able to live happily ever after? Not a chance. If the size of a family changes the rooms they planned for have to change as well. If the family decides to relocate to a new city then it is quite likely that the next family to move in will want something different. But as people age their needs change as well.
Stairs in a home are less well tolerated over time. That is a factor in city planning as well. If we build infrastructure in a city to accommodate the population we now serve the changes in their bodies may dictate that ever more parking structures be build closer to the places where they work.
What happens if the velomobile becomes the dominant variation on the bicycle theme? That would mean parking structures would have to change a great deal. They would in essence become more like those for automobiles. And what if the automobile becomes more like a velomobile? Suppose for a moment that small three-wheeled cars with tiny electric motors become the wave of the future. They would perhaps be barely large than a current velomobile in terms of their footprint but perhaps taller to allow people with varying physical limitations to use them. How would that transform our cities needs?
We Cannot Presume To Know the Future
The current blather out of Bicycle Heaven is that the Kingdom of Heaven will move itself on two wheels. What if personal drones and/or hover craft prevail? If the latter you may not need concrete anymore but you will need flight plans for the thousands of folks who need to move from point-to-point. The future is not set in stone and is less likely to be the domain of low tech 100 year old ideas (which is essentially what the Dutch Bike represents) that it will be something that no one today has dreamt of.
And as in years and decades past people will simply have to learn to adapt to the realities of life. And not the other way around.