Can there ever be too many people cycling?

Source: Bicycle Dutch

The Dutch have been very good at making cycling the best transport option for many journeys. So good, some argue, that the downsides are now becoming apparent and even annoying.

There is a weakness in every strength. I have shown you some of the downsides of cycling in The Netherlands in earlier blog posts. There is the ever present challenge to create enough space for parking bicycles. There is the annoyance of mopeds and scooters on the narrow cycle tracks, the massive road works in the Utrecht city centre and, more recently, I showed you how faulty traffic lights caused long delays in that same city.

People in Utrecht, arriving at a busy cycling crossroads from the building site around Utrecht central station, are already checking out the stream of other cyclists.

People in Utrecht, arriving at a busy cycling crossroads from the building site around Utrecht central station, are already checking out the stream of other cyclists.

Today I would like to show you a very busy junction in Utrecht. It is a four-arm crossroads of cycle ways. From all four directions people cycling arrive at the junction in huge numbers. This is even enhanced by traffic lights in other locations, which group together droves of people cycling.

This week’s video: a ‘group dance’ of people cycling on a busy junction in Utrecht

It is very interesting to see that the people cycling do not observe the basic traffic rules of priority. That would mean that everybody coming from the right would have priority. But since this is a four arm crossroads with heavy cycle traffic arriving from all directions at the same time, that basic rule couldn’t even beobserved. So the cyclists stick to their own set of rules. As I have also shown you before, they try to make sure that they themselves, as well as other people cycling, do not have to stop. (At least as much as possible.) So they will look around to observe everybody’s actions and locations and slightly adjust their speed and use their situational awareness that acts like a sixth sense, to flow smoothly around each other. This swarm-like behaviour was first discribed by British writer Virginia Woolf. After a visit to Amsterdam in 1935 she wrote in her diary: the cyclists go in flocks like starlings, gathering together, skimming in and out. (From the famous book by Pete Jordan). More recently Marco te Brömmelstroet has revived the term in reports of the thorough investigations of cyclists’ behaviour on Amsterdam’s junctions that he and his colleagues recently did. But as you can see the people cycling in Utrecht are exactly like those in Amsterdam. Their swarm-like behaviour makes the junction look like a complicated and intriguing group dance performance.

People cycling are grouped together because of traffic lights in other locations.

People cycling are grouped together because of traffic lights in other locations.

However, even with these high numbers of people, I have not observed a single incident in the 30 minutes I filmed there. There was no bumping into each other, nor was there any bad word muttered. On the contrary, you can see and hear people laughing and one person even whistles a happy tune while he passes. Most you hear is the rattling of all those bicycles passing, and yet this was at the busiest time in the morning rush hour. Even during that busiest moment of the day the junction was completely empty at times and then again completely crowded seconds later. Nobody seemed bothered or annoyed and even children on their bicycles seem to have little difficulties navigating this particular junction.

Children navigate the intersection without real problems. Smaller children are accompanied by a parent but on average the children aged 9 and above cycle alone.

Children navigate the intersection without real problems. Smaller children are accompanied by a parent but on average the children aged 9 and above cycle alone.

But apparently some people are bothered. A project in Utrecht has just started this week. In which people are asked to vote for their biggest frustration of cycling in Utrecht. The organisers say they want to try and find a creative solution to solve the top frustration for people. Five types of frustrations are mentioned of which people can choose.

  • Frustration 1: Busy cycle tracks
  • Frustration 2: Cars and other vehicles
  • Frustration 3: Other people cycling
  • Frustration 4: Building sites
  • Frustration 5: Traffic lights

These frustrations overlap with the downsides I just mentioned and that I showed you earlier. As a Dutchman I do get frustrated when I am held up by other people cycling or while I am waiting at traffic lights. On the other hand I have also learned to look with foreign eyes at cycling in The Netherlands and then I agree with foreign observers who will call this ‘first world problems’ that ‘would be nice to have’. I also miss my own biggest frustration and that is being able to park my bicycle where I would like to.

At certain times the junction was deserted but it could be crowded again within seconds.

At certain times the junction was deserted but it could be crowded again within seconds.

What is striking in the project’s accompanying video is that the people interviewed first acknowledge that cycling is really great. It is faster than going by car or bus, you can reach all destinations very easily and it is a relaxed way to get from A to B. The organisers themselves also emphasise that cycling in Utrecht is booming, with most distance cycled of the four largest cities in The Netherlands. But that growth comes with pains and that is nothing new. The Cyclists’ Union also urged to allocate more space to cycling before.

The cycle tracks leading to the junction are very wide, but there are also high numbers of people cycling.

The cycle tracks leading to the junction are very wide, but there are also high numbers of people cycling.

It is never wrong to make clear again to the big public and the authorities, that cycling is good for a society and that it could do with some more recognition. Even though, as you could see in my video, it isn’t really that bad on even the busiest places at the busiest times. But yes, maybe we can make cycling even more fun. If the Happy Biking project can help out there, it would only be good.

The location of the junction of this video (red dot). It is close to Central Station and to the crossings of the railway tracks. These crossing places act like a funnel. Since there are so few places where you can cross the number of people cycling right there is very high.

The location of the junction of this video (red dot). It is close to Central Station and to the crossings of the railway tracks. These crossing places act like a funnel. Since there are so few places where you can cross the number of people cycling right there is very high.