The bad bits

I’m just back from a week-long tour of the Netherlands, cycling between (and across) a number of cities and towns I hadn’t visited before. I travelled around 300 miles, across the entire country. I will obviously come to the good bits in due course, but I thought I would start by writing about the bad bits, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, they demonstrate that the Netherlands has not had perfect infrastructure magically parachuted in from the sky. The country had (and in many places still has) a very British-looking road network, that has been improved and adapted over recent decades. The bad bits I encountered are either old – streets and roads where nothing has been done (or the bare minimum has been done) – or simply places where compromised designs have been put in place, because the Netherlands has exactly the same conflicts for space between motor vehicles and cycling as Britain does.

Secondly, these are the parts of my journey that actually really jumped out at me. I could cycle for four to five hours a day, completely relaxed, apart from at these locations, where I suddenly had to concentrate, and start worrying. As well shall see, many of these examples actually look pretty good from a British perspective; but in the Netherlands, they were the places were I felt most stressed, and the least relaxed.

Starting at the beginning. On my way from the Hook of Holland to Delft, a good cycle path alongside a major road just stops, and switches to being bi-directional on the other side of the road.

DSC_0065_2

Oranjesluisweg, De Lier

Not a huge problem, but quite jarring to suddenly have to deal with crossing two lanes of motor traffic, without any assistance. This was early on a Saturday morning, and I can imagine this road being much busier.

Further on, and as I approached the city of Delft, another good cycle path just tapered down to nothing, dumping me on the road on the approach to a busy junction.

Woudseweg, Delft

Woudseweg, Delft

In Gouda I came across this ‘always stop’ junction for cyclists.

Spoorstraat, Gouda

Spoorstraat, Gouda

The cycle track under the railway line meets a stop line, where cyclists are held while motor traffic progresses from their left, up to and through the junction (the green signal in the distance).

Then, the motor traffic is held, and cyclists get a green light, to move up to the stop line at the junction.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.10.34Quite safe, but this arrangement, combined with long waits (well over a minute) at the junction itself, made for a bad situation for cycling. Plenty of people were jumping the lights here, frustrated at having to wait for so long.

The town of Vlijmen, in the municipality of Heusden, was very poor, with no infrastructure at all to speak of, on quite busy roads and streets. It felt uncomfortable, even on a Sunday afternoon. But normal for Britain.

Mommersteeg, Vlijmen

Mommersteeg, Vlijmen

While Nijmegen was in general very good for cycling, it did have a number of roads and streets which were inadequate, and indeed poor. Some examples.

A British-looking ASL at a major junction

A British-looking ASL at a major junction

A three-lane, one-way road, with no contraflow for cycling, and only a 'feeder' cycle lane in the middle of the road

A three-lane, one-way road, with no contraflow for cycling, and only a ‘feeder’ cycle lane in the middle of the road

An old street which has not been improved (although it looks like it will be, with development at the other end)

An old street which has not been improved (although it looks like it will be, with development at the other end)

Nijmegen was the city I felt the least comfortable on my trip; but it vastly outstrips anywhere I have cycled in Britain. And remember; these are just the bad bits I am showing here.

In rural areas, my most uncomfortable cycling was on roads with ‘advisory’ cycle lanes at the sides of the road, and with no centre line.

Near Veenendaal

Near Veenendaal

Generally I encountered very little motor traffic on these roads (certainly by British standards), so these pictures are unrepresentative of my trip as a whole. But I was travelling in the middle of the day, not at peak times, and situations like those pictured here could, I suspect, be quite common.

Access road near Breukelen

Access road near Breukelen

Quite often ‘bunching’ of motor traffic occurs, and (in my experience) Dutch drivers tend to give you very little passing distance on these kinds of roads, on the assumption that you know what you are doing.

It was unpleasant to have to start worrying about whether drivers would give you enough passing distance, or whether they were going to attempt a stupid overtake – compared to the serenity of the rest of my trip. And in some places these treatments are very obviously inappropriate.

The N836, Wageningenstraat, just south of the A15 motorway

The N836, Wageningenstraat, just south of the A15 motorway

This is an ‘N’ category road, the equivalent of our ‘A’ roads, only a kilometre or so from a motorway junction. This just didn’t cut it, as far as comfort was concerned, with large lorries and tractors passing in both directions. It was a relief to get back on the cycle tracks that ran along this road for the rest of its length. Why this section has not been upgraded yet, I don’t know.

Other ‘N’ category roads were interesting, in that for the most part they had extraordinarily good provision running alongside them, but sometimes, in towns, they just gave up. In particular Doorn, near Utrecht, was exceptionally bad.

'No space for cycling' at this junction in Doorn

‘No space for cycling’ at this junction in Doorn

The same problem British towns and cities face – multiple queuing lanes for vehicles means there’s not much space left over for proper cycling provision (or indeed for walking). Further on in the town –

'Watch out for bikes!'

‘Watch out for bikes!’

Here an (old) cycle track simply peters out, spitting you out onto a trunk road through the town, carrying heavy traffic. That is a lady carrying her family by cargo bike.

And because there is no cycle track in the opposite direction, you get children doing this – ‘salmoning’ up the road to get to the safety of the cycle track.

Hostile

Hostile

Cycle lanes like this on this kind of road would, I think, be considered quite good in Britain, but this was definitely the most exposed I felt on my entire trip.

Leaving Doorn, and glad that military convoy is going the other way

Leaving Doorn, and glad that military convoy is going the other way

Even very wide cycle lanes could suddenly create a feeling of discomfort. Here in Nijmegen this exceptional (by British standards) cycle lane was unsettling, compared to the cycle track I had been on moments before, as traffic came past me.

Good by British standards, but not very good compared to what is around it

Good by British standards, but not very good compared to what is around it

And there were problems in Utrecht too. This cycle lane has been put on the wrong side of the parked vehicles. The parking and the cycle provision should obviously be switched.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 12.16.25A fantastic superhighway from Breukelen into Utrecht sends you into an industrial park, where you have to fend for yourself amongst HGV movements, on tiny cycle lanes.

This wasn't much fun

This wasn’t much fun

And some junctions in the centre of the city are in desperate need of an upgrade, like here at Nachtegaalstraat, where huge numbers of people are squashed into an inadequate central queuing lane which separates bus traffic from private motor traffic, only able to turn right. By British standards, entirely comfortable, but not really good enough in the context of the rest of Utrecht.

Not good enough

Not good enough

So by no means is it perfect everywhere. The Dutch have plenty of old roads and streets that need to be upgraded; they just haven’t got around to doing them yet. And in other places it looks like battles still need to be fought to get proper provision installed, at the expense of motor traffic.

But I should stress that these examples – in total about twenty or thirty places – are the only times I felt uncomfortable, or inconvenienced, on my entire trip of around 300 miles. The vast, vast majority of my trip was gloriously pleasant, easy and safe. More of that to come.

This entry was posted in Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The bad bits

  1. bz2 says:

    At the junction in the second photo you probably took the route on the north side of the canal (Hoornsekade), which is perfectly fine. However, if your destination is on the other side (Hoornseweg), you have to fend for yourself in very busy fast-moving traffic. It’s the kind of road that looks like there would be some sort of parallel provision for cyclists… except there isn’t one, save for a short section of extremely weird-looking (by Dutch standards) shared-use pavement. Very odd, considering that there was significant housing development there not too long ago.

    • Yes, I did a bit of research, and opted for the north side of the canal (quite obviously!). It has filters to cut out the motor traffic, and was very pleasant. The south side was not inviting, at all.

  2. davidhembrow says:

    Good to see this. You went to some places that I’d certainly never take people for a study tour as the overall standard is simply too low. What’s more, I find that there’s a tendency for such things to be seen as “inexpensive solutions” and “achieveable”.

    In fact, such things as these are not really solutions at all if they lead to low subjective safety and less cycling. The effect of poor quality will be felt far more strongly if such things as this are the highlights of your network than if they are the unfortunate rare exception. While occasional bad quality links in the Netherlands don’t damage the overall level of cycling very much, the same quality applied sparsely in other places certainly won’t increase cycling very much either.

    We have to be very clear about things like this. The Netherlands is absolutely definitely the best place in the world to find examples of well designed cycling infrastructure which enables the entirely population to cycle. However, it’s not perfect. Just because unfortunate bad examples like these can still be found either in the Netherlands or elsewhere, that doesn’t mean they are something anyone should consider copying.

  3. geoffrone says:

    And yet it was Nijmegen that converted me to campaigning for better infrastructure! Just goes to show that even the Dutch worst can outstrip the British best

  4. fascinating and important stuff – keep up the good work!

  5. crank says:

    Fun post. All their worst bits we are lucky to have as the glorious best of a daily commute🙂

  6. Andre Engels says:

    Some remarks:
    * I think you hit the nail on the head when you discuss this in terms of ‘cycling relaxed’ and ‘having to concentrate and start worrying’. Perhaps even more than subjective safety, that is what distinguishes cycling infrastructure in good cycling countries like the Netherlands and that in bad cycling countries like the UK: the amount of attention that is necessary to handle traffic, and thus not available to enjoy the trip and/or dealing with other issues.
    * Apart from age and availability, another factor that is important in explaining the differences, is that the great majority of roads, and almost all cycling provision, is an issue for the local government. Some of them will actively work on getting cycling provisions as good as possible, others will be more of the ‘box ticking’ kind – although the Dutch boxes are of course bigger than the UK ones, proverbially speaking.
    * Interesting to hear you speak relatively negative about Nijmegen. In 1999, when Veenendaal was elected the first Dutch #1 cycling city, Nijmegen was on the shortlist, I think it might even have been the runner-up. Apparently they have slipped and allowed other cities to surpass. Another example to show how the Netherlands keep improving – what was nearly the best 15 years ago, is below average now.

  7. Koen says:

    Excellent post. I know some of these places firsthand, like Doorn, and always wondered how on earth they could let such a major through-road pass right through the village and not provide properly for cyclists. Usually these places are unpleasant for driving too! I hope this naming and shaming will bring them enough embarrassment to change it. Just the fact that ‘even a Brit’ calls it insufficient infrastructure makes them stand out like a sore thumb, in my opinion.

  8. Chris says:

    Out of interest, how many of these were the main or only cycling routes available? Would short detours have allowed for fully safe routes, or did these really mean otherwise perfectly good infrastructure being devalued?

  9. Dan B says:

    The depressing thing is that quite a lot of what you’ve shown and described is exactly what people are fighting for in the UK. The “better than nothing” approach doesn’t lead to mass cycling – any chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.

  10. Julian Bond says:

    As far as I could see, not a single helmet, HiViz or daytime light in any of the pictures. Not especially relevant, but curious.

    • Tim says:

      [assuming this comment is serious] it’s very relevant and not so curious if you think about it.

      The idea in the Netherlands is (generally) on removing the cause of the danger, rather than trying to shift the focus for safety onto the cyclist then blaming them for an accident if they fail to buy into the (relatively ineffective) safety measures. I pretty much guarantee I could cycle around a park with my daughter on my bike – not a helmet between us – all day with no real risk of injuries.

      We know this at heart, which is why we ban cars on the rare days we have big urban family bike rides (although weirdly, often helmets are mandatory and hi-viz is handed out so we feel like we’re “doing proper cycling”). Some Dutch people think it’s vaguely entertaining that in other countries we wear plastic hats for cycling.

      More here.

      • Chris says:

        I’ve always thought this a slightly odd debate, as I’m not really sure why people are opposed to helmets.

        I’ve got a dent in my skull from an accident which took 36 stitches to patch up in my twenties before I really knew cycle helmets existed. Nobody else was involved. I went round a bend going downhill fairly quickly, hit some loose dirt on the road and went over the bars when the front wheel dug in again.

        Much more recently I had another incident. I don’t know exactly what happened (concussion, and 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back!) but it was on an off-road path, nobody else was involved, and my helmet had a great big split in it to show it had done its job of preventing much more damage.

        My point here, I suppose, is that if I’d applied the logic of helmets only being for use around cars, then the second incident would’ve been at least as serious as the first.

        I do think it should be an individual choice whether or not to wear a helmet, but personally I won’t get on a bike without one, whether I’m expecting to interact with others or not.

        • Tim says:

          I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to kick off (yet another) helmet debate. Chris Boardman has quite recently (and imho sensibly) described helmets as a distraction from the important issues.

          I’ve read quite a few “the helmet saved my life” anecdotes, but seen little convincing evidence when it comes to utility cycling. For wellying downhill round bends on rough ground, fair enough, but no-ones doing that in the photos above and I don’t do it on my way to work or with my daughter. Notably helmet fans generally lose their interest when it comes to travelling on foot (stairs!) or in cars, despite the evidence there being as convincing, if not more so. And compulsion definitely seems to have a negative effect overall.

          So yes, individual choice. Wear one, don’t wear one, whatever. I’m not anti-helmet, although I do think they can make everyday cycling look more dangerous than it inherently is. I just sought to give my understanding of why the Dutch generally don’t wear them. Apologies if it took the comments off-topic!

        • fonant says:

          I’m opposed to cycle helmets for ordinary cycling as transport in the same way that I’m anti car helmets for ordinary driving and anti house helmets for being at home. These polystyrene hats with holes in are designed to provide just enough protection to pass the tests, and no more (otherwise they’d be heavy and sweaty to wear). They’re not a great deal better than the human skull at absorbing impact energy and preventing brain damage, and may in fact make the worst kind of brain damage more likely due to sudden rotation of the head being much more likely with one on. I consider them to be dangerous for this reason, and will advise people not to wear them.

          FWIW if your helmet split then it failed. To absorb energy and provide useful protection (and to pass the standard tests) it must not split, it must crush but remain in one piece. Probably why the cardboard helmet is better in tests than polystyrene ones.

    • paulc says:

      completely unnecessary for utility cycling in a proper environment which has been designed with sustainable safety in mind.

    • Eric says:

      The lycra guy on the road bike in the 7th picture is wearing a helmet (it’s a bit blurry but you can see a grey strap of his white helmet behind his ear).
      Which incidentally fits who wears a helmet in the Netherlands: those riding fast on the road and those riding slightly less fast off road. If you’re cruising along at a normal speed on smooth bike paths, there’s no need for helmets.

      • AKe says:

        I very much doubt that safety is the reason the lycra guy wears a helmet. Those “racers” want to look like real Tour the France cyclist. Which means lycra, helmet, special bicycle and, I suspect, even the use of stimulating drugs.

        • Eric says:

          Having been part of that community for a while, your doubts and suspicions are wrong.

          • AKe says:

            I never saw helmet wearing cyclist in the Netherlands before it became obligatory for profesional racing cyclists, some years ago. A groep of racing cyclist will wear matching clothes including matching helmets. Before helmet wearing became obligatory they would typical wear matching caps, like their idols, the professionals.

  11. Judith says:

    Completely agree with you on the worst parts in Nijmegen. Saddest thing is that the ‘green’/’red’ city council in Nijmegen prides itself on the cycling infrastructure. (the ‘highways’ from the university campus to the train station and further on to the northern suburbs are quite good, though.)

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  14. Eric B says:

    “The N836, Wageningenstraat”

    If this street were to be in Britain, it would have been a B-class-road. N stands for national, indeed, but what you don’t know is that N-roads can be divided in three different categories, that are maintained by two different authorities: by Rijkswaterstaat (which is a department of the national ministry of transport), and by the council of the respective province.

    Usually N-roads with two-digit-numbers are motorways that didn’t get built after the oil crisis hit us, so they are important roads, managed by the national road authority Rijkswaterstaat. The next category are N-roads with three-digit-numbers in the 200 and 300-series: they are seen as part of the national road network, but often managed by the provinces. Any road with an N-number in the 400-series or higher is seen as a road that has some regional importance, but it is definitely not seen as important to the national road network of the Netherlands.

    This also reflects the way minor N-roads are signposted: 15 years ago, N-numbers in the 400-series or higher were nowhere to be seen. Then the old style of faded green kilometre markers were gradually changed into more flashy green kilometre markers with a small sticker added to it, showing an N-number that such a road did not have before. In the same fashion, roads that are managed by waterschappen (councils of polder systems), were provided with kilometre markers wearing stickers with small seals with logos or even coats of arms of the respective water management council.

    For many years the aforementioned N-numbers in the 400-series or higher never showed up on other signage than kilometre markers. Only when the N470 and N471 roads linking Delft, Rotterdam and Zoetermeer were opened, the first road signs with numbers in higher series appeared on signs that show you the way to those respective destinations. The N440, linking the N14 with Scheveningen through the Landscheidingsweg had a sign with N440 on it, sitting somewhere on it’s grassy shoulder, since at least some 20 years ago, but that N440-sign was a unique exception for many years.

    I bet that as of today hardly anyone in the village of Andelst knows that the Wageningenstraat, which leads to a small river ferry from where you can – indeed – reach Wageningen – was assigned the N836-number. When putting up signage in order to inform the general public about construction works and closing that road, local authorities would not refer to the Wageningenstraat only by it’s N836-number, or if they would, they can be sure to get some pretty sour-voiced complaints of delayed and disappointed motorists taken by surprise, because they never linked the number to that road.

    If you want to know more about N-numbers, cycling lanes or motorways, you can go search on http://www.wegenforum.nl , but it might require learning Dutch to get the full grasps of what those road geeks discuss…😉

    You can also try to find Keokiracer on YouTube: he’s one of those fast bikers, who is often struggling with slower bicycle traffic clogging his way to school. Ringing his bell should get people to make some space for him to overtake, but the latest generation of teenage bikers never learned any rules, or they know, but don’t give a damn and/or they are listening music so loudly that they don’t hear Keokiracer-Jason ringing (and cursing, even on video) behind them, eager to get past on short stretches of road.

    All of this clogging by slower bikers is however mostly not caused by poor infrastructure, but by teenagers who like to ride three of four abreast, slow as snails, as if there are no other people to share the road with. Dutch police is not enforcing laws that forbid riding three abreast at all times, or two abreast when you are hindering traffic. I feel so stupid, when I am waiting out my turn for a green light, while watching virtually everybody around me run the red light, some even raising their stinky middle finger to motorists that were rightfully crossing on green…😦

    My best wishes go to cyclists in Britain, hoping that some day they will get the chance to spent all the taxes paid by motor vehicles on rebuilding roads in Britain with separate bike lanes. Meanwhile, I am so happy to be Dutch!🙂

    • keokiracer says:

      The N actually stands for ‘Niet Autosnelweg’ which basically means ‘not freeway’

      I’ve never cursed on my bike at slow cyclists btw, I’ve only cursed (on-tape) at one guy that right hooked me badly. I sometimes get annoyed by slower cyclists, but I just pass them😛. But if you want to show me where I was swearing at slower cyclists, please do cause I can’t remember doing that😄
      The only one I want to curse at is the city council of Bergen op Zoom that has promised for a bike tunnel for about 20 years and still hasn’t built one. Combine that with a major through road and a buttload of cyclists and you get cycling traffic jams… (I’m not even kidding; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0cFOubQ5I and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43SXeY7H_Xg )

      One thing about the situation in Vlijmen: Vlijmen seems to be (Streetview, never been there) fully 30 km/h zone. In this 30 km/h zone guidelines basically say that car and bike traffic goes together, no special cyclepaths needed. With the increase of 30 km/h-zones across the country in the stupidest places this does cause some situations where a cyclepath would be better, but you know… The guidelines say it’s not needed… *sigh*
      Same goes for the 60 km/h zones with just the advisory lanes. Blame ‘Duurzaam Veilig’ aka ‘Sustainable Safety’. Downgrading is key, apparently. Which causes busier roads like N836 to get downgraded purely because they fall into a different road category. Looking at actual road usage is a no-no it seems…

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