Way back in 2011, I cycled out of the city of Utrecht with my partner, who was riding a bike for the first time in well over a decade. The trip was almost entirely painless, with no interactions with motor traffic, except on short stretches. One of these stretches was Prins Hendriklaan, to the east of the city, where she felt the most nervous.
At that time, that street looked like this.
Wide (by British standards) cycle lanes, combined with humps and no centre line markings. This is not an especially busy road for motor traffic, but it is one of the main routes in and out of the city for people cycling, with over 14,000 people cycling along here every day. For me – used to British conditions – it was absolutely fine, or even good. But not so good for the more nervous.
Over the last year this street (and Platolaan – the eastern end of this same street) have been redesigned. The cycle lanes have gone, replaced with a fietsstraat (bicycle street) arrangement.
Essentially, the whole street now forms a cycle route, upon which motor vehicles can be driven ‘as guests’, in theory (although not necessarily in practice).
One of the essential characteristics of a fietsstraat is the dominance of cycle traffic. Fietsstraats will form main cycle routes, and motor traffic should be relatively low. As the CROW manual states
An important condition for designating a road section as a cycle street is that the bicycle traffic really has to dominate the streetscape. Although little experience has been gained with cycle streets, the dominant position of bicycle traffic appears to be sufficiently evident when there are twice as many cyclists as motorists on a road section. If this requirement is not met… the road authorities may try to reduce the intensity of motorised traffic to ensure that the intensity ratio is achieved.
A large number of cyclists have to be present – not only relatively speaking but also in absolute terms – to qualify the road as a main cycle route. … In order for a road section to qualify as a cycle street, it must carry at least 1,000 cyclists a day.
With 14,000 cyclists per day, Prins Hendriklaan quite obviously passes this threshold with ease. I am not aware of the figures for motor traffic along here, but on my visits to the street, motor traffic was clearly greatly outnumbered by cycle traffic.
However, an important issue, I think, is whether motor traffic is low enough along this street. Even with sky-high cycling intensities like those found here, the CROW manual recommends an absolute upper limit of 2000 PCUs (Passenger Car Units) per day. I suspect this limit might be broken on Prins Hendriklaan. At times, there were plenty of motor vehicles on the street, amongst the people cycling. [Update – the PCU figure has kindly been supplied by Ria Glas – around 2,700-3,300 PCUs per day in 2011. This appears to correspond with the traffic figures supplied for 2012, via bz2 in the comments.
This is because, unlike many other fietsstraats I have seen, Prins Hendriklaan does not have any measures to cut out motor traffic travelling along it. It appears to form an access road for quite a large area of side streets.
The whole bicycle street is about 1km long, and has no closures at either end, or diversions for motor traffic. This is quite different from those fietsstraats which are access-only for only a relatively small amount of properties.
So this kind of treatment is almost certainly not transferrable to Britain. It only ‘works’ because it has an extraordinarily large number of people cycling along this street already – it relies on good conditions elsewhere on the rest of the network, to generate these numbers, and to drown out the motor traffic using the street.
Indeed, to that extent, it is disputable how much of an improvement for cycling in Utrecht this kind of arrangement actually amounts to. The new surface is nice and smooth, and the way motor traffic is forced to cycle ‘in’ the cycle lanes seemed to have a distinct calming effect on traffic speeds. But beyond that, the fundamental issue of interaction with a relatively significant volume of motor traffic (by Dutch standards) has not been addressed.
What is absolutely clear is that simply relaying a street in red tarmac, and putting up signs, on a route carrying thousands of motor vehicles a day will not make a jot of difference to the quality of the cycling environment, when cycling levels are low, as they are in most places in Britain. The street will remain hostile and unattractive to the vast majority of people. Prins Hendriklaan cannot simply be transferred to Britain.