What distinguishes Dutch driver behaviour from British behaviour is the design of the roads they use

There was a revealing detail in Bicycle Dutch’s post last week on a (failed) attempt to create a cycle street in Utrecht in the 1990s.

One of the main cycle routes to the Utrecht University, Burgemeester Reigerstraat, was completely transformed and re-opened as a bicycle street in November 1996. The street got a median barrier to prevent motor vehicles from overtaking people cycling.

Here’s a picture of that arrangement, from Mark’s blog.

burg-reigerstraat02Note here Mark’s description of driver behaviour on this street –

Emergency services also complained and they warned about dangerous situations because they were held up. Impatient car drivers were seen overtaking cyclists with two wheels on the barrier. [my emphasis]. This scared people cycling onto the narrow side-walk and that in turn frightened pedestrians. A good two years later (in January 1999) a new Utrecht council terminated the experiment. The centre barriers were removed and so were the signs that forbade to overtake people cycling.

In fact, you can clearly see a driver doing this in the photograph above – squeezing past, very close to someone cycling, driving up on the central median.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Dutch drivers really are just as bad as British ones when confronted with design that puts them into conflict with people cycling. The reason why we have a skewed impression of the quality of Dutch driving is that – by and large – Dutch road design separates cycling from driving, and insulates people cycling from the consequences of driver misbehaviour.

As I’ve commented before, in trips across towns and cities you will encounter a tiny fraction of the number of drivers you would on an equivalent trip in Britain. On main roads you will be physically separated from drivers, and on side streets you will encounter few drivers because these streets are not sensible routes for through traffic.

And in these few places where you do come into contact with drivers, design ensures that priorities are clear and unambiguous, and that drivers behave in a slow and careful manner – for instance, by placing side road crossings on steep raised tables that drivers have to drive over.

However, just as on that failed design in Utrecht in the 1990s, when Dutch drivers are confronted by design that doesn’t make sense, they will behave badly.

On busy through roads that have little or no cycle infrastructure, they will squeeze past you, into oncoming traffic, in precisely the same way that some British drivers will do, confronted by the same situation.Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 10.12.31

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.22.32

On country lanes (that are access-only roads) they will drive very close to you at high speed, just like some British drivers will.

On busier rural roads – without cycle tracks – they will squeeze through at speed, into oncoming traffic –

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.19.25

They will even squeeze through at the same time oncoming traffic is overtaking someone cycling the other way.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.20.13On the narrow streets of central Amsterdam, drivers will follow very close behind you,  and squeeze past with inches to spare.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 10.17.06Many of these streets allow contraflow cycling (like the example above). It is often quite an unnerving experience attempting to hold your ground as a driver rushes past you in the opposite direction.

This also happens on a narrow street in the centre of Utrecht, which is a through-route for taxis, buses and delivery drivers.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.09.23I’ve experienced close overtakes like this one almost every time I’ve used this street.

And of course Dutch drivers will happily park on footways, on cycle lanes, and on cycle tracks when a suitable parking space isn’t available, or nearby. Even obstructing junctions to do so.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.53.15 Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.54.07 Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.55.55 Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.56.08 Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.08.15 Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.12.33

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.17.50This shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s nothing particular special about Dutch drivers. They will behave in anti-social ways like British drivers, and drive just as badly as them, when confronted with the same types of design.

All the familiar problems that people cycling in Britain encounter – close passes, squeezing through at pinch points, left hooks, and so on – would undoubtedly occur in the Netherlands too, on a large scale, if their roads were not designed to eliminate those kinds of problems from occurring in the first place.

Attempting to change the ‘driving culture’ of Britain without changing the way roads are designed would be a futile experiment – we can see this in the way Dutch drivers behave on roads that put them into conflict with cycling, like the failed bicycle street in Utrecht in the 1990s, and countless examples of poor driver behaviour on ‘British-style’ Dutch roads.

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14 Responses to What distinguishes Dutch driver behaviour from British behaviour is the design of the roads they use

  1. And yet you still get anti-infrastructure people spouting nonsense like this:

    If people felt safe cycling on the roads, because of a changed attitude amongst drivers, then most facilities would be irrelevant.


  2. Regulator says:

    Nice of Hush Legs to quote my post elsewhere. If s/he thinks it’s nonsense, perhaps they’d have the good manners to debate it openly rather than leaving snide posts on this blog?

    • Dan B says:

      How do you propose to change the attitude of ALL drivers 100% of the time, to actually prevent any more incidents? What is the long-term cost of this? Where in the world has done so with the effect you desire? How does the person cycling on the road know the driver approaching them in an HGV will ALWAYS see them and give them enough time and space?

      Also, how does this change the perceived danger of the close proximity of large, fast-moving vehicles that most people have? All it takes is a badly-timed pothole, or a gust of wind and the otherwise good driver has killed someone.

  3. Really interesting post; thank you.

  4. jeldering says:

    Although I agree with the main point of this post that there is no fundamental difference in the (anti-)social behaviour of drivers, and that the most significant point is infrastructure, I do think there is another factor that you didn’t mention.
    British drivers typically have no experience using a bicycle themselves, while Dutch drivers do. This reflects itself e.g. in British drivers not looking in their mirrors or even signalling when making a left-hand turn. In London traffic it happens to me once every few days that I get cut off by a driver this way, which would happen a lot less frequently in The Netherlands. Similarly, I’d be a lot less wary of cycling close to parked cars in The Netherlands than in the UK — that there is no Dutch term for “dooring” already explains why.
    I think that in most cases this is not maliciousness but simply ignorance of the fact that there could be bicycles around. And of course the way to solve that is to have more people pick up cycling, which requires safer roads, thus better infrastructure…

    • Tim says:

      I often think about this when the “vehicular cyclists” argue that dedicated infra for cycling will marginalise cycling, and make cyclists less respected or more ignored on the roads.

      If you start spending more on dedicated cycling infra, sometimes closing roads (or through routes) to motor vehicles, perhaps removing on-street parking; and if more people cycle as a result, surely that can only promote cycling as an accepted everyday mode of transport. Perhaps if more motorists were aware of the massive external costs of their mode of transport, and the relative social benefits of cycling, and perhaps if the roads were set up to reflect that and prioritise walking and cycling appropriately then cycling would be considered more normal. And motorists might behave better (in general) almost as a side effect.

      • Notak says:

        Maybe they would. But this particular blog post suggests that they would not – that provision of such infrastructure only affects driver behaviour positively where that infrastructure is directly present, not in general.

  5. Paul M says:

    This was brought home to me some years ago while on a cycling holiday in the Dordogne Valley in France. The area in the upper Dordogne around the bastide towns – like Domme and La Rocque Gageac and the nearby town of Sarlat – is extremely popular with Dutch tourists and second-home owners, so in high summer you see almost as many Dutch number plates as French.

    French roads of course are barely any better designed than their British equivalents, although they are least generally better built and maintained. My experience of Dutch drivers there was that they were just as inclined to make close overtakes on narrow and congested roads, only to wind up mere yards ahead and now slowing me down on my bicycle due to the traffic tailbacks, as any Brit.

    For some reason that observation, made years ago elsewhere, got a rather frosty response from certain Dutch quarters.

  6. Notak says:

    Hmmm. In fact, the impression I get from people who have cycled in both NL and UK is that, where there are no separate paths etc, Dutch drivers are actually more aggressive and impatient than British.

    I certainly don’t agree that all drivers everywhere behave in the same manner. You can see different attitudes even from town to town within the same country. For more extreme contrasts, visit Asia or Africa.

    • Notak says:

      Just to expand on that: There is without doubt a link between surroundings – or environment; I’m deliberately using a word that’s far wider than infrastructure – and behaviour and attitudes, but the link is not unidirectional.

  7. pm says:

    I reckon there are only two ways you could ‘change the culture’ of driving.

    One is the Dutch model of actually changing the physical environment, thus enforcing a different culture through physical reality of barriers and segregation (plus, maybe, a second-order effect as such an arrangment would lead to more drivers taking to cycling themselves so they become more aware of what its like being on the other side of their behaviour).

    The other is some sort of fascist regime with computer-controlled auto-cannon turrets on every street and junction, that can recognise when a car is being used in a rule-breaking manner and then promptly blow it to pieces along with its occupants, robo-cop style. I reckon culture would then, _eventually_, change (to be fair, I suppose it would have to apply to cyclists who menace pedestrians as well).

    I know which I think is preferable (er…its the first, even if one might occasionally fantasise about the second)

    • F. Ascist, Vice-Dictator of Homeland, nominee for Peace Nobel says:

      I read an article today how “wearable computers” can help people find their way. Some computer/smartphone app has your location and the destination where you want to go. If you walk wrong way, the computer gives you small electric shocks on your foot. Go the right way and you will not get them. Supposedly this will help people find the nearest pizza place without having to look at the map on the phone, or help firefighters in a smoke filled building.

      Now, lets fast forward a few years: maybe we have self-driving cars that have collision avoiding sensors but are not on full computer control because there’s a human thinking he can drive better (faster). Add a few electrodes in the seat to give the driver shocks every time the sensors detect a human ahead and the computer thinks “you’re driving too close, mate!”. The drivers might not like the tazer-like needles in their butt, so they’ll probably put a few pillows on the seat… and they wear sturdy shoes so we can’t shock their feet… but most likely they’ll have bare fingers on the wheel (It’s hard to use tablets with mittens while driving) so we’ll zap their fingers!

      And the moment there is no hands on the driving wheel, the computer has to take control of the vehicle to avoid the dangerous situation.

  8. fIEtser says:

    Reblogged this on iNLand fIEts and commented:
    All of this is doubly true in the United States and especially here in the Inland Empire, where are roads are built to fantastical ‘minimum standards’ and to handle capacity several decades in the future. It should be no surprise to find that our roads are so fantastically hostile when even Dutch drivers exhibit the same behaviors when given the chance.

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