True safety lies with design

I shared some pictures the other day, in an attempt to convey a fairly simple message – that the safety record of the Netherlands for cycling is almost entirely attributable to the physical environment people cycle in, and that it isn’t down to exemplary behaviour (either of people cycling, or of people driving), or down to clothing, or safety equipment, or special lighting, or any other kind of gimmick.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 18.22.01 Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 18.24.13

Admittedly it isn’t particularly obvious from the photographs, but these pictures were taken at two large, busy junctions in Utrecht – the first is at the Westplein, a major junction just to the west of the train station, the second is the junction of Vleutensweg and Thomas a Kempisweg. The people in the pictures are able to negotiate these junctions in total safety, despite doing what they are doing, and wearing what they are wearing, and riding battered bikes, because they are completely separated from motor traffic, either physically, or in time, with dedicated green crossing stages for cycles.

I am not necessarily condoning this behaviour – my point was that the superior Dutch safety record is achieved in spite of it.

It’s hard to generalise, but you rarely see people carrying exceptional loads, or texting, or cycling with dogs, or giving backies, in British cities, but all these things are extraordinarily common in Dutch cities, while hi-visibility clothing and helmets are almost entirely absent. Indeed, I would even estimate that people with functioning lights are definitely in the minority in the centre of larger Dutch cities.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 10.02.58It is blindingly obvious, therefore, that safety – true safety – for people cycling does not lie with behaviour, or with clothing or equipment, but with a safe environment, one that allows what in British eyes might be ‘stupid’ behaviour, but that is in reality just natural, flawed, human behaviour in an environment that feels safe.

The Dutch safety record is actually even more remarkable because of the broad demography of the people cycling, particularly those that are most vulnerable – young children, and the elderly. 23% of all trips Dutch people over the age of 65 make are cycled.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 17.20.32 Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 17.22.17These are people for whom even minor incidents could be quite serious.

Likewise 40% of all trips Dutch children under the age of 17 make are cycled. This group is vulnerable in a different way. Firstly they are inexperienced, and still learning how to use the road network…

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 17.27.54

… and secondly, kids (and especially teenagers) will prat about. It’s just what they do.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 17.28.11Again, the Dutch environment is forgiving enough to accommodate this behaviour while maintaining safety.

Nor does safety in the Netherlands lie with exemplary (or even slightly better) driver behaviour. You will see the same kind of impatience, driver error, speeding, tailgating, and silly behaviour as on British roads. Stand at a busy junction for motor traffic, and you will see drivers fiddling with their phones, or speaking on them. Dutch drivers will SMIDSY too, when they encounter junctions where they have to process a lot of movements and interactions.

Assen's most dangerous junction. We only had to stand here for five minutes before we saw this incident.

Assen’s most dangerous junction. We only had to stand here for five minutes before we saw this incident.

Why would it be otherwise? The Dutch are human beings, just like the British, and are just as fallible and flawed as we are, when they are behind the wheel of a car.

Mobile phone user, Utrecht

Mobile phone user, Utrecht

Motorway tailgating at over 100kph

Motorway tailgating at over 100kph

The essential difference with Britain, however, is that, while cycling in the Netherlands, you are almost entirely insulated from this bad behaviour. On main roads you are not in the same space as drivers. Often they will be some distance away, even invisible.

Cycle path along an 80kph A-road, east of Assen. The road is on the left-hand side, behind the trees.

Cycle path along an 80kph A-road, east of Assen. The road is on the left-hand side, behind the trees.

In urban areas, particularly in new developments, routes for bikes and motor traffic will often be completely unravelled, with entirely separate ‘main roads’ for cycling and motor traffic between destinations.

Major junction to the north of Zwolle. Cycle traffic has the direct route into the new development, on the bridge. You will not go anywhere near this road.

Major junction to the north of Zwolle. Cycle traffic has the direct route into the new development, to the right, on the bridge. You will not go anywhere near this road.

And on residential and access streets, motor traffic is only there for, well, access reasons, meaning your chances of encountering drivers speeding somewhere else are negligible.

Residential access road, Zwolle

Residential access road, Zwolle

This policy also means that side roads are infrequently used by drivers, again meaning potential conflict with motor traffic is greatly reduced.

Crossing a residential side road in Utrecht. Not many motorists will be using this junction - only for access.

Crossing a residential side road in Utrecht. Not many motorists will be using this junction – only for access.

Where interaction does (infrequently) have to occur, like at the side street shown above, design helps to ensure that it is clear who has priority, and that there is little to be gained from driving badly.

It is this whole raft of design measures that means interaction with motor traffic is negligible by comparison with Britain, and usually benign when it does occur. Although idiot drivers undoubtedly exist, your chances of meeting one are greatly, greatly reduced. By contrast, in Britain, you are almost always continually exposed to that idiocy, sharing the same road space as motor traffic on main roads, and indeed on side streets which will often form through routes for drivers, trying to get somewhere else.

True safety lies with design; design that accounts for human fallibility, rather than design that relies on perfect human behaviour, or on attempts to create better human beings.

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39 Responses to True safety lies with design

  1. Notak says:

    Some things I really like in this post:
    kids (and especially teenagers) will prat about. It’s just what they do.
    ‘stupid’ behaviour, but that is in reality just natural, flawed, human behaviour in an environment that feels safe.

  2. Jo Sanderson says:

    Wow the dutch cycle lanes are good!
    This article makes a good point that in the UK people are always saying a lot of the reasons people get killed on bikes is that they do not take enough care. The fact is that they would not have to worry about taking care if they had separate cycle lanes!
    Jo Sanderson

    • Kie says:

      people are always saying a lot of the reasons people get killed on bikes is that they do not take enough care.

      That of course is wrong, roughly 80% of the time the driver is at fault and the cyclist is at fault only a fraction of the time.

        • pm says:

          Not that I’ve looked at the figures recently, but that doesn’t logically follow. It might also be shared fault or the fault of a third party, or just unknown.

      • Shawn says:

        If someone on a bike speeds through an intersection and then a car turns into them (a right hook crash), you can say, legally, ‘it’s the driver’s fault’ because they didn’t ‘take due care’ and win the case, but that’s mighty cold comfort, as the bike rider is still dead. ‘Operator error’ (mistakes by cyclist) is the cause of most crashes.
        With separate (truly separate) infrastructure (not bike lanes in a street w/cars), when someone makes a mistake on a bike there isn’t a car right next to them ready to run them over. It’s idiotproof design.

        • Speeding cyclists? That’s funny.
          I’ve always though that cyclists “slow down the traffic” 😉

          Seriously though I have every single right to cycle at any speed I wish within speed limits and according to conditions just like you and other drivers.

          Whether I do 10, 20 or 30mph (way slower than cars) as long I have green light or the right of way it’s up to you to pay attention and wait until I pass you.
          If you hit me because you underestimated my speed it’s YOUR FAULT.
          When I say your fault I mean you screwed something up and no one else is to blame.
          It’s a matter of maturity and being able to accept responsibility for YOUR OWN actions.

          Accident statistics in the UK are very clear – drivers cause/are responsible for majority of accidents involving cyclists.
          These are cases when cyclists were riding correctly without breaking any rules of the road and sill got hit/injured/killed by a driver.

          Just accept it and if you believe it’s some sort of conspiracy against drivers, please present your own data.

  3. Zvi Leve says:

    I recently returned from Cambridge (my first visit ever) and was very impressed to see how the cycling environment there contrasted with that in London. Bicycles everywhere (one must not neglect parking) but not many helmets or hi-viz clothing in Cambridge! Here are some photos if anyone is interested:

    Ample space and ‘tolerant’ infrastructure is crucial for getting ‘normal’ people on bicycles. As always thanks for your excellent blog entries. I frequently share them in Montreal!

    • David Knowles says:

      And the same thing in Oxford too.Can’t let the ‘Tabs’ have all the praise lol!

    • Alex says:

      Cambridge does have a high cycling modal share by UK standards (about 20%). However, with its demographics and geography, Cambridge ought to be Britain’s answer to the Dutch town of Groningen — which has a cycling modal share of 60%!

      Also, I suspect Cambridge’s modal share is skewed upwards by the large number of students, academics and young(ish) professional workers making lots of short trips in and around the city centre. If you go properly out into the suburbs of Cambridge you don’t see anything like as many older locals cycling as you would in a similar Dutch town.

      Why not? Well, Cambridge’s cycling infrastructure — aside from the pleasantly low-traffic centre — isn’t actually that good. The same reason as anywhere else in the UK….

  4. Paul says:

    Excellent post – cuts through the pointless blame game between “Cyclists” and “Drivers”.

    • Mark Williams says:

      There is only one player—for the reasons set out in the penultimate paragraph of the post and alluded to by Pete, Bikerusl and others in the comments—who regards this as a `game’. For the other party, it is a deadly serious matter. Likewise all the oil^H^H^Hfreedom `wars’ and propaganda relating thereto in recent years. You really do us no favours by adopting their sanitised newspeak as your own.

      On a tangential note: the rider in the centre of the second picture looks like they have earphones in. The good news is that they might be the noise-cancelling type which actively improve the wearer’s chance of discerning approach of danger from motorists in NL, just as in UK. Hence no need for a yellow arrow. Of course, even if of the passive type, still much better than sitting inside the noise insulation booth of a standard motor car.

      • pm says:

        I agree about the double-standards over cyclist headphones vs cars (for which sound insulation and deafeningly loud stereos are selling points). I don’t mind which line someone takes, just as long as its consistent across modes.

        But I think the cyclists vs motorists thing it depends how you look at it.

        That is, out on the roads I agree its not an equivalence, and its not just a matter of ‘everyone must take responsibility, blah blah blah’ it is indeed entirely one group who create the danger.

        But on a political level, as far as actually finding a solution is concerned, it shouldn’t be cyclists vs motorists it should be about promoting a better transport philosophy that will benefit almost everyone, including many of those who currently drive (personally the people I know who I would like to feel able to cycle are those who currently use unreliable public transport or who just rarely go anywhere)

        Besides, actual-existing cyclists are a tiny group and a proportion of them are macho, victim-blaming Uncle Tom types themselves.

        • Mark Williams says:

          On a political level, that all sounds very happy-clappy and idealistic, but entirely divorced from reality. The UK is very corrupt and not really a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. The political class is owned, at every level, by the establishment. The establishment are not interested in `benefit[ing] almost everyone’ as they already have—and intend to keep—virtually the whole cake for themselves. They view any change to their status quo as a zero-sum `game’ and don’t mind cutting off their own nose to spite their face while there is cast-iron certainty that the state will provide them with new noses on demand ’till the cows come home.

          That’s not to say that `promoting a better transport philosophy’ isn’t an excellent goal. But we are less likely to succeed without understanding the nature of the opposition. You were spot-on about everything else, though :-).

  5. baoigheallain says:

    Mark, excellent post.

    By coincidence you and I were both in Holland at the same time and I can fully endorse everything you say.

    I had the choice of flying, or using the train, to get there. In the end I opted for driving which was longer and more expensive but I wanted to experience Holland from behind the steering wheel as well as on two wheels.

    It was a revelation. Dutch drivers are certainly no saints; 140 – 150 kph in 100 kph zones was common, I saw passing on the nearside, on the outside, no indicators, tail-gating, I saw a utilities company van driven in a 30 kph zone so fast that it cornered on two wheels; in all I would say the driving I witnessed, in my admittedly short stay, was much worse than you see on UK roads.

    The difference is purely the infrastructure.

    • Har Davids says:

      In what part of the country were you? Dutch motorists are no saints, but I spend a lot of time on the road because of my job and even in 130 Kph zones most people take it easy. In urban areas, it’s quite common for pedestrians and cyclists to get the right of way, even when legally the motorist is not required to give it. Your comment sounds a bit fishy to me.

      • baoigheallain says:

        Fishy or not it’s what I experienced on the six lane highway just south of Amsterdam coming from the Breda direction. Most were tanking along at 140+ until they reached the well signposted cameras.

  6. Pingback: How the Dutch do it – 2 | Price Tags

  7. Rachel M says:

    Reblogged this on RachelSquirrel and commented:

    I enjoyed the photos in this post of cyclists in the Netherlands. Note the absence of helmets, lights, and hi-viz clothing. They’re just normal people cycling in normal clothes to get to work, school, and shops. This is how cycling should be.

  8. Jim Moore says:

    Great post, again. I’m eager to see what insights you gathered on the Part 2 of the Hembrow Study Tour.

  9. Scouter John says:

    While design can enhance safety – both design of the route, and what and how the bike is fitted (lights for visibility, for example) that this is the Only Way to achieve safety is a false conclusion – else had we all of us been dead by now. Far more important, IMO, is the whole ethos of driving. Whereas, here in North America, it is regarded as a right, for which at best minimal qualifications are required, for most of the rest of the world, it is a Privilege – hard won by training and testing, and far more easily lost. I cannot claim that drivers elsewhere are more civilized – we are, as the author points out, all human (as if that were an excuse!). However, even mediocre drivers, in a world where driving is revocable (as it is not, without several years of battle, here – even if the “driver” is manifestly incompetent) and one where cycling is, and always has been, a normal part of the traffic flow – as is the case in the Netherlands, Denmark, and many other parts of the world – cycling is seen – not ignored – as a rule, and cyclists, as well, are competent – as most North American cyclists are not – in dealing with traffic, as they consider themselves to be part of it, rather than some species of special creature, entitled to do as they like, and schooled in the notion that ALL motorists are ravening beasts, specifically out to get them. I’ve cycled in Canadian cities, and along highways and byways between them, for sixty years, without any more difficulty than I have had motoring for most of that time. It can be done, comfortably, without being some sort of extraordinary beast. The secret is (in this case) the nut on the saddle – if he or she is a driver, all is well. If not, not.

  10. ajzelada says:

    TO continue Scouter John’s thought’s and add a new direction: There is a significant cultural difference. Those in Holland learn different skills at such an early age. Most kids are up front between parents’ arms bicycling & facing forward as infant and very young children. They see and feel the bike give way to other bikes, they see bikes over take other bikes, they learn ‘courtesy’ in a moving flow of traffic. I personally think this ‘hard wires’ humans to anticipate how another cyclist is behaving. As they grow, this foundation leads to a learned communicated skills that are not the narcissistic rules of the road as in America. In the US, getting a license and a car means freedom and the images force fed by advertising is the simple message that you are the only one on the road and you can speed how ever you wish. That attitude gets burned into the soul of every American that watches a million hours of television by the time they are 10 years old. Where as the young bicyclist in Europe learns courtesy and anticipation of others on the road with their hundred thousand hours of real road experience contrasted to the virtual car world expectations. So yes infrastructure makes a difference but cultural learning- hard wiring plays a bigger role than one wants to admit. Read my little article, Lifeboat Rule at

  11. neil says:

    Great article. Just one quibble about the “no lights” – are you sure those rear reflectors are not lights? It is very common to have rear lights on the rack like that (and slim). The one bike clearly has a front light. And anyway – those were day time pics!

  12. Jitensha Oni says:

    What it’s like in the Netherlands when the infrastructure is inadequate…

    • USbike says:

      The conditions for cycling in that video look quite awful, even from the perspective of someone who has to ride it sub-optimal conditions in the southern US. I hope they will consider doing an upgrade to the infrastructure here in the near future, if it’s not already in discussion, because the current layout is just asking for trouble. Especially with all the children cycling through here.

  13. Jay says:

    Most people with old bikes use small, disposable led lights. You can buy them everywhere for about €1,20 a set and are usable for about a month (2 hours daily). The penalty for riding without lights is €55 (tail-gating at 100 km/h is €430 btw).

  14. I have had some amazing cycling holidays in NL and what has been done there really does put the UK to shame.
    Its interesting crossing the border into Germany, where many cycle lanes stop. Riding a bike there is just as easy, from what I have seen German motorists seem very aware of your space. I would go as far to say I felt more comfortable riding in Germany than I did in NL when without segregation. For the record, there is no comparison to UK motorists.
    In my own opinion, sadly in the UK we will never see Dutch style segregation, its not going to happen.

  15. Pete says:

    I work for a manufacturing company. Like other industries they say Personal Protective Equipment is the last line of defence and shouldn’t be relied upon.

    If my employer (standard issue multinational) ran the roads then they would do a risk assessment (by law they must keep their employees safe). If an uncontrolled load of between 1 an 44 tons was zooming past a worker at tens of miles an hour whilst the worker was balancing on another piece of equipment, they would cage the moving equipment and put interlocks on it (effectively what the separation of the cycling and vehicle infrastructure illustrated above does). The worker might be wearing a helmet and high-vis but it really wouldn’t be the key piece of safety equipment to keep the worker safe. Its just basic good health and safety.

    So why does the UK government encourage PPE as the first line of defence and make no effort to systematically introduce safety systems that would operate the way they stipulate business must?

  16. bikerusl says:

    The primary design difference is not anything special. You will find the oldest path, hundreds of years old, are simply paths used for cycling. The difference is the priority given to cars. Cars kill. It’s not about bad driving. It’s because driving cars is never safe. The difference is prioritising space for travel instead of prioritising space for moving cars.

  17. You forgot one very important detail I think: Verkeersexamen.

  18. harry says:

    Also the driver is in principle responsible in case of an accident between a car and either a bike or a pedestrian. He has to prove that the slower vehicle is in error. If he cannot then he will be held responsible not just for the money but also for punitive damages.

  19. Pingback: True safety lies with design | Walkable West Palm Beach

  20. Neil Schneider says:

    It’s hard to generalise, but I will anyway. American drivers are mostly attentive and mostly observe the rules of the road. Bicyclists like me, get along quite well when we act like traffic and observe the same rules of the road. In Europe they have strict liability laws. In the U.S. if you hit and kill a bicyclist, you might get a ticket, or not. Holland is about the size of one of our smallest states, we have 50. Holland is almost completely flat, we have mountains, really big mountains. We have cities that are as big as Holland. Comparing bicycling in Holland with bicycling in the U.S. is like comparing elephants and oranges.

  21. Captain Tuttle says:

    I don’t know about statistics, I only know what I see. Every time i see a cyclist in Cook County Illinois 9 times out of ten they break the law. They 1. Run red lights 2. cut in front of cars 3. Wrong side of the road. I was an avid bike rider when young. I am a pretty careful driver now that I am old. I have not hit a biker yet, but if I do, it will be their fault.

  22. Captain Tuttle says:

    By the way, the picture at time points out no lights. ALL those bikes have large reflectors. What the heck?

    • Mark Williams says:

      Yes, USA is well known for being an unpleasant place to cycle by design (& planning), its oppressive marginalisation of everyone not in a motor vehicle, the odious tilting of the law in favour of those who are and the rampant street violence, especially against out-groups. AKA land of the free, AKA almost as bad as Australia &#x1F612. Your countrymen’s vehicularist proclivity does nothing to mitigate this. It sucks to be you, huh?

      All but one of the photo’s above are taken in daytime, so what is it to you whether they do or do not show lights? It’s not reflectors keeping the riders safe, either—mainly just infrastructure. I’d be more interested to hear your reaction to the text of the post, particularly ‘23 % of all trips Dutch people over the age of 65 make are cycled’. Envious? Baffled? Apoplectic?

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