As Easy As Riding A Bike

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.

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.

It 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.

These 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…

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

Again, 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.

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

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.

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, 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

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.

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.