Why Dutch Roads Are So Safe (and American Roads Aren’t)

We’ve all heard about Dutch cycle paths. In fact, the image is so pervasive that if you’ve never visited Holland you might assume that they’re everywhere.  They’re not.  For every Hovenring, there are ten to twenty scenes like these below…

Griftstraat, Utrecht - Photo: Google

Griftstraat, Utrecht – Photo: Google

And things are far from perfect in Holland. Here, Google Streetview shows a bike lane with a door zone that should look familiar to any American cyclist. This is on Europalaan in Eindhoven. Photo-Google

Europalaan, Eindhoven Photo-Google

Dam Square, Amsterdam Photo: Google

Dam Square, Amsterdam.  The skinniest bike lane ever.  Photo: Google

None of those pictures are terrible, but they’re not the sort of thing you’re likely to see on Streetsblog, either.  They look a lot like most bicycle infrastructure here in the United States, which is to say, less than ideal.

So it’s not just superior road design and cycle paths that are keeping Dutch cyclists safe.  There’s something bigger going on and we probably should try to better understand it if we want to make American roads safer.

When it comes to planning road needs, the Dutch take a much more holistic approach than we do here in the States.  This starts with a focus on two transportation planning frameworks.  The first is named Sustainable Safety and it has five basic tenants:

1. Functionality of Roads
2. Homogeneity of mass/speed/direction
3. Predictability of roads and how users react to them.
4. Forgivingness of the environment
5. Awareness by the road user

Sustainable Safety focuses on  all road users regardless of vehicle.  Whenever a road is built or improved, the needs of cyclists are considered on par with the needs of motorists.   It doesn’t advocate a one size fits all solution, rather, it looks at each project individually and determines the best way to proceed.  That way might include anything from a cycle path to shared space with just about everything in between.

Typical Dutch cycle path, Rotterdam. Photo: Emvee

The typical Dutch bi-directional cycle path, Rotterdam. Photo: Emvee

The second Dutch framework, Shared Space, addresses when roads can safely be shared by different classes of users.  The issue here is speed…specifically speed differential between different types of vehicles. When speed differentials are low or non-existent, crashes are much less likely to occur.  Those that do tend to be relatively insignificant. Some form of shared space is almost always the preferred solution in Holland for roads that are not major arterials.

Fietsstroken, Oudorp.  This is one example of a hybrid shared space solution.  The broken line tells motorists they may use the bike lane but that cyclists have priority at all times.  Photo: Maurits90

Fietsstroken, Oudorp. This is one example of a hybrid shared space solution. The broken line tells motorists they may use the bike lane but that cyclists have priority at all times. Photo: Maurits90

ietsstraat or bike street is a road where bicycles share the path with cars. Usually bikes still dominate the road.  Photo:  John Tarantino.

The sign on top of the pole identifies this route as a Fietsstraat.   Cars are welcome but only as “guests.” This is a street for bicycles first and foremost.  Photo: John Tarantino.

Here's an example of Fietsstraat in Indianapolis. What's different?  There's nothing that suggests bikes have priority here, and when I've used this space the message is clear.  Cars still rule.

Here’s an example of Fietsstraat in Indianapolis. What’s different? There’s nothing that suggests bikes have priority here, and when I’ve used this space the message is clear. Cars still rule.

One interesting aspect of Shared Space as it is evolving in the Netherlands is the removal of traffic signs, signals, curbs, bollards and other so-called “safety” features.  This is counterintuitive to most Americans, but it actually makes sense.  Think of a parking lot.    There are none of these things in parking lots but because the situation is much more chaotic than the typical street, motorists intuitively slow down and exercise a much greater level of caution.  That’s the whole idea.  Pedestrians actually fare pretty well in parking lots.  Cyclists, too.

So why not simply port the parking lot to the street?  That’s what the Dutch have done and, in the process, they have figured out that this changes motorist behavior.  That’s exactly what needs to happen, and this approach is brilliant in its simplicity.  Here’s what it looks like in Leeuwarden, Netherlands.

Here in the States,  we haven’t managed to change the culture.  I haven’t seen anything that suggests that transportation officials are even trying.  Most politicians, even those who are avidly pro-bike, see bicycle infrastructure more in terms of image, positioning and their ability to attract millennials than they do as a transportation solution.   This sends the wrong message to the motoring public.  It suggests to them that they are being marginalized and this, in turn, creates frustration that leads to a type of acting out that simply is not tolerated in Dutch society.

The sign on the side of this vehicle says "I'll share the road when cyclists follow the rules." Young, impressionable eyes are taking it all in. This sort of moronic behavior wouldn't be tolerated in Holland.

The sign on the side of this vehicle in an Ohio parade says “I’ll share the road when cyclists follow the rules.” In effect, he’s justifying running down a cyclist and young, impressionable eyes are taking it all in. This sort of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in Holland (or most civilized countries, for that matter) but it’s all too common in the United States.  Source unknown.

Many cyclists are often surprised to learn that Holland has not always been bicycle friendly.  As recently as the 1970s, it was a very car-centric country with unacceptably high traffic mortality rates. In effect, the Dutch were us, but they made a conscious decision to change.  It wasn’t easy…it never is.  In fact,  it was an extremely contentious process as this video shows.

So I hope that by sharing these images and information you can see more clearly that the real difference between Dutch and American roads isn’t so much what the infrastructure looks like, but rather an underlying culture that insists that roads are a sort of public commons that must be shared among all users regardless of what type of vehicle they choose for their trip.  This culture places people ahead of their machines.  It is more human.  It is ultimately more pragmatic as well, because sharing the same space allows the Dutch to stretch their Euros and do more with less.

Ultimately, Dutch roads aren’t safer because they have cycle paths.  They are safer because the Dutch pivoted from a model and mindset that elevated cars above other forms of transit to one that accommodates the needs of all road users.     As they did, it caused the Dutch people to view transportation differently than they had historically and that, in turn, caused them to change how they collectively behave behind the wheel. It works there. It can work here, too.

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