Having had a month ranging far and wide around The Netherlands (and a month since to reflect), I think I’m starting to see some common trends emerging in terms of what makes the Dutch get on their bikes so much more than us (or indeed, almost anyone on the world). After showing you the sights of various interesting places like Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen, Enschede, Nijmegen and Houten (not to mention all the other cities I visited but didn’t write a post about, like Apeldoorn, Delft or The Hague), let’s put all that together to see what bubbles to the surface.
I had a few colleagues in The Netherlands ask me my thoughts on how different Dutch cities differ between each other. And yes, they often have different little ways of doing things in terms of the markings used, or calming features, or certain traffic signals. But actually what I noticed after a while was the consistency from one city to the next at a higher level in simply providing for cycling. Basically it seemed to boil down to these same aspects time and time again:
- Good mixed-use higher-density land use planning: As I alluded to with Houten, if you don’t get this right to start with there will always be a limit to how many trips can be made by cycling – because all the other trips are too far (although public transport can fill some of that gap; see below). I didn’t actually pick this up initially but, on reviewing my Netherlands photos later, much of the building stock that I was looking at comprised 3-4 storey structures – contrast that with the typical 1-2 storey buildings you see around New Zealand. Not surprising really when you have to fit 16 million people into something a quarter of the size of the South Island, but it still provides a very human scale to communities. And those buildings might be a mixture of shops and offices down below, with apartments above. The net effect is that often it is easy to live quite close to where you work, shop, go to school, catch a train, etc; distances that are easily cycleable. The entire city of Enschede, for example, fits within a circle less than about 6km in diameter – have a look at what kind of distances would encompass urban Christchurch…
Lessons for Christchurch: Building a fantastic cycle network will only get you so far. We also need to concentrate our land uses better around the central city and the key suburban centres, so that more people are already within easy reach of popular destinations by bike. The worry is that statutory plans like CERA’s Land Use Recovery Plan do not adequately address the potential problems of further sprawl; perhaps instead we should be working on developments like “From the Ground Up” and the Viva Project?.
- Separation on all arterial roads: This the one that Joe Public elsewhere in the world will always go on about. And it’s fairly systematic that, if you have a busy road, there will be a separated bikeway running alongside it. Sometimes it’s one-way each side, sometimes it’s two-way on one side, sometimes it’s even two-way on both sides; basically it depended on the demand and the desire lines. More importantly, when you get to a busy intersection, there is either a separate signal phase for the bikes, or you get to go under/over the road (in fact, the Europeans overall are pretty big on vertical “grade separation” for all transport). That’s not to say that there weren’t ordinary painted on-road cycle lanes – actually there were plenty and they generally worked fine – but it was rare to see them on anything but moderately trafficked streets (even rarer to see them right up to intersections) and even then you got the impression that the Dutch authorities were looking at how to improve them.
Lessons for Christchurch: This approach is a key part of what we’re trying to do with the Major Cycleways programme; many of them follow busier streets that require some level of separation. The biggest headache will be removing on-street parking to achieve them; many Dutch arterial corridors seemed blessed with a little more space than us to fit everything in. Signalised crossings are our main tool of choice in Chch; the challenge is how to provide all of the necessary space and timing that all the different travel modes will want – something will have to give…
- Local streets with lower speeds and volumes: This is the bit that many people overlook when they talk about cycling in The Netherlands, yet really it’s the backbone of their whole network (we’ll come back to that word “network” later). A common strategy that Dutch planners talk about is “unravelling” (like a rope). In that respect, they want to keep the motorised “strands” out of the local streets as much as possible. Indeed, some routes, like the fietsstraat “bicycle streets” only allow cars at biking speed, others you can only drive one-way, and others are cut in the middle so that you can’t drive all the way through. Invariably there are also speed humps/platforms, cobbles or textured surfaces, and the ubiquitous 30 km/h speed limit to help keep traffic speeds down (or 60km/h in rural areas).
Lessons for Christchurch: We are using a few “neighbourhood greenway” treatments on some of the quieter Major Cycleway routes, but the potential is there to make whole local neighbourhoods more bike friendly too. In many places we’ve already done the hard work of calmed street reconstructions (think Papanui East, Addington, Straven); now we need to reinforce that with 30km/h speed limits (great that we’re getting it for the central city at least). We could also reduce traffic volumes further on many streets relatively easily by making more use of short one-way restrictions or by “breaking” some in half with simple closures.
- Traffic-free central cities: There’s a general philosophy in Dutch cities that the closer you get to the centre the fewer cars there should be. That typically translates into a central area (often the historic old part of town, but not always) that is only for walking and biking (except for service/delivery vehicles usually within prescribed off-peak time periods). Where are the cars? Sometimes there’s a big underground carpark tucked away, but a lot of it is simply about the fact that it’s now much easier to get there by bike or public transport. Certainly the retailers don’t seem to be losing out…
Lessons for Christchurch: I’m seeing only baby steps in regards to making central Christchurch traffic-free, according to our “Accessible City” strategy. There is a move to make the Four Aves used more than the one-way streets, which might help. And it looks like we have managed to largely reclaim Oxford Tce back to active modes. However I still can’t fathom why we then also allow traffic to drive the entire length of (say) Manchester St or Hereford St. If cars have to be there, it should be about access, not thoroughfare. Or we could make more use of one-way restrictions to motor traffic on minor streets too.
- Providing a complete, permeable network: As I touched on earlier, “network” is the key word there; it’s no good having a lot of great major cycling routes if most people still can’t get to them. The aim with Dutch cities is that virtually every street is bikeable by one means or another, so that you don’t have to think too hard about where the “cycling route” is. Certainly when I was biking around there I didn’t question whether the next street I came across would be OK to bike on; I just assumed that it would. Also the signage was reasonably comprehensive to help you get to the main destinations.
Lessons for Christchurch: The Major Cycleway programme will add about 100km of high-quality cycling routes to our network, but you have to remember that we have closer to 2000km of streets in the whole city. So the work to “complete” the network will continue; already there’s been some research done at Canterbury University to help identify the missing connections most in need. Many streets (e.g. relatively quiet local streets) won’t require much changing at all, but could benefit from low-cost measures like simple traffic management (islands, barriers, etc), network signage, one-way restrictions, and 30km/h speed limits. The City Council’s $500,000 “targeted improvements fund” of the last couple of years was a relatively unheralded but strategically useful pool of money for minor cycling improvements (like the separator posts). It’s not entirely clear if there is ongoing funding of this nature, although there is some money allocated at least five years away to “Local Cycleway: Development Connections”.
- Priority of safety over efficiency: This is really the nub of the problem in much of New Zealand (and indeed, much of the developed world). There’s often an unwritten rule (and sometimes it’s there in the project brief): “sure, you can provide for cycling here – but only if motor traffic efficiency won’t be compromised”. Instantly that probably rules out half of the things I have shown you in the past few posts. Those fancy ped’n/cycle-priority roundabouts? Pretty sure if you modelled them they would prove to be worse in terms of delays to motorists than one with motorist priority (duh). One-way restrictions? That means a motorist has to drive further around the block. But the Dutch are much better at looking at the bigger picture – someone often has to lose out and for too long it has been the active modes. Instead they focus on safety first (their “Sustainable Safety” national strategy is a very useful blueprint), and to do that effectively often means that mobility has to take a back seat. Alternatively you spend more to grade-separate everyone so that no-one (but the banker) loses.
Lessons for Christchurch: This one has yet to be tested significantly here, but certainly a few designs I’ve seen for major road crossings could restrict existing traffic movements somewhat (although clever design can help; I was impressed that they could get the Matai St East signalised crossing to work OK between Fendalton Rd and Kilmarnock St). So it will be a test of wills against those (both public and practitioners) who see such “disbenefits” as intolerable. I suspect that some NZTA and CTOC staff in particular will need to revise some of their objectives to achieve this. Mind you, we’ve had a lot of practice at traffic delays in the past few years…
- Continuous improvement of what you’ve got: The Dutch certainly weren’t perfect the first time they started building cycleways. Even now, they will take great pains to point out the flaws in what they have got (and what’s going to be improved). Through trial and error they’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t (interestingly there’s often relatively little formal research accompanying these lessons learned). So some of the photos you’ve been seeing in the past few weeks may have been second-generation (or even third generation) versions of what they first tried. It didn’t all happen overnight; they just kept chipping away incrementally at it. And while to our eyes it may all look truly impressive, they are continuing to improve on it all the time too.
Lessons for Christchurch: Visitors to Chch from other parts of NZ (or similarly cycle-deprived places) often marvel at what we’ve already got here for cycling. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate by local eyes, but we’ve got a good base. So we’re not starting at zero. No doubt we will stumble along the way; many would already say that the Ilam Road pilot was not our best work. And parts of other existing facilities like the Railway Cycleway are far too narrow for current or future demand. But the key is to take the lessons learned and plan for how the next project will be a little bit better (and budget for improving the existing stuff at some stage). Then, before you know it, you’ll be able to look back and be amazed at how far we’ve come.
- Integration with public transport: Biking can only get you so far (maybe a bit further on an e-bike…); for most people they need motorised assistance to travel longer distances. In the case of the Dutch that tends to be a fairly comprehensive rail network that links various towns and suburbs together, as well as buses/trams for the local connections. The Dutch have a few choices about linking this with bikes; they can take their bikes with them on the train (or folding bikes on buses/trams) or they can use the extensive OV-Fiets bike hire scheme that allows them to pick up another bike very cheaply at virtually any railway station (paying for it using their same public transport smartcard). That allows PT+bike to compete with the alternative of driving your car (especially as car-parking can be quite limited and expensive).
Lessons for Christchurch: Actually, one thing we’ve done very well is to provide bike racks on buses everywhere. And the coming public bike share scheme might come in handy for some bus passengers arriving in the central city. The elephant in the room is the lack of commuter rail (or rapid transit of some kind), leaving long-distance commuters to have to put up with buses that are often stuck in the same traffic as everyone else. Come up with a viable efficient alternative from the likes of Rangiora and Rolleston and we might be able to reduce the growing car numbers that stream in every day – not many people are going to bike all the way from there.
In summary, all this leads to the cycling numbers that you see in The Netherlands. Those numbers also lead to other things you notice, namely:
- People of all ages and genders on bikes, and wearing all kinds of “normal” everyday clothes
- A huge range of bikes to cater for everyone’s different needs, from pannier racks, to electric bikes, to cargo-bikes, and so on
- A huge bike parking problem – despite the thousands of parking spaces provided, they are invariably very full
- Fairly casual behaviour by many riders because (like cars in many other countries) they are often the “dominant species”. So lots of cellphone use while riding (which is legal here BTW) and ignoring of red lights, pedestrian crossings, and so on (although generally manoeuvring to avoid hitting anyone). Not sure if you can fix that one; it is human nature
- Conversely, fairly good behaviour by motorists (in terms of speeds, giving way, waiting, etc). But it’s by no means perfect; I saw plenty of boy racers or what I would consider inappropriate passing manoeuvres.
Now you could try to put a lot of effort into dealing with the latter list of items (whether it’s a case of encouragement, enforcement, marketing, etc). But I would suggest that many of these things naturally arise out of dealing with the first list of issues given.
Do you think that these things would help Christchurch become a true cycling city?