Dutch Minimalism

When trying to make streets better for cycling, there are a range of options. At one extreme you could close the street to through motor-traffic, at the other you could make separate paths alongside. With lots of road-sharing options in-between.

The classic approach is to look at the current speed and volume of traffic, read off the type of provision required, and then see if it fits. If it does, fine; if it doesn’t, try to reduce the speed or volume of traffic so you can use something that does fit.

The minimalist approach is to turn this on its head: given the space that’s easily available, how much do we have to reduce speed or volume of traffic to make it reasonably comfortable? And can we reduce speed or volume even more, to make it more comfortable?

In some ways these are just versions of the same approach, but they can have quite substantial differences. If you’ve got space and money, perhaps building a new town or suburb, the classic approach is easier, and has been widely implemented in new developments in the Netherlands. Traffic is either fast or slow, and there are either tracks or nothing. The classic approach also works in tight-knit city centres – just exclude the traffic and the job’s done.

But in older suburbs, especially ones that were laid out in the late nineteenth century, space on main roads is often at a premium. And in our larger cities, even though the streets are wider (courtesy of the Great Fire of 1666), the press of traffic can be quite severe. The classic approach would often call for segregation, but the space won’t readily be made available, especially at junctions.

The minimalist approach is to start with the simplest intervention that gives clear space for cycling – the painted cycle lane, and look at how this can be made comfortable for a good number of cyclists. That’s initially achieved by keeping the speed of traffic down to 30mph or preferably less. It’s quite hard to get speed down if traffic has more than one lane for any distance, so this only really works for upto about 20,000 cars/day. But that’s plenty enough traffic for most main roads in most towns.

There are various things that can be done to slow main road traffic. It helps if the road is enclosed by buildings, but putting in cycle lanes, narrowing the traffic lanes to 3m or less, removing the centre line, putting in raised crossings of side roads and frequent pedestrian crossings all help. Refuges can work, but should really be part of a continuous median, otherwise cyclists will tend to get squeezed. Zebra crossings are better.

It usually takes some time – years – to implement all these measures and get traffic to slow down. But when the traffic has been slowed, cycle lanes are fairly comfortable, and acceptable to a wide range of adult and teenage cyclists.

If you’ve got the space, bus lanes (or wide cycle lanes) can be effective, but it’s harder to get the traffic to slow down. Generally, bus lanes are a good idea if there is peak-time congestion – buses and drivers don’t come cheap, and we need a good bus service to provide for longer journeys. But wide cycle lanes will probably just lead to faster speeds.

The minimalist approach also applies at junctions: try to give an obvious, easy route for cyclists going straight-ahead, but don’t try to segregate cyclists. Instead get the traffic to slow down, and work around the cyclists. In low-speed environments, drivers are perfectly capable of sharing safely, as long as they can understand what the cyclist is doing. The trick is to get everyone going slowly, so bikes only get in the way briefly.

Similarly at roundabouts, there are Swiss designs that slow the traffic down to cycling speed, so that the road can be comfortably shared. This takes up much less space than the Dutch segregated roundabout designs. It won’t be comfortable for family cycling, at least not for quite some years, but it is very effective at making roundabouts tolerable for a lot of adult and teenage cyclists. However, these roundabouts don’t work for bigger junctions (more than about 25,000 cars/day). Bigger junctions have to use traffic lights.

Why do I call this “Dutch” minimalism? Well partly because it’s about cycling, and “Dutch” is almost a synonym for cycling. Partly also because some of the most famous minimalists were Dutch – painters like Mondriaan (an early exponent of the creative uses of white paint). But also because the minimalist approach is very much based on the principles for bicycle planning that have been developed in the Netherlands. The facilities are very much aiming to be cohesive, direct, attractive, safe and comfortable, in classic Dutch style. It’s just that we are also actively trying to restrict ourselves to the simpler forms of facility, to leave more space for pedestrians, and to take space from the road as much as we can reasonably manage. The bicycle is a very efficient form of transport; we should aim to be efficient in its use of space, as well. If you are trying to fit in cycling from scratch in an existing congested city, it’s probably the only way.

What does Dutch minimalism ultimately look like? The end result will probably be 20mph main roads with cycle lanes. Pavements will be wide, and parking limited. Cyclists will have the freedom to use all roads without being constantly threatened by passing traffic. Pedestrians will be able to cross roads pretty much at will. That’s what I mean by a Transport Paradise.