Special Report: Cycling

Let's Go Dutch: Cycling Best Practices from The Netherlands

Before the 1970s, most Dutch cities were car-dominated with dangerous and unpleasant streets, just like Hamilton today. They changed. We can too.

By Kevin Love
Published April 04, 2014

The Netherlands is famous for getting transportation right. The cycle mode share is 27% for all trips in the country as a whole, including rural areas. For Central Amsterdam this rises to 70%. This includes all ages, from school children to the elderly. Men and women cycle equally. Indeed, slightly more cycle trips are taken by women than men.

So what are they doing? Most importantly, can we do the same in Hamilton?

The Dutch system is composed of two basic principles. The first principle is that of Sustainable Safety. The second principle is to make walking, cycling or public transit the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of going from A to B.

Let us look at each of these two principles in turn.

Sustainable Safety

Sustainable Safety is safety that is engineered into the transportation infrastructure to mistake-proof it against human error. Error that is due to human beings being distracted, tired, in a rush, impaired or experiencing human emotions such as anger or aggression.

These elements of human nature are not going to change. What can change is changing the transportation infrastructure to protect human beings from motor vehicle operators who are experiencing these human errors.

The way this works out in practice is through the use of protective barriers and separation of modes to protect people from car drivers. This starts with residential neighbourhoods.

Residential Neighbourhoods

The Dutch method is to eliminate cut-through "rat-running" car traffic from residential streets. This is typically done through the use of permeable neighbourhood connectors that allow pedestrians, cyclists and public transit vehicles to go straight through, but prevent car drivers.

Here are two examples in Toronto:

Inglewood Drive and Heath Street East, Toronto (Image Credit: Google Street View)
Inglewood Drive and Heath Street East, Toronto (Image Credit: Google Street View)

and:

Earl Street and Huntley Street, Toronto (Image Credit: Google Street View)
Earl Street and Huntley Street, Toronto (Image Credit: Google Street View)

In this example, please note that the bollards are far enough apart to easily allow cargo bicycles to pass through.

We even have a local company in Mississauga that manufactures automatic retractable security bollards that let public transit vehicles through, but not car drivers. See page 9-12 in their catalogue of bollards [PDF].

Since only local people will be driving cars on residential streets, cars will be very infrequently seen. Car speed limits are typically set at 30 km/hr.

Commercial, Arterial and Industrial Streets

These streets, with their higher volume of motor vehicle traffic, use the famous Dutch protected cycle path system. Without protected cycle paths, motor vehicles can be quite intimidating and threatening. To quote my 75-year-old mother, "At my age, I am not playing tag with a multi-tonne lethal weapon."

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Protective barriers can be used to protect people from motor vehicles. All people of all ages. Here is an example of a perfectly ordinary arterial street in The Netherlands:

Simon Stevinweg with separated cycle tracks (Image Credit: Bicycle Dutch)
Simon Stevinweg with separated cycle tracks (Image Credit: Bicycle Dutch)

In the following video, please note the high volume of both cycle and motor vehicle traffic. Another feature to note is the concrete barriers forming the protected cycle roundabout in the video. Here is another example of a typical arterial through route:

In this video, note how all road users have their own dedicated space. Red cycle paths for people on bicycles next to the white concrete sidewalks for pedestrians with a protective treed barrier to protect people from car drivers.

Intersections

Safety is particularly important at intersections, where 63% of crash injuries in Ontario occur. We have already seen a video with an example of a protected cycle roundabout. The next video shows an example of a standard traffic light controlled intersection design in The Netherlands:

Another intersection treatment is to allow left turns by using a simultaneous green traffic light for pedestrians and cyclists, with motor vehicles being stopped in all directions. For an explanation of how this works, please see this article.

Unravelling of Modes

The best intersection treatment of all is to reduce and eliminate intersections where people encounter motor vehicles. This is done by unravelling cycle and motor vehicle routes, so that cyclists travel on entirely different routes than car drivers. See:

When done well, this provides a high degree of safety and also helps make cycling faster by avoiding traffic lights. One example in Hamilton is the Rail Trail between Aberdeen Avenue and Ainsley Woods.

The Rail Trail is up to Dutch standards in terms of width, surface quality and night lighting. It provides a direct route with zero traffic lights.

It only lacks appropriate signage to require car drivers to yield right of way at minor side streets such as Stroud and Emerson. And it lacks a proper connection through Fortinos to a much better quality of bicycle parking at this supermarket. And this connection through Fortinos should lead to the rest of the Rail Trail to the west. Which would be paved. And would have proper paved connections to the side streets that it passes by. And connected to a proper cycling network. And a much higher quality of winter snow clearance.

OK, we are quite far from being up to Dutch standards!

The Neighbourhood Strategy

The city of Groningen is an excellent example of the neighbourhood strategy of dividing the city centre into neighbourhood sectors or zones. Pedestrians, cyclists and public transit users can go straight from A to B. But in order for a car driver to move from one zone to another, it is necessary for him to go out to the surrounding ring road, drive around until opposite the destination zone, and then drive back into the city again.

This neighbourhood strategy greatly enhances safety. It reduces the volume of motor vehicle traffic in each neighbourhood by helping to make walking, cycling or public transit faster, easier and more convenient than car driving.

Hamilton also has a surrounding ring of expressways in the form of the QEW, 403, Linc and Red Hill Expressway. This allows a similar strategy to be implemented here. We already have one example in Ainsley Woods. The 403 and White Chapel Cemetary form a barrier that prevents cut-through car driving, but cyclists can go straight through on the Rail-Trail.

Putting it All Together

We see in the following video of the City of Groningen how the complete package is put together.

Residential streets and the commercial town centre are not through routes for car drivers. A neighbourhood strategy has been put into place to make walking, cycling or public transit the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of going from A to B. See the retractable bollard at the 2:30 mark.

Most importantly, the principles of Sustainable Safety have made the streets in Groningen safe for all its citizens.

Like most Dutch cities, before the 1970s Groningen was car-dominated with dangerous and unpleasant streets, just like Hamilton today. They changed. We can too.

Kevin is a professional accountant and a retired infantry officer with the Canadian Forces. Kevin keeps encountering people who were students of his father, Dr. Robert Love, who was a professor at MacMaster University from 1977-2008. He lives near Durand Park in Hamilton and is currently Vice-Chair of the Hamilton Cycling Committee.

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By notalemming (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 15:57:28

I was in Rotterdam and asked the taxi driver how is it that the city was so well planned out? He replied " First the germans flew over and blew us up. Then years past and they did it again and finally the Americans flew over and pretty much leveled the city. This gave us the chance to put bike paths in because the gas was so expensive." Not sure how practical this would be for Hamilton.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 16:17:30

There's always a reason why Hamilton can't do this or that. We can figure out how to run a billion dollar pipe to a tiny airport, or build an elevated highway through a nature valley. But add bike lanes to grossly overbuilt streets, or plant trees along urban roadways?
Exhausting.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 04, 2014 at 16:25:51 in reply to Comment 99862

This comic is a bit dated and it's not about Canadians, but its still a hilarious illustration of Al Gore's question “When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society?”

http://www.thepaincomics.com/weekly08073...

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 16:30:13 in reply to Comment 99860

To my knowledge, Amsterdam and Hoogeveen have not been destroyed since before 1970, and they managed to transform their streets just fine.

Before and after photos

"... shows a 4-lane road in Amsterdam from the 1970s and how it has transformed to a 2-lane road for buses only with wide sidewalks and wide protected bike lanes ..."

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-04-04 16:32:01

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 17:10:24

It was very relaxing and eye opening to rent a bike and spend two weeks riding around the Netherlands.

The closest thing to a challenge was getting lost in the countryside where english speaking was less expected.

Oh, and accidentally riding through a pedestrian only strip, where a police officer stepped out to correct me so fast I swear it was a starfleet officer that beamed in from thin air.

The whole experience was comfortable and relaxing.

There was incredible separation from vehicles, no exhaust in my face anywhere. Clear bike paths with clear traffic signals. Motorbikes and scooters were zipping by in those same lanes as well, with no contention, stress, or cries of "e-bikes taking over everything mad max style". One just rode. Anywhere and everywhere. And it was no big deal.

That experienced changed me and how I look at things around me. The culture shock occurred not there, but when returning home and resuming my usual commute. The surprise was not at how well that worked, rather at how far we've fallen over here. I have to believe that things can get better.

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By Watch the video (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 17:13:34

Watch the video and listen to what he said. Their town was a walled in city forced to live with no sprawl which meant as a consequence that everything was reachable by foot or bike.

Hamilton is - or was - and industrial City governed by the geogrpahy of the escarpemnt and the bay. We are now forced to deal with the urban sprawl model of the last 70 years.

Dundas might be Groningen, Westdale might be it to. Parts of the city may fit the model briliantly. But we still have to deal with our comuter reallity and our mountain v. downtown.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 19:36:08 in reply to Comment 99860

Actually, this is quite the opposite of reality.

After Rotterdam was liberated by the Canadian Army, it was rebuilt as an American-style car-dominated city. Like all other cities in The Netherlands, it was redesigned for cycling starting in the 1970's, but to this very day its cycling mode share is very low for The Netherlands, only 25%.

Fortunately, there are plans to turn that around and make Rotterdam a much better city. For details, see:

http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2011/0...

To my North American eyes, Rotterdam is the most American-style city in all of The Netherlands. That is because it was perhaps the most damaged city in The Netherlands during WWII, with the German aerial bombing of May 1940 destroying the port and city centre.

As we see from the above link, the people of Rotterdam are rebuilding their city for people, not cars. We can do exactly the same thing in Hamilton.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 20:58:46 in reply to Comment 99871

You seem to have missed the part where Professor Ashworth describes the city as being "contained within the military fortifications until very late in the 19th century." That's at about 1:30. Or the bit showing how car-dominated it was until the 1970's.

Professor Ashworth's statement is, of course, the same as saying "The city of Hamilton was contained within the Niagara Escarpment until very late in the 19th century."

An excellent example of this is where I live in Durand at the base of the Escarpment. I live in a house built in 1885 in a neighbourhood of 19th century buildings. If we then climb the stairs to the top of the Escarpment we now find ourselves among mid-20th century buildings.

The streets in lower Hamilton were originally designed for car-free transportation.

Before the 1970's, cities in The Netherlands were unpleasant and dangerous due to being car-dominated. Today, the United Nations has recognized The Netherlands as the best place in the world to raise a child.. They changed. We can too.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-04-04 21:00:54

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 22:07:44 in reply to Comment 99880

personally I don't think you'll see such changes for another generation. The entire political culture at Hamilton City Hall and on council is addicted to the status quo with no desire to change. They feel like they've landed on the moon by simply approving one bike lane downtown. A wholesale change in bringing balance to our city transportation network? No chance.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 22:32:38

that Groningen video is amazing. And we have all the current roadway right of way space to do it here. Massive streets like Main, Cannon, all the 'Uppers', Queenston, Centennial etc.... could have raised cycle paths added to both sides.

We could divert through traffic from being able to cut across the city and have cars use our highway network or smaller local network like shown in the video, perhaps along Cannon, Queen, Wellington, Main. Smaller hoods could have bike/pedestrian priority and no through cars in their central hubs along Locke, Kenilworth, Westdale,Concession, Ottawa, Barton etc......

Tons of potential here. Just nobody in charge with any vision.

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By Nat Geo (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 22:38:03

Check out this month's National Geographic. There is a very easy to understand chart about commuter times around the world. Netherlands is the worst. I am only on the world a short time. Don't make me spend 40 weeks of my life stuck in traffic.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 23:22:33 in reply to Comment 99884

Nobody is making you. Hope on a bike.

In Hamilton we actually ARE making people sit in their cars. Giving them no other options to get around. If I want to live in a society where government gives me no options, I'll move to China. If we're democratic and free as we think we are, let people decide for themselves how to live and what choices to make.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2014 at 04:30:41 in reply to Comment 99881

I've heard that a few times before:

"Ban smoking in Hamilton's bars and restaurants? No chance. Never happen!"

Or,

"Asbestos is essential to modern industry. Ban it? No chance. Never happen!"

Or,

"Schools will be anarchy without the strap. Ban it? No chance. Never happen!"

Plenty of people in The Netherlands in the 1970's said similar things about ending car dominance. They changed. We can too.

Someone put together a video of similar examples. See

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrlEQ15m...

Hamilton is a democracy. Things will change if we make them change.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-04-05 04:31:13

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2014 at 04:55:25 in reply to Comment 99884

Average commute times are longer in The Netherlands because the excellent transportation infrastructure results in a higher percentage of the population travelling for longer distances. This enables more people to travel to jobs and other destinations that are farther away.

A recent European Union study found that "Holland has, at 92%, the highest percentage of the total population traveling daily and France has, at 72%, the lowest percentage." See:

http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/201...

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 05, 2014 at 08:29:25 in reply to Comment 99884

Fascinating. I don't have the current NatGeo but found some current data here:

http://www.inrix.com/pressrelease_1218.a...

You're right, NL does have among the longer average commutes. I wonder why.

According to this article, congestion in the US grows at a rate that is 3x GDP.

One thing that seems universal though, probably because it's just physics, is that you can't cram everyone in a city into a single occupant vehicle and have it work out well. Alternate modes must be available and convenient or it will be hell on earth.

A particularly noteworthy excerpt:

If traffic congestion continues to increase at 3x the rate of employment and GDP growth, the 10-day long traffic jams in China and 2-3 hour daily commutes drivers face in São Paulo Brazil could become a reality for drivers in Europe and North America in the not so distant future.

I'm one of many people who would never sit in that. Would infinitely rather bypass it on two wheels. Why not let us!

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-04-05 08:35:47

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 05, 2014 at 14:49:07 in reply to Comment 99909

One thing that seems universal though, probably because it's just physics, is that you can't cram everyone in a city into a single occupant vehicle and have it work out well. Alternate modes must be available and convenient or it will be hell on earth.

Very good point. And cars are the most resilient, versatile form of motorized transport so it makes sense to follow the lead of Dutch cities and allow bikes/transit to control the direct routes into and through the cities, while having cars use specified ring corridors or car-centric streets to get to the city centre.

This allows the modal mix to become much more balanced.

The Groningen video at the end of this thread is lauded for showing the world's cycling city, yet it states that 50% of trips in that city are still by car. Nobody is banning cars, or making it impossible to drive. In fact, even with such convenience and safety built into the cycling/transit network in that city, half the people still feel that driving in their own car is the better choice.
And I'm totally fine with that choice. What I'm tired of is the insistence in Hamilton and other N.American cities by it's political leaders that investing in any mode other than single occupancy cars is crazy and a waste of money.
Give us the balanced choice like folks in Groningen have.

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By data details (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2014 at 16:20:02 in reply to Comment 99884

what does "worst" mean? Does it mean they have the longest average commute times? Maybe that just means that more people have jobs, because the economy is stronger because they have a balanced transportation network. Could the north-american average commute times be dragged way down by all of the unemployed people with a commute time of zero? Hard to know what the actual take-away is without the full story. Do you have a link to sources or do we have to buy a paper copy? I would be interested in reading the article...

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted April 06, 2014 at 21:14:40

Excellent article Kevin. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the videos. A great conversation piece.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 06, 2014 at 22:28:20 in reply to Comment 99888

If I want to live in a society where government gives me no options, I'll move to China.

It sounds like China does have more transportation choice than here. The government may be authoritarian, but seems to take comfortable bike lanes in cities rather seriously. Must be the futility of them stuffing everyone into single occupant vehicles.

Although most would say the Chinese government is “undemocratic”, when it comes to transportation, the government often looks at the best interests of everyone rather than catering to a single group. One could possibly even argue that this is more democratic than North American transportation policy which plays favourites with the largest group of voters.

Ontario, apply burn cream to affected area ...

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-04-06 22:39:22

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By Jojo (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2014 at 08:33:23

I agree with Jason. There is ALWAYS a reason why Hamilton can't. (I'm thinking lack of vision?)

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By George (registered) | Posted April 07, 2014 at 10:11:09 in reply to Comment 100001

Now THAT would be a great article. It's the number 1 obstacle to improving our city. Our attitude. I continually praise the positive, loving, can-do attitude many of our newcomers bring to Hamilton. How many times must they hit us Hamilton natives over our collective head to make most of us realize what a great place Hamilton is, and how much greater it could and should be.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 07, 2014 at 19:16:46 in reply to Comment 99992

Thank you! I am in the midst of writing a sequel. Preliminary title, "Let's Go Dutch, Part II: Lessons in cycle advocacy from The Netherlands."

Short version: Until the 1970's Dutch cities were car-dominated, dangerous and unpleasant. They were even demolishing ancient buildings and REMOVING existing cycle paths (Rob Ford rejoice!) to provide more room to build roads for cars. Then they changed.

What happened? And can we do the same here?

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 07, 2014 at 19:54:29 in reply to Comment 100001

My absolute favorite squelcher:

During the debate about banning smoking in bars and restaurants, one of the usual suspects got up and said, "We can't ban smoking in bars and restaurants. That will turn downtown Hamilton into a ghost town! Because if we ban smoking here, everyone will go to Buffalo instead."

Hilarious! One simply can't make this sort of thing up. The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be plausible.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 07, 2014 at 20:03:52 in reply to Comment 100011

Did someone really say that??? Lol. That's an expensive habit. Driving to Buffalo every time you want to light up.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted April 08, 2014 at 05:47:04

The comparisons of Hamilton to Holland are so wonderful. Inept that is. Do you realize that Holland is smaller (in area) than metropolitan Toronto? With a larger population? Holland's entire area is 5 times the area of Hamilton and the population is 10 times that of our fair city.

But then this is the site of nonsensical opinions isn't it?

Give your head a shake and use a little common sense.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 08, 2014 at 07:46:58 in reply to Comment 100014

Oh you're so clever, you got us there. Hardly. The size issue has been discussed before and your comparison is faulty.

We're talking about making the inside of a city safer. Those tend to have a similar range of sizes and characteristics all across the planet.

Since the cycling infrastructure extends into Belgium, Germany, France, etc, and since Ontario has made it policy to pave all rural shoulders for regional cycling connectivity, even looking regionally, you fail.

Also, there are two provinces in the Netherlands named North and South Holland. The Netherlands is the size of southern Ontario. That I'm quite certain you didn't know.

I give my head a shake all right, at your nonsensical uninformed opinions. You're welcome to them! But you'll find the world an increasingly strange and bewildering place if you are incapable of seeing the world in any way other than the extremely faulty black-and-white comparisons you seem to love so much.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 08, 2014 at 09:11:41 in reply to Comment 100019

Of course. But just to play devil's advocate for LOL, we did overlook the biggest reason of all we can't cycle in Canada. We're at a different longitude.

Seriously. Gravity in Hamilton is 0.012m/s^2 weaker than in NL. That makes us totally different. There is no way cycling could ever work here.

It's only reasonable to worry that this would escalate into taxpayers funding bike lanes on the Moon. I mean, what other natural progression could this have?

There. Add that to your list of reasons why Hamilton is a victim of exceptionalism.

:)

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 08, 2014 at 19:17:59 in reply to Comment 100019

My commute is 10 km from Durand to near Parkdale and Burlington Street. It takes me 30 minutes. Which means I am travelling at the normal urban cycle planning speed of 20 km/hr average.

When one takes into account the amount of time required to work to pay for a car, the average car speed is less than 10 km/hr. Half the speed of a bicycle.

I'll use the new Cannon lanes every day when they open. A proper Burlington Street cycle track would also provide a route to work.

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