Why cycling culture is good for drivers

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 145.

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Tom McKeown explores how the Netherlands became home to the world’s happiest car users

Suggestions for improvements to roads for cycling are frequently countered by the impact it will have on people’s ability to drive. Indeed, media exposure of Camcycle’s ideas is often met with accusations that we are anti-car. Is there any truth to this?

The Netherlands is held as the gold standard for cycling culture. In the UK, cycling advocates frequently call for Dutch-style infrastructure or hold ‘Go Dutch’ campaigns. So taking the view that transport choice is a zero-sum game one might assume this cycle-utopia is hell-on-wheels for motorists.

Yet, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Data from 2016 show car ownership in the Netherlands to be comparable with the UK: 579 cars owned per 1,000 people in the UK, versus 559 cars owned per 1,000 people in the Netherlands. If cycling makes car driving so difficult it’s odd that so many Dutch retain ownership of one. Kilometres per head driven tells a similar story: using 2015 data 13,177 annual km per capita in the UK, as against 13,022 annual km per capita driven in the Netherlands. This difference is so slight we might write it off as statistical noise.

It’s not just numbers: Dutch drivers themselves tell us they are happy. In 2016 the route-finding app Waze conducted a driver satisfaction survey, yielding a score out of 10 for 38 countries with more than 20,000 monthly active users. Highest in that ranking with 7.54 out of 10 was the Netherlands, with the UK down in 17th place with 5.73 out of 10.

So how does Dutch cycling culture work with driving? Why is it not, as the fear mongers suggest, anti-car?

With cycle routes away from the motor vehicle carriageway, drivers experience far fewer interactions with cyclists along the same road space – typically just the start and end of a journey, where residential or retail streets are too narrow for full separations. This means there is less opportunity to be held up behind a slow rider. Drivers are rarely inconvenienced by cyclists for very long, which reduces frustration. Where it does happen it is in a context where lower vehicle speeds would be expected anyway.

This is also true for trunk roads between urban areas. The prevalence of long-distance cycle routes alongside trunk roads keeps the drivers and riders separate. When driving you are not held up behind slower riders. Frequently these paths are of a standard suitable for agricultural vehicles to use too – obviously taking care around cyclists – not being held up behind tractors is a further benefit to motorists.

Of course the ease of making trips by cycle allows many to leave their car at home. Keeping trips off the road makes them less congested for those who still drive. When they do drive the Dutch employ other congestion-busting measures. Issues on strategic routes are clearly communicated to drivers on the road: not with the often cryptic (‘Closed at junction 9’) overhead messages on our motorways, but with digital maps clearly identifying the location and highlighting alternative routes.

Merges are frequently designed out of Dutch roads. At roundabouts or large intersections each direction has a single entry and exit. Moving to the correct lane for a destination can often be done before a junction is entered. This separates a driver’s mental load for navigation from negotiating the junction. On exiting there is no squeezing of multiple queuing lanes back down to one that can easily add to a UK driver’s stress level. On roundabouts we hear of this design as ‘turbo roundabouts’, a Dutch design for efficient movement of motor-vehicles, not as cycling improvement as suggested for Bedford’s poor version of this idea. Cyclists are kept safe on separate crossings of the arms away from the circulation of the roundabout, or by grade separation on busier roads; using a flyover or underpass places cyclists on a different level than the motor-vehicle carriageway.

Photo: ipv Delft via the European Cyclists’ Federation
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In the UK, ‘they came out of nowhere’ is a frequent complaint from drivers at seemingly wayward riders. This is no surprise when junctions are commonly designed with drivers’ needs first, and occasionally some pedestrian facilities at the margins. With no clear design for cycling, there are multiple strategies for riding through motor-vehicle junctions. Many drivers are unable to anticipate every strategy. Contrast this to a Dutch junction where cycling is designed in. With clear cycle routes there are fewer riders using alternative strategies, so drivers know what to expect. Ultimately, junctions are lower-stress experiences for all users. Though a spectacular set-piece, Eindhoven’s Hovenring (above) – a suspended cycle roundabout – is a good example of the Dutch general approach to major junctions. To achieve the safety levels required for walking and cycling with signalised crossings would have caused long delays for motor vehicles. One might imagine a British engineer shrugging their shoulders and moving on, leaving the route only suitable for the most assertive, brave or foolhardy riders. The Dutch, however, grade-separate walking and cycling from the motor carriageway. Though expensive the facility is justified, not for cycle safety, but for efficiency of motorvehicle movement. Delays are removed by eliminating the pedestrian and cycle crossing phases.

Dutch towns tend to have smaller, more numerous local supermarkets so that shopping by bike is closer and easier. Cycle parking is right by the store entrance for greatest convenience. However, driving is not forgotten. Parking tends to be placed on a store’s roof, or within a basement. Lifts, or travelators, to get a shopping trolley to your car make it similarly convenient. Drivers will probably get in and out without queuing, as many other people are walking and cycling to the store. Ugly expanses of tarmac and parked cars are removed from the street, creating a pleasant environment for everyone, while those who need to drive have not been neglected.

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The P-route is another useful feature of many Dutch towns: a signposted road loop around the outskirts past each of the multi-story car parks. Available spaces are shown on digital displays as you pass, to help choose one without a queue for access. The loop avoids the complexity of negotiating the narrower streets of the older town centre while simultaneously looking for parking, and keeps the centre traffic free for a pleasant experience once you arrive at your destination. Overall, the mental load of navigation is removed from driving into town, providing a low-stress arrival before enjoying shopping or sightseeing.

Larger towns and cities have widely available P&R facilities adjacent to public transport hubs. Generally, these have a significant discount on parking when public transport is used for an onward trip. This makes it easy to visit by car without driving through the central areas. It’s clear that for the Dutch riding vs driving is not a zero-sum game. With cycling or public transport options they are not tied to their cars. Their cars are still available for longer journeys or heavier loads, and when they do drive it is with less stress and fewer delays.