The Dutch pace of progress

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 110.

Jim Chisholm, who has a background of 15 years in transport and road research, gives his personal opinion on the need to ‘Go Dutch’ at an appropriate speed.

‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’: my single step was in about 1972. Unbeknown to me, that was about the time the Dutch and the Danes started to invest heavily in cycling facilities. I was working at the then Road Research Laboratory, at a time when the motorway network was rapidly expanding. Politicians were saying that new roads did not generate more traffic. At that time I drove around 20,000 miles per year, to work, for work, or for leisure. For leisure I walked or climbed.

I made more and longer weekend trips in the UK because it was now possible. It was clear that an improved road network was generating extra car mileage, at least from me…. I also realised that ever-expanding car use was unsustainable, and became keenly interested in everything sustainable, as my bookshelves show! Coincidentally I also started to suffer from chronic asthma, possibly from spending much of one spring/summer on a test track that ran through a pine forest. To counter the effect I started to cycle to work to keep fitter, and used my fitness on walking and climbing, but took far fewer though longer breaks. Apart from a couple of long-haul air trips to visit a remote village in Tanzania, I’ve only flown twice in my life.

Progress in Cambridge

It was good to move to Cambridge in 1985, as I moved to somewhere where cycling was almost normal, but I could only become active in transport campaigning after I left the Scientific Civil Service in 1995. The Cambridge Cycling Campaign has worked hard, and although at the time many of us thought we were just stopping things getting worse, it is clear that without us we would not have the city centre traffic bollards and cycling in the centre would still be severely restricted. We also have two large covered cycle parks (with a third on the way?), and several good quality cycle paths, away from main roads, from necklace villages to Cambridge. Not to mention the ‘blacktop’ path alongside the guided bus route where we worked at the public enquiry to ensure the path came into existence.

We are still making progress, but along with infrastructure, social change is required. Driver attitudes are changing, with speeding and drink-driving now treated as anti-social, and widespread use of 20mph limits in residential areas accepted. Bikeability is an excellent new development and it is generally accepted that the nation is becoming too sedentary and that cycling is a good way of achieving exercise as part of normal routine. That can also reduce the use of the car for short journeys, not to mention saving money. These changes are all positive achievements.

48833 Cyclists in the morning rush on Hills Road Bridge in Cambridge, April 2013.
Image as described adjacent

So where do we go next?

‘Go Dutch’ is a admirable aspiration, but it has taken those cousins across the North Sea four decades to achieve what they now have. Most drivers there are also regular bike users, which means not only are they more aware of bikes, but also know the likely mistakes that will occur. Even the law is different, and those operating potentially dangerous machines powered by infernal combustion engines are considered to have greatly increased liability in crashes with more vulnerable road users, be they on bike or on foot, compared with the UK. New towns were built with good-quality cycle routes, although in their older cities examples of poor provision, cycle bans, and conflicts with motor vehicles do still exist.

Some seem to think that ‘with one leap we can be free’, but although we are making more rapid progress, reducing car use through social change needs to go hand in hand with, if not often precede, the changes in infrastructure provision that are ultimately required.

Reallocation of road space does work, be it for bus or cycle lanes, as both modes have a far greater carrying capacity than cars with say just a driver. But there are limitations, as at the Catholic Church junction. A sudden large reduction in capacity at an already busy junction will create such queues as to block other junctions, causing consequential further reduction in capacity. Gridlock not only affects car commuters but also buses, those on bikes, and other essential traffic. Taking 10% capacity away will cause temporary problems. Taking 50% will create chaos and a backlash against those responsible.

Totally segregated cycle routes on the line of an existing highway require a lot of width. Add up a 3.75-metre traffic lane, a one-metre gap, 2.5-metre cycle lane and finally a 1.5metre footway. Multiply by two and one gets 17.5 metres with no space for trees, bus bays or central refuges for pedestrians. We do not often have such space on existing routes.

But there are other ways of improving provision, such as the Chisholm Trail. I proposed this cycle and walking route along the rail corridor from Addenbrooke’s to the Science Park in 1998. One official said at the time ‘would people use it?’ That is not a question they would ask today, and official support for the route is now very strong. It is 15 years since my proposal. I was optimistic that it could be built then. I’m more optimistic that it will happen now. Once two vital sections are open, I hope that pressure to complete the missing links will be irresistible. Many more people will then find trips by bike are both quicker and more pleasant than driving.

To get modal change from villages around Cambridge, people need pleasant routes away from noise and fumes, but which give comparable door-to-door times to driving. They do not need to beat the average times, as the reliability of cycling trip times means you can stay in bed later than if driving, and still be sure you will arrive at work/railway station in time. There are at least three possible routes from necklace villages which are currently blocked by opposition from landowners. Compulsory purchase is commonly used for other transport projects, so why not for cycle routes?

Roadspace reallocation

This is excellent where space can easily be made available. Narrowing wide traffic lanes to provide dedicated cycle lanes is an obvious example. At signal-controlled junctions it can be more difficult, but bus priority has shown the way forward, and the changes at Hills Road bridge for cycles have worked well.

Why was that?

I helped to monitor an early experiment on traffic restraint in the 1970s (‘Nottingham Zones and Collars’). On several wide main roads from the west, ‘collars’ were set up with two-lane approaches reduced to a single lane with a bus lane adjacent for over half a mile. The bus lane stopped short of the junction but sufficiently close so that buses got through, most of the time, on the first or second phase. Many car drivers complained that trip times were greater and queues were far far longer. Of course the queues were longer (double the length?) as traffic from two lanes was now confined to a single lane. But approaching the junction, they had use of both lanes, so that when the lights went green, two lanes of cars could discharge for all of the green phase. The statistics collected showed that drivers’ trip times were not extended at such junctions, but they felt they had bigger delays because they joined the queue far further back.

Despite the addition of cycle lanes, Hills Road bridge works because peak car capacity is not significantly reduced. When the lights turn green, the two-lane reservoir contains almost as many vehicles as can discharge before the lights turn red. Having a longer two-lane stretch would not significantly increase the capacity.

So why can’t this be done everywhere?

Contrast this with reducing two lanes to a single lane at a stop line. A simplistic approach would suggest that this would halve the capacity. This would mean that, without feedback loops, if the just-about-sufficient capacity were reduced from 1,200 cars to 600 per hour we’d have a queue of 600 cars within an hour. As a rule of thumb, a car in a queue occupies 10 metres so you’d have a queue of over 3 miles (6,000 metres)! Of course life isn’t simple and it could reduce capacity by more than half as at the Catholic Church junction.

If there is right-turning traffic and a conflicting movement all that flow could stall while waiting for a gap for the single right-turner, or more likely the signals will need independent phases, further reducing capacity. Standing motor traffic from Newmarket Road to Newnham will block free flow on a number of radial routes.

Soft reductions in car traffic are needed first

Cambridge City Council has a planning policy of limiting parking space for cars at residential and business properties, but the effectiveness is limited by the amount of uncontrolled parking on many minor roads, and some not so minor. Part of the impetus for the change on Gilbert Road was that car-commuting workers were parking there and walking or cycling the ‘final mile’. Such parking has a multiplier deterrent for more sustainable modes:

  • It obstructs the safe route for many who would prefer to cycle, and slows public transport on such routes.
  • The extra motor vehicles on the major roads mean many more junctions are at or above a reasonable capacity.

Current policy is likely to mean that in the longer term ‘residents parking’ schemes will exist throughout the city, but in the shorter term extensions of yellow lines and removal of ‘pay and display’ would give big gains.

What about growth in and around Cambridge?

We also need to work with developers of both residential and commercial property to ensure that for those moving to areas of expansion the default is to use the bike rather than the car. In Munich volunteer groups run Sunday cycle rides and bike training in new residential areas. Then residents find how easy it is to cycle to all their local facilities.


Especially in and around Cambridge we can achieve continental levels of cycling, with trips being quicker and more pleasant than by other modes. It will not happen overnight, and idealists may be disappointed, but those who temper their ideals with pragmatism should see that good progress can be made. My view has formed from over 40 years’ experience, with 15 of those working with transport professionals and researchers. I maintain that evolution, not revolution, will be the quickest way to a step-change up in cycle use and a decrease in car use.

We need to convince the majority of those who use other modes, be it car, lorry or bus, that improving conditions for those on bikes is the quickest and most economical way of improving conditions for them.

Jim Chisholm