Dutch Suburbs Are Like America’s, and Protected Bike Lanes Work Fine There

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This post is part of The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

This is the first in a two-post series on Dutch suburbs.

People the in U.S. street design world — sometimes even people who write for this very website — regularly say that U.S. development patterns mean that Dutch street designs can’t be immediately adopted in the States.

That’s a lot less true than you might think.

Of course some ideas can’t/won’t port over wholesale. But especially by European standards, the Netherlands is actually probably one of the most spatially similar places to much of the U.S. Guess where this is:

Count the fast food signs, the car lanes all leading up to a big freeway underpass. If not for the protected bike lane this could be Anywhere, North America. But this is actually in Amsterdam proper.

The reality is that only a minority of Dutch people live in the medieval centers of Amsterdam, Gouda, and Utrecht. Though many tourists visiting Amsterdam for a couple of days don’t typically see this, many Dutch people’s daily reality includes stuff much more like this:

That’s a big-box shopping center in the Netherlands. Unnecessarily oversized parking lot? Check! Yes, Kansas, the Netherlands also has parking minimums, and as in the States, sometimes they’re too high, wasteful of space, and promote driving. Again, if not for the protected bike lane, this could be Anywhere, North America.

Lots of free (i.e. non-tolled) highways, room for parking and car-centric arterials. Yet again, this could be… well, you get it.

Even the older parts of Dutch cities follow rectilinear grids much more often than do their other European peers, in part due to the longstanding Dutch mentality of needing to conquer swampy nature and impose order on it. While roundabouts are becoming more common there in newly built-up areas, four-way signalized intersections are numerically far more common overall.

A lesson for American suburbs: Step by step, progress can happen

Here’s a comparison of the same intersection in central Utrecht, 1961 vs. 2014:

Comparison and lower photo by Mark Wagenbuur of Bicycle Dutch.

With a stop at one of its in-between states of evolution, in 1964:

The 1961 version could be any North American car-centric arterial today. Notice how comparatively few bikes there are (the moribund biking culture of the Netherlands in the 50s and 70s due to car-first planning policies of the era is no joke), and how many more there are even in the 1964 update. Spatially, there’s nothing particularly exotic about the 60s version of that road compared to North American stretches today.

Instead, the obstacle comes down to political will and awareness of what could be. Which is why the more we can get people aware of the positive benefits of going from 1961 to 1964, the more buy-in there will be for even better stuff.

The spatial argument, by contrast, doesn’t factually hold up in many cases when you look at the bulk of Dutch infrastructure. When it comes to public messaging, protected bike lanes may need to be sold to Americans as Our Great New Idea, rather than That Exotic European Stuff. But there’s got to be some balance. We also need to show that Europe, admirable as its street design is, is actually not always that exotic.

Kirk Boydston is, among other things, a California-based bicycling advocate. This was adapted from a comment he wrote on Streetsblog USA.

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  • There are a few things that help. Clear sightlines so that drivers can see a gap in both bicycle and motor traffic helps. This is also an element of why single direction paths on each side of a road are significantly better than a two-way cycletrack.

    The best solution though is for the cycletrack to veer away from the road where it crosses a busy driveway or side street and allow enough space for a car to yield at the cycletrack and then pull forward fully past the cycletrack to stop and look for a gap in motor traffic. It also provides a similar function for cars entering the driveway as well as allows cars to turn in to a driveway without having to first figure out if the cycletrack is clear. This latter is not only safer for all involved but also reduces congestion problems since cars can turn sooner and then worry about bicycle riders.

  • They even have a Starbucks on that Dutch corner in 2014. Maybe that’ll convince folks in the USA that bike lanes won’t crush the American spirit?

  • Driveways, what fun! The short answer: corridor access management. A road where a cycletrack makes the most sense really is a road where traffic entering and exiting the roadway should be minimized, thus also minimizing driveways.

    However, when commercial driveways do exist that cross Dutch cycletracks, the turn either has a small radius (like below) or the cycletrack gets bent out. But due to the corridor management, most parking lots and businesses are accessed off smaller roads that generally wouldn’t have cycletracks anyway or from (often disconnected) frontage/service roads that also double as the bikeway, with some being redeveloped into bicycle boulevards. I’d agree that driveways are a concern some places would definitely need to have their number of driveways pared back, but many places do also have an obscene amount of driveways. A typical parking crater might easily have 4-5 driveways along a 200′ frontage, all for a parking lot that is connected. Or even worse, parking lots that aren’t connected even though they’re right against each other. Connect up lots and get rid of the superfluous number of driveways.

  • Sandra Berger

    Hahaha good one, but how to drink your coffee riding a bike? :-))

  • Wil

    Even when you have an bicycling commuting infrastructure in the States as in the Netherlands, I believe it wouldn’t appeal to people to start bicycling to work. The weather is completely differerent in many states – other than California where the writer of this article lives that has a mild climate as in the Netherlands. As a cycling commuter in the Netherlands, I don’t ever will see myself cycling to my work here even if it would be safe to cycle, because summers are soo hot, and the winter is too cold; the looooong Chicago winter (the last 8 years I lived here it, the winter lasts on average 5 months) when the average temperature can be -25 Celsius, and the streets are covered with many inches of snow – seeing the cycling lane in the picture I wonder how they ever would be able to get it snow free with those huge snow plowers! I still cycle when the temperature is nice because a lot of American cities invest in recreational running/walking/cycling trails, however, I don’t believe a bicycle will replace the car as a means of transportation to commute or to do my groceries – as shown in the Dutch picture – and as I did when I grew up in the Netherlands!

  • Koen
  • Kenny Easwaran

    Those examples are still all residential driveways that see no more than 4-8 car crossings per day. The issue in much of the United States is that our streets are often intersected by multiple commercial driveways per block, each of which is often traversed by multiple cars in just a few minutes. Until you can get rid of the off-street parking lots and all their car comings and goings, or compress them all into one access point on a side street rather than spreading them across multiple access points on the main street, the driveways are going to cause major obstructions to the bike path no matter how priority is worked out.

  • Koen
  • Robert

    You must realize that plenty of Dutchmen cycle even in the dead of Dutch winter (although you probably already know that). Most of the cyclists in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is one the most bike friendly city in the US, cycle year round, including the dead of Minnesota winter.

  • Nobody

    Hold the cup in one hand, steer with the other.

  • Bel

    There is no need to lower the speed limit if lanes are 11 or even 10 feet wide. Narrow car lanes slow speed automatically.

  • tomhayward

    Bull sh!t. I lived there and never saw a bunch of cyclists out in the middle of the lousy Minnesota winter. STFU.

  • Robert

    Municipalities keep such statistics. Are you telling me the municipality is really that far off?

  • Robert

    How do you explain Leeuwarden? Leeuwarden is the Capital of Friesland. Outside of its innermost core, it is sparsely populated. Th is a random location within the ringway which (if it is like other cities in the Netherlands) goes around the denser city center. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Leeuwarden,+Netherlands/@53.2170688,5.775446,454a,20y,91.4h,44.89t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0
    Leeuwarden’s average density of ~1800/sq mile is misleading- although it may sound high, I lived in Sudbury, MA- a bedroom community with .92 acre minimum lot size, and its density is just under 1/2 of Leeuwarden, despite Sudbury’s lack of a medieval town center or development plan of any kind.
    Despite this, Leeuwarden is a city with ~100,000 people. It is landwise quite large for a Dutch City. Despite this, Leeuwarden has a ~40% cycling rate.
    Also, have you seen the photographs of the Almere and Rotterdam skylines? They have almost nothing typically Dutch about them! Almere was a lake bottom until the 1960’s; today it has ~200,000 people. Rotterdam was completely ruined in the war save for a few buildings, the quantity of which one can count on one hand. Both have cycling rates higher than that of Davis– 22% for Almere, and 25% for Rotterdam (both much too low in the eyes of the Dutch). Their densities are lower than one might expect.

  • Robert

    If you took the weighted densities of many suburbs in the US, it would be a similar story in terms of distance. David Hembrow (on aviewfromthecyclepath.com) found a statistic that said 40% of Journeys in the US are under 2km, I think (m0ay have been as high as 5km, which is still short enough for cycling.

  • Robert

    This is within the municipal boundaries of the capital of the province of Drenthe. Considering that, this is not really that dense at all.

  • Yes, I’m too lazy to dig up the stats now, but something like 60% of trips are under five miles and a staggering 15% are under half a mile.

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