THE GRID – HOW THE DUTCH FOUND THAT THE ONLY THING WHICH REALLY ENCOURAGED CYCLING WAS A DENSE NETWORK OF HIGH QUALITY INFRASTRUCTURE
Back in the 1970s, after the Stop de Kindermoord protests, the Netherlands went through a period of rapidly revising roads. Research had to be done in order to find out what worked for promoting cycling, in much the same way as the UK started and then abandoned with “cycling demonstration towns” in the mid 2000s. The Dutch research is documented in an article by the Fietsberaad.
One of the conclusions reached was that good quality cycle routes were of almost no use if they were not very close together. This conclusion appears on page 43 of the article referred to above (page 41 of the PDF file) where there is discussion of the result of building a few sparse high quality paths in 1975 in both Den Haag and Tilburg. The evaluation in 1981 were showed that these sparse cycle-paths had not significantly increased bicycle use. These paths were of good quality, acceptable even today. They were the sort of path that elsewhere might be referred to as a “superhighway”. However, they were not effective because there was no real grid. i.e. they were too far from people’s homes and destinations to be of use to everyone on all their journeys. People won’t travel extra distance to get to a safe cycle-path, because the convenience has already been lost by doing so.
Delft was the location of a different experiment. They built a three level grid. Here the city network had a a 500 m spacing, but there was also a district network with a 200-300 m spacing and a neighbourhood network with a 100 m spacing. These cycle facilities were within easy reach of every home and every destination and they brought about a permanent increase in cycling, as well as an increase in cyclist safety. It was concluded that policies discouraging car use are also needed, but the importance of a closely spaced grid of good quality routes for cyclists was established at this time and adopted quickly across the entire country.
That is how it was established that good quality cycle paths should be a maximum of 500 m apart and that extra cycle-paths should fill in the gaps so that cyclists never have to make detours to attempt to use better quality facilities.
It’s now everywhere
The map at the top of this blog post comes from a presentation about plans for Assen given by the city architect on a recent Study Tour.
The left half of the map at the top of this post is a close up of Kloosterveen, a new housing development of 8000 homes which is being built on the west of Assen outside the existing city boundary. This shows rough locations of just the primary-route cycle-paths through the suburb which provide access to schools, shops and other services as well as to the centre of the existing city and to the west to link up with villages and other towns. A new direct route to the city centre was built provided by 4 m wide cycle path and a 5 m wide bicycle road and over which the dual carriageway ring road was lifted on a new bridge. This attention to detail results in journeys from the new housing estate being quicker, more convenient, and more pleasant by bike than by car because there are no traffic lights on the route to the city centre by bicycle.
The right half of the image at the top of this post is a map of Assen and surroundings. In total the map covers an area about 6.5 km across, so you can see how closely packed these cycle paths are. Note that routes also go well outside the city, to all commuter villages around Assen and all the way to other cities such as Groningen 30 km directly North and Hoogeveen 40 km to the South.
There is a requirement within Assen that primary cycle paths are never more than 750 m apart. They’re usually much closer than that. However, all is not lost if you’re riding on a secondary route as these are also of very good quality.
The photo on the right is of a cycle-path on a secondary route. It is three metres wide, not shared with pedestrians (they have their own 2 m wide path), it’s very smooth and direct, it is lit at night, and it is a pleasure to cycle on. Good maintenance is required not only on the primary network, but also on secondary routes like this. See another blog post showing how cyclists came first when there were road works in this location.
Every area of the Netherlands has adopted similar guidelines. The grid of closely spaced high quality routes extends not just across one housing estate, not just across one city, not just to a few outlying developments of one city, but right across the entire country.
Unravelling of motor vehicle routes from bicycle routes has also resulted in a denser network of direct routes being available by bike than by car.
In practice this is how it works out for us: cycling from our home, in a culdesac we cycle not more than 200 m before we reach two different cycle paths which provide cycle routes to all locations. This is not remotely unusual, but rather what you’d expect for almost any residence in the Netherlands. See a video of one route from our home to the centre of the city.
Other grid designs – Milton Keynes as an example
Some people may have noticed some similarity in the language above between the Dutch grid of cycle-paths and the grid of routes for cars which exists in cities in many other nations.
For instance, Milton Keynes in the UK is a “new town” constructed around an extensive grid of car routes which are just as effective at encouraging driving as the grid of cycle-routes across Dutch cities is effective at encouraging cycling. Building this grid to enable driving was a deliberate decision. Milton Keynes was designed as an expression of the ideas of Melvin M Webber, an urban designer who was famous for his ideas about “mass automotive mobility” and who was known as the “father of the city” of Milton Keynes.
Milton Keynes is dominated by cars today because this is exactly how it was planned to turn out. Dutch towns are dominated by bicycles because that is exactly how they were planned to turn out.