Dispatch from the Netherlands, Part 1: Wayfinding and Complete Streets

Editorial note: This is a three-part guest post by Madison Bikes supporter Jonathan Mertzig. Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing your experience living and cycling in the Netherlands, and what we can learn from the Dutch in improving cycling here in Madison! Part 2 will be published next Wednesday.

In the summer of 2005 I had the privilege of attending a Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Union) summer course held in the beautiful town of Zeist, a short bike journey away from the Netherlands’ fourth largest city, Utrecht.  Apart from being an amazing immersive experience in learning the Dutch language, the course also provided plenty of opportunities to experience the Netherlands’ amazing bike culture and infrastructure. 

After class each day, our group of students from around the world could grab our bikes and head off for an adventure, exploring our surroundings without ever even needing to look at a map.  You could pick a destination and follow the signs for a safe route to just about anywhere.  Even the most novice cyclists, many coming from countries with almost no culture of cycling, could in a few days become quite confident riders.

In the years since, I’ve had many opportunities to return to the Netherlands and observe the evolution of bike facilities there.  The Netherlands can seem like a cyclist’s paradise that would be hard to match elsewhere, and indeed, there are some local factors in the popularity of cycling we can’t easily match: compact cities, short distances between towns, relatively flat terrain, and milder winter weather.  But there are plenty of things the Dutch do well that can serve as examples to replicate elsewhere, including American cities like Madison.

 

Wayfinding

A particularly information-dense cycling route wayfinding signpost outside Amsterdam’s city hall. Red signs point to locations of interest (like the Artis zoo, or the central station), major neighborhoods, or even other cities (like in this example, Hilversum and Utrecht). The green signs denote major recreational routes… from here you can even follow the signs to take the Stedenroute (“City Route”) all 340km to Brussels—no guarantee though that the signage will be as good once you cross the Belgian border!

One of the first things that stands out to visitors observing the bike scene in the Netherlands—besides the sheer number of bikes everywhere—is the excellent system of wayfinding signage throughout the country.  The national travel association, ANWB, provides uniform standards for bike and pedestrian wayfinding signage, with signs installed at nearly every intersection or path access point throughout the country.  Signage features directions and distances between cities, highlights major points of interest, and delineates regional and national recreational and long-distance routes. 

In some scenic areas, a lower-profile format of bike wayfinding signage is used, though the design features are otherwise consistent with the rest of the national signage system. Here you can choose your direction through the dunes at Kijkduin.

The signage scheme for cyclists is visually distinct from other types of road signage, color-coded (red for general directions and local points of interest, green for recreational routes) and uses consistent shapes, symbols, and highly-readable typography to provide a universally recognizable scheme for navigation.  The scale and placement of signage also often doubles as a useful reference for those traveling on foot. One can easily navigate within cities or take a long-distance ride without much need to break out your smartphone… just follow the signs.

The green-signed recreational route network ties connects historical town centers and scenic natural areas around the country. Here in Maastricht, the “Maas route” LF3b takes you through cobblestone streets and up the St-Pietersberg, one of the few hills in Dutch territory that actually is referred to as a “mountain.” Contrary to popular belief, the entire country isn’t flat!

Takeaways:  Being able to find your way around without much of a hassle is key to a great cycling experience, especially for beginners and visitors.  We should strive for a system of consistent, high-density signage for cycle-friendly routes. The Dutch standards for signage provide a great example of a well-executed wayfinding system.

Complete Networks, Complete Streets

Cederlaan in Eindhoven is a great example of a Dutch “complete street.” This street, built in a new residential development in a previously industrial district, combines a bus rapid transit way and stations, general traffic lanes, a separated bike path, parking lanes, and sidewalks.

The network of bike routes in the Netherlands is quite comprehensive, with a thoroughly interconnected system of urban bike lanes, separated bike paths, traffic-calmed neighborhood streets, and rural roads and trails suitable for safe cycling.  Bike routes are easily recognized through consistent visual cues, like the aforementioned wayfinding signage, or the use of red pavement to mark lanes and paths reserved for cyclists. Cycling becomes a practical option for commuting, shopping, or even intercity journeys because it is easy to travel by bike without having to contend with riding on unsafe roads or breaks in the network.  It is quite possible to find a safe bike route between most any destination in the Netherlands, whether at neighborhood level or cross-country.

Outside the cities, an extensive network of paths crisscrosses rural and natural areas, making it possible to easily bike between towns while enjoying the scenery. Here is a path that connects Zeist and Amersfoort via the wooded hills of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug and heathlands of the Leusderheide.

Taking a look at Dutch street design also shows what “complete streets” looks like when proper design and investment is put into the concept. It’s not unusual to find arterial streets that combine safe, separated lanes for bikes, cars, and mass transit, and still have ample space for sidewalks, landscaped medians and terraces, and on-street parking. Smaller neighborhood streets use designs that are appropriate for the context and available space, like traffic calming measures combined with on-street bike lanes, or even intentionally ambiguous zones (you may be familiar with the Dutch term woonerf) where a blending of low-speed traffic actually improves safety and livability for surrounding neighborhoods.  Not all Dutch street designs are perfect and not all are feasible for Madison’s streets, but the overall experience is noticeably better than American design standards.

The intersection along Rotterdam’s Blaak avenue provides a particularly complex example of a Dutch “complete” street. Bike lanes and broad sidewalks on each side flank a busy avenue, the start of a separated busway, and a tramway. Aerial view.

Takeaways:  Find the holes in the network and prioritize these for improvements.  The Madison area has done a good job of this in terms of regional and cross-town routes, but the real gaps are at a more local level. Think about those neighborhoods where you can’t easily use a bike to do errands like getting groceries, take your kids to school, or visit the park, and target those areas for improvement. Make sure proposals for new infrastructure connect up to existing routes in safe and logical ways.

American discussions of measures like traffic calming are often framed as “experiments” or denounced by opponents as “unproven” but Dutch cities are full of working examples of complete streets and safer design paradigms, and these are often implemented in situations where space is quite limited compared to American streets.  And investment in quality bike-friendly infrastructure doesn’t necessarily have to come at a cost detrimental to those who drive—any trip on the superb freeways of the Netherlands quickly demonstrates that the Dutch don’t hate their cars! The Dutch don’t view transportation planning as a zero-sum game where only one mode “wins.” (For more on the state of the overall transportation system in the Netherlands, and how bikes fit into the picture, I recommend this report from Statistics Netherlands: Transport and Mobility 2015).

 

Check back next week for part 2 of the series!

 

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