News site Daily Hive Vancouver recently published an article with the following headline:
Surprise: Bike-friendly Netherlands named best place in the world to be a driver
Daily Hive was reporting on the results from a new index created by wayfinding app Waze:
…a new report released last week by community-based traffic and navigation app Waze, proves a place pleasant for cycling and one pleasant for driving are not mutually exclusive.
For the second year in a row, Waze’s Driver Satisfaction Index – which analyzes the driving experiences of 65 million monthly users in 38 countries and 235 cities across the globe – named The Netherlands the most satisfying place in the world to drive, specifically referencing its “smooth traffic conditions” and “solid road quality.”
It may seem counter-intuitive, but a key ingredient in creating the world’s most enjoyable driving conditions is providing the freedom to leave the car at home. With the ability to walk or cycle for short trips, tram or bus for longer trips, and use a fast, frequent national rail system for inter-city trips, the automobile is viewed as a last resort for many Dutch families.
With fewer motorists moving both short and long distances on the country’s roadways, space is freed up for those who really need it, such freight companies and emergency services. In addition to reducing the amount of congestion, this also decreases the need for road maintenance due to “wear and tear.” Finally, the report mentions the unparalleled safety of Dutch streets, statistically the safest in the world, having virtually eliminated deaths and serious injuries by engineering user error out of the equation.
But is it really a surprise that prioritising cycling, walking, and public transport makes life easier for drivers as well?
Not if you’ve been paying close attention!
To illustrate, take a look at this picture of cycle lanes on New North Road, headed east to the Dominion Road flyover. If you’re on a bike, this intersection puts you into a very stressful situation: constantly wary of the risk that a car will clip you from behind. If you’re walking, it’s also pretty unpleasant.
But this design is also bad if you are in a car, as you have to deal with the psychological stress of not knowing what other road users are going to do. Someone ahead of you on a bike could turn left, continue on, or do anything, really. That kind of uncertainty is psychologically costly.
Here’s another example of an alleged cycling facility on Tamaki Drive, at the east end of the Mission Bay shops. Again, this creates a lot of uncertainty. What on earth are you supposed to do here if you’re on a bike? Do you ride into the hazardous “door zone” next to the lane of parked cars? Head up onto the footpath? Take the lane, and hope that the car behind you doesn’t run you down?
Or are you supposed to simply dematerialise and reassemble your molecules at the point where the bike lane reappears?
Once again, this is bad for drivers and bad for cyclists. Neither party knows what the other one will do, and so both must live in fear.
One way to reduce that uncertainty is to create “negotiated spaces” where all users of the street have to communicate informally about who will go and who will give way. That works pretty well in well-designed shared spaces, where people on foot and people in cars make eye contact quite a bit. But it’s virtually impossible at an intersection like this, as cyclists and drivers are all looking forward and trying to guess what each other will do.
On most streets, the best way to reduce this uncertainty – and make life easier for everyone using the street – is to build facilities that give everyone an intuitive and convenient path. Like they do in the Netherlands.
But here’s an example of an intersection that works for people on bikes and people in cars. Unlike the flawed examples above, it’s really easy to understand what everyone has to do. The cyclists ride on the separate cycle path, and the cars drive on the road. Give-way rules are fair and easy to understand: cyclists stop when crossing the road, and cars stop when crossing the cycle path. Everything is straightforward:
Here’s another, more in-depth explanation of the underlying philosophy between Dutch intersection design:
But, you ask, what about traffic speeds? Surely giving over space to better cycling facilities will worsen congestion and driver frustration?
Well, not necessarily. Since it started implementing protected cycle lanes and other traffic calming measures, New York City has been monitoring the end outcomes, including impacts on traffic speeds. Their findings, which Eric Jaffe (CityLab) reported in 2014, contradicted expectations:
A new report on protected bike lanes released by the New York City Department of Transportation offers a great example of how rider safety can be increased even while car speed is maintained.
To see what we mean, let’s take a look at the bike lanes installed on Columbus Avenue from 96th to 77th streets in 2010-2011. As the diagram below shows, the avenue originally had five lanes—three for traffic, one for parking, and one parking-morning rush hybrid. By narrowing the lane widths, the city was able to maintain all five lanes while still squeezing in a protected bike lane and a buffer area.
Rather than increase delay for cars, the protected bike lanes on Columbus actually improved travel times in the corridor. According to city figures, the average car took about four-and-a-half minutes to go from 96th to 77th before the bike lanes were installed, and three minutes afterward—a 35 percent decrease in travel time. This was true even as total vehicle volume on the road remained pretty consistent. In simpler terms, everybody wins.
Over on Eighth Avenue, where bike lanes were installed in 2008 and 2009, the street configuration was slightly different but the traffic outcome was the same. Originally, the avenue carried four travel lanes, one parking lane, one parking-rush hybrid, and an unprotected bike lane. Again, by narrowing the lanes, all five were preserved (though the hybrid became a parking lane) even as riders gained additional protection.
After the changes, traffic continued to flow. DOT figures show a 14 percent overall decline in daytime travel times in the corridor from 23rd to 34th streets once the protected bike lanes were installed. That quicker ride was consistent throughout the day: travel time decreased during morning peak (13 percent), midday (21 percent), and evening peak (13 percent) alike. To repeat: a street that became safer for bikes remained just as swift for cars.
So what happened here to overcome the traditional idea that bike lanes lead to car delay? No doubt many factors were involved, but a DOT spokesperson tells CityLab that the steady traffic flow was largely the result of adding left-turn pockets. In the old street configurations, cars turned left from a general traffic lane; in the new one, they merged into a left-turn slot beside the protected bike lane (below, an example from 8th and 23rd). This design has two key advantages: first, traffic doesn’t have to slow down until the left turn is complete, and second, drivers have an easier time seeing bike riders coming up beside them.
There are undoubtedly ways to design cycle facilities that do not result in such positive outcomes. But the data from New York shows that is not an inevitability, even on busy urban streets. Consequently, adding safe, separated cycleways can be a win-win scenario: people in cars aren’t any worse off, as traffic speeds aren’t significantly affected, while both people in cars and people on bikes benefit from increased safety and certainty while using the street.
What do you think about the relationship between cycle facilities and driver satisfaction?