Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Even in the cycling utopia of the Netherlands, bicyclists face infrastructure problems.
From afar, the Netherlands may look like a cycling utopia, where everyone rides in harmony along state-of-the-art bicycle infrastructure, hair fluttering in the breeze. The reality, as is so often the case, is a bit more complicated.
A report at the blog Bicycle Dutch on disputes over signal timing reveals that Dutch people can have bike issues too. The problems arose in Utrecht, a city famous for its high numbers of bicyclists. As of 2010, 33 percent of all trips by the city’s residents were made on bike, and the when all those people on two wheels meet at intersections, the result is a lovely interactive ballet.
According to Bicycle Dutch, however, not all junctions operate so seamlessly. Late last year, one spot in particular drew attention. Unusually long wait times for the green bike signal resulted in many people running the light, something that is relatively rare in the Netherlands simply because the accommodations for bicycle traffic tend to be sensible.
The police decided to crack down on the red-light runners, writing tickets to 144 people at the intersection in question on a single day. According to Bicycle Dutch, “it caused chaos,” resulting in a backup of bicycles that stretched for 100 meters.
The narrator of the Bicycle Dutch video points out that the congestion that resulted when people stopped for the lengthy signal was symptomatic of an underlying problem: “This traffic jam was never there when people made their own decisions. That means that something is fundamentally wrong at that location.” Indeed, the very next day the city announced that the signal timing was off and that it would be changed so that cyclists had shorter wait times.
But many Utrecht intersections are apparently still problematic for bicycles. Last week, the local chapter of the Cyclists’ Union led a protest action at another trouble spot, where they handed out sweet rolls to people delayed by lengthy red lights that create a chokepoint for the huge numbers of people riding to work and school.
For those of us who live in countries where any sort of bicycle infrastructure is lacking, watching these videos about Utrecht’s bike problems is inspiring. They show that when sufficient numbers of people are riding for transportation, they can create their own case for better infrastructure.
In many U.S. cities such as New York, where the number of people on bikes has exploded over the last decade, there is constant tension over the tendency of bicyclists to go through red lights and stop signs,which may not make sense for bikes in the way they do for cars. Some people argue that since there should be different accommodations for cyclists, such rule-breaking is sometimes justified. Others (and yes, I am among them) believe that until the rules are changed, it’s important for people on bikes to obey the regulations that are in place.
But even I think that relentless NYPD ticket blitzes at low-risk intersections are counterproductive—and a dangerous waste of resources when the city’s streets are filled with cars exceeding the speed limit, running stop signs, and blowing through red lights.
As the number of people riding bicycles on the streets and roads of the United States and other countries continues to rise, the need to create better infrastructure only becomes more apparent. That includes better bike-specific signal timing and bike-specific regulations such as the Idaho stop (which allows bikes to treat stop signs as yield signs).
Change is possible, even though it may take time. Someday, more places will be lucky enough to have Utrecht’s problems—and, one would hope, also its willingness to find solutions.