What nobody told me…

What nobody told me…

…about the Netherlands

Some years ago, already working in ‘active transport’, and seeking to deepen my understanding around urban design, I took the opportunity to take a family holiday for a week in the Netherlands. Among many many reactions to the experience, one big one I experienced was simply surprise that nobody had told me about most of the amazing things I’d see.

I’ve been meaning simply to write a list of these amazing things for years now.  Unfortunately I’m not all that sure that there is any way to convey the ‘amazingness’ to those who haven’t visited.

Here are some others making an attempt:

“I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe” [The Ranty Highwayman]

“We’ve only been in the Hague for five and a half hours and my mind has already been blown. How to put this into words?” [Clare Rogers]

“After just one day of pleasantly pedalling side-by-side with the kids around the streets of Rotterdam, we began to wonder: ‘If this truly is the worst The Netherlands has to offer, what did we have to look forward to later in our travels?'” [Chris and Melissa Bruntlett]

You might think that this walking/cycling bridge – in all its amazingness – sitting in the middle of nowhere but enabling people on foot and on bikes to get about would be a good example of what I’m thinking of.

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This bridge is stunning. But far from unusual here.

But it isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. This IS amazing. It’s just that this is obviously amazing – and what I’m on about isn’t quite so obvious.

You might think that coming across alternative vehicles would be what I’m on about.

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When just one adult can take lots of young children efficiently from A to B

This amazing little vehicle, on the same bridge, IS amazing.

But this isn’t the kind of thing I’m on about either.

What I want to talk about is – at least to some extent – a little bit more subtle. The way I’m going to frame this is as a list of things that I’d like to tell people to look out for when visiting for the first time… things I’d like people to notice among the more obvious amazingness, or perhaps just attitudes and questions I’d like them to take with them…

So here goes.

  1. There is no chaos.
  2. There are local shops in local town centres
  3. It’s beautiful
  4. They use ‘continuous footway’ at side roads
  5. The place is incredibly social
  6. Residential roads are residential
  7. Even country roads are filtered
  8. All these things depend on all the other things

There’s lots to say about each of these things. Read on…

There is NO chaos

Before you visit the Netherlands you’ll probably hear people talking about how badly behaved people on bikes are, or how terrible Amsterdam is for those on foot. Well that’s certainly not what I saw at all.

You WILL find things a bit confusing but it’s YOU that’s confused, not the people who live there.

You DO need to learn how to spot a cycle track. They are obvious – but if you’re from the UK where people treat cycle tracks as somewhere to stand chatting, put bins, or even plant trees and lamp posts then you ARE in for a surprise. People treat cycle tracks like they treat roads in the UK. Erm… well that’s it really. They’ll let you know that you’re in the way. They won’t expect you to walk out in front of them any more than people expect this on any road in the UK… although allowances are made for dozy tourists to some extent I think.

In Amsterdam itself you may need to look out for scooters in the some of the cycle tracks (although more recently some additional restrictions came into place), and these can be a bit alarming (and potentially dangerous) – but there are faults in every system.

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You, the visitor, might not immediately understand this streetscape. It may feel unusual. That doesn’t mean it’s confusing to people who live here. I see no chaos here.

And you’ll find yourself crossing big wide roads which might have people cycling on them, and people driving, and trams too. Yes, you’ll find yourself looking every which way while you get used to this. But here’s the thing to remember. You CAN cross these roads – these are roads which in a major UK city would be dominated by motor traffic, possibly several lanes wide, perhaps with some kind of fence in the middle. Perhaps with 40mph or even 50mph speed limits. In the UK you’d not be crossing at all.

And sure enough you might witness someone occasionally jumping a red light on a bicycle but there’s actually a fairly ordered system at work. Look at how easily the local pedestrians cross the road. Look at the big junctions, where it’s genuinely important for people to wait at a red light – and you’ll see a queue. This is really the exact same thing we see in the UK with pedestrian lights. Most people are actually careful to signal what they are doing – much more so than in the UK. Most people won’t be cycling on pavements. If you think that you’re going to see hordes of inconsiderate and irresponsible ‘cyclist’ types dodging in and out of traffic then I’m afraid the reality is a great deal more controlled and disciplined.

Does the traffic in this video seem chaotic, or just busy and efficient?

When I visited and took this video you can see that there were traffic signals (traffic lights) on the junction. It is exciting to know that these now have been removed to make this junction even more efficient. This is not chaos.

So please – don’t take your confusion and unfamiliarity – or the fact that YOU didn’t look before walking into the way of someone on an obvious cycle track – and make pronouncements about chaos. Get on a bike. Have a go. Be respectful of the system you’re diving into – do a little bit of research about road signs and how to signal – and you’ll very quickly find that the ‘chaos’ is actually just a city efficiently passing citizens every which way without fuss or incident and that you’ve quietly become part of it.

Local shops, local town centres

For those of us in the UK who are used to somewhat dilapidated town and city centres, and vast out of town shopping centres with seas of car parking around them, you’re in for a shock.

As far as I can see such centres are rare. In fact I haven’t seen any yet.

The shock for me was when we cycled for the first time out of Amsterdam to Weesp. We were on heavy city bikes, travelling slowly. We’d not come far. We were barely outside Amsterdam itself. We’d assumed that this would be a commuter town – just somewhere to live while the action was in the Big City up the road. In the UK there would have been some kind of town centre – but filled with charity shops, a couple of newsagents selling over priced essentials,  boarded up windows, a half-empty small shopping centre, maybe a beans-on-toast-and-a-cup-of-tea cafe, a struggling pub or two, and definitely at least one shop selling cheap alcohol.

What we actually found was, in comparison, stunning.

(A ‘view full size’ image link is below each image in the gallery,
you can reload the page if this is missing.)

We were greeted by bells in the church tower. There was a beautiful lily-covered canal. There was a market in the main street. There were thriving shops. There were people – lots of people. Customers. People arriving by bike. People arriving on foot. Small children following adults on bikes. Smaller children towed in trolleys. So very much more life than in just-out-of-city towns in the UK.

It’s beautiful

Speaking of the beauty – we wondered whether we’d just been lucky that day. So we went out on bikes another day. On the way we passed through a beautiful quiet and picturesque village. There were a few cars, but nothing moving except others on bikes and this clearly wasn’t a through road. Gosh this is beautiful we thought… and took pictures.

Then we got to our destination. And it was beautiful too, and this time it wasn’t just ‘quite beautiful’ but ‘really really lovely beautiful’.

(A ‘view full size’ image link is below each image in the gallery
you can reload the page if this is missing.)

This was the kind of place that in the UK would have a huge car park and a constant stream of visitor traffic arriving and leaving. Or it might have been The Beautiful Place where all the rich folk live and where foreign tourists go to take photos . But here, it was just off a major road from Amsterdam. And the car park was tiny. And a good many of the other people visiting seemed also to have cycled there (and they seemed to be locals on a day trip – the foreigners were back in Amsterdam).

And yes, I’m sure that we probably saw the pretty bit that visitors go to – but my point stands all the same.

And here’s a representative ‘pretty’ picture from a random city park in Utrecht – just to show that it’s not Amsterdam only.

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Utrecht. Just the edge of the local park – there were even prettier areas nearby.

What I can’t show you in pictures is that this beauty partly depends on the quiet. And we’ve not just found that once or twice in the Netherlands, but over and over and over – and not just when cycling. We’ve spent many more days on foot than on bicycles – and it’s the quiet that I think of most when thinking of what it’s like to walk around the place.

If you want to understand this – turn up the volume and listen to the quiet in this video from the centre of Utrecht – late-evening – on the other side of the canal from a major commuting route.

Just for interest, here’s the other side of the canal, not far away.

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Utrecht. Main route (cars are guests)

And interestingly, a quick look at Google Streetview here shows what this looked like until very recently… and after work to improve it for cycling.

Continuous footway/cycleway

Nobody told me about the continuous footways.

Why did nobody tell me about the continous footways??

In the residential streets you’ll have no problems walking and cycling – and once you’re on a relatively main city road you’ll find that there is normally a cycleway of some kind. Some are better than others, but in general even the poor stuff is far ahead of anything I’m used to.

And the crowning feature of the cycleways is that they have priority across the entrances/exits to side roads. But more remarkable – this priority also applies to those on foot. In fact, there are many places where those on foot have priority whether or not there’s a cycleway.

I hear this feature described in several ways, but ‘continous footway’ seems to me to be the clearest.

Here are a few examples. These are simply footway (with cycling on the road).

Look closely. There are side road entrances off the bigger road in all of these images – but the footway here is prioritised. The footway continues unbroken across the road entrance. There’s very little at all to tell you that there’s a side road here – which is the point. Even private driveways in the UK are often given more priority over the footway than we see in these images. Here about the only concession to the roadway is a slightly different kerb edge.

So much for the myth that the Netherlands prioritises bicycles and ignores pedestrians.

Here are two images of the last of those locations, but taken from above. The comparison between daytime and night – when the shop is closed – is fascinating.

Can you see what difference the city life itself makes to the environment here. It’s a positive feedback loop – visual prioritisation of life over traffic -> more life -> further visual prioritisation of life over traffic -> more life…

Often, as I note above, there is a cycleway across the side road too. Here are some examples. You’ll need to look really hard to see the side road.

This is one of my favourite pictures:

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Two boys, cycling without concern, chatting, straight through the middle of Utrecht.

The two boys are approaching a side-road. The priority they have over this road is so complete that they couldn’t care less – and with reason. It’s so abundantly clear that this cycleway/footway has priority that there’s no risk that anyone is going to drive over this without checking first.

So, in summary, the continuous footway/cycleway means that walking and cycling don’t mean lots of waiting around like is the case in the UK. Cycling, in particular, feels like a completely different experience.

For lots more detail on Continuous Footway see Design Details (1)

The place is incredibly social

The photograph above nicely captures a secondary amazing thing in one image. I’m still hoping to get a better set of photos to show this thing, but it’s about people not infrastructure…

The streets of the Netherlands seem incredibly social places in comparison to the UK.

Watch people cycling back and forth and you’ll see many of them chatting. Look at the video at the head of this piece and you’ll see people chatting and giving each other lifts. Wander around for a day and you’ll lose count of the number of couples holding hands while they cycle.

People tend to look at images of ‘the Dutch’ doing amazing things on their bikes and make conclusions about their skill. I look at ‘the Dutch’ doing amazing things on their bikes and make conclusions about the urban design.

(Amazing things include giving each other lifts, having kids standing on the back rack, holding hands, checking their phones, carrying odd items in one arm, and holding an umbrella.)

Again, what’s going on here is multi-dimensional. Less motorised traffic also means quieter streets, making conversation easier. Good design makes these behaviours safe. Slower cycling, on heavier (stronger) bikes is possible if relaxed speeds are safe.

And when those on bicycles are no longer seen as a threat, but as customers, with easy access to the city, and motorised traffic is removed from huge swathes of the city centre… this is what it sounds/feels like:

Residential roads are residential

In my mind the most amazing of the amazing things is that the residential streets of the Netherlands have been taken back and given to those who live there.

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People take priority here.

This is my favourite image. I use it as a computer desktop image.

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Not all of the streets are so attractive, but even the less attractive ones are quieter than in the UK. Of course there are quiet streets we can point to in the UK, but the point is that quiet streets seem to be the standard in the Netherlands, not the exception.

And look at the speed limit past this school.

sn859510.jpg
How many UK schools are associated with a speed limit of 9mph on the street outside?

In the UK we’re lucky to see a limit of 20mph. This is 9mph.

And all of this is because of design. The city residential streets, on the whole, are designed in order that through journeys in motor vehicles are impossible or very difficult. There are one-way streets (almost always two way for cycling of course), or other filtering. Here’s my favourite photo of filtering… where once you’d have been able to drive there’s now a children’s play-park – and this isn’t particularly unusual.

(A ‘view full size’ link is below each image in the gallery.)

So filtering isn’t just about traffic control, but about re-claiming space for play and social life. Yet again, the design here isn’t for ‘cyclists’ but just for the citizens… with cycling happening to benefit at the same time.

As I noted above, this is what for me is at the heart of everything else in the Netherlands… the willingness to recognise that their cities were being strangled by motorised traffic – the willingness to do something really solid about it.

This isn’t a cycle lane here, or a pedestrianised street there. It’s not the blocking off of a couple of rat-runs. It’s root and branch, top to bottom, urban redesign – bit by bit by bit over generations.

You can see this using Google Streetview. Drop into a city or major town in the Netherlands and explore.

Even country roads are filtered

The last ‘amazing thing‘ on my list took me even longer to notice. Something means that many of the rural roads are quiet. I’ve not completely worked this out yet, but as far as I can see many of the rural roads are also filtered… so that through journeys using them aren’t possible.

Here’s an example. The sign says that motor vehicles aren’t allowed unless going to a destination served by this road. This is a road which could have been used for through traffic… but through traffic is prohibited.

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Country road. Through traffic prohibited.

Again, we can point to UK examples, but such treatment seems pretty standard in the Netherlands.

In the UK we aim for maximum permeability by motor vehicles… absolutely everywhere. Here they just don’t.

Interrelationships/civilisation

Much of what makes the above a little difficult to explain properly is that everything above is interrelated. No one of the above amazing things can exist in isolation. Each amazing thing depends on many other amazing things.

I’ve tried to find a way to draw images of this, but at the moment all I have is a database of links… this is possible because of this, which is possible because of that, which is possible because of this, and so on around in circles. Sometime I’ll find a way to make an image from it.

Of course most people don’t analyse what they see during their visit in this detail. What they experience is a feeling of civilisation. And if they cycle, the amazing experience of just being normal – going places efficiently – being unremarkable. That’s amazing enough in itself. Here’s my favourite video capturing this… and watch to the end. Could your child be out on his own whooshing through the centre of your city at that speed?

The closest analogy I can think of – in terms of the experience of visiting the Netherlands for the first time – involves a person who spends their whole life standing in a cloud of flies. Life’s possible, but the flies are just always there. The person can breathe, but they have to wear a mask. They can see, but they have to brush flies out their eyes to do so. They can hear, but you have to speak a bit more loudly to them. They can be fairly healthy, but the flies make this harder. What would it be like for that person to step into a world where the flies had mostly just gone away…???

Now you understand what people are trying to convey when on their first visit their twitter feed descends into a stream of photos and a thesaurus worth of words for ‘amazing’.

Enjoy your first visit… take a camera…

Here’s another post explaining how I felt coming home.


Addenda…

  • Several Dutch readers of this blog have pointed out that the 15kph speed limit sign is ‘advisory’ only. See comments below.
  • There are many interesting comments about this blog post from people who live in the Netherlands at reddit.com/r/thenetherlands (lots in Dutch) or in English through Google Translate (NB: English comments may be translated away from English)
  • Here’s a blog from a Dutch reader (from the Reddit conversation) writing about his feelings visiting London. UK readers should expect that this focuses on failures not success, but in the context of my own blog it emphasises the Dutch/UK difference.
  • A reader from Amsterdam has contributed a new video of Alexanderplein, showing the junction operation with the traffic signals (traffic lights) removed. See below.

See also…

Comments…

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69 Comments

  1. Intersting stuff. Something that drives me nuts on our quiet dead end street in America is cars zip up and down it, its not a safe place for kids. Look over the fence into the trailer park with its narrow single lane drive ways – this keeps traffic slow while the kids over there run around, play and socialize in groups. American neighborhood design is antisocial, and anit-children, but perfectly optimized for cars to drive around quickly.

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  2. This is all truly great & having been to Amsterdam recently I have seen some of this efficiency. Thing is, HOW DID THEY DO IT??? I feel the motorist v cyclist war here is worsening & cannot imagine how we could even start towards such schemes🙁

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    1. Have a look at some of the posts on change on this site. Particularly try the two linked below (to begin with). These posts aren’t such an easy read… but I make no apologies for this because after all they are attempting to answer a very difficult question. I’d be interested to hear thoughts on these – inevitably they get less traffic.
      https://robertweetman.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/this-isnt-going-to-be-easy/
      https://robertweetman.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/changing-the-system/

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  3. I have been thinking about why we do this like this in the Netherlands. Two points spring to mind:
    – Private space (e.g. gardens) are relatively small. Hardly anybody has enough space for children to kick a ball without breaking windows. Therefore children have to play in public area’s. And people consider child safety important, which could be the reason of the lower priority for cars.
    – Cities are old, many of them over five centuries. Urbanisation was well underway in the fiveteenth century. These were certainly not designed with cars in mind. Even if cars would be given priority, they would not benefit from it because the capacity of the road is limited.

    And don’t think to little of your own country. Last June I really enjoyed the public traffic of London: being able to quickly travel all over the city in a short time was great.

    But still your points are valid: I would have loved being able to drive through Cornwall by bike, but it would just be dangerous. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed our holidays there.

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    1. “Even if cars would be given priority, they would not benefit from it because the capacity of the road is limited.”
      That’s the point of course. This is what the UK is trying to do – with its own very old cities we try to give priority to cars in such limited space that it doesn’t work. But I think that in the UK we can often be very slow to change our ideas. I think this is the main difference. The Netherlands noticed the mistake it was making many decades ago. It noticed the mistake before doing too much damage. When I was in Utrecht I was amazed to see the little bit of city centre motorway being turned back into a canal. You haven’t only noticed the mistake, but you’ve been working to reverse the damage for many decades.

      Remember also that we have many many children who have no space to play. Again, you have recognised that this is important. Here it’s known to be important, but just not important enough to do anything about it.

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  4. Sure, there is the willingness. But don’t forget that the Netherlands is FLAT, it helps a lot. A gentle 5% slope is already a big obstacle with a bike.

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    1. https://cyclingfallacies.com/en/7/its-too-hilly-here
      I think that the flatness helped a lot when bicycles were all very heavy and with limited gearing. But one of my kids cycled happily up one of the steepest hills in Edinburgh at about age 5. Hills are a pain – but they are a pain when you walk too. Given a safe cycleway, where you can cycle slowly, all but the very steepest of city hills become no harder to cycle on than they are to walk up. Unless you’re also going to argue that people don’t walk as much outside of the Netherlands because of the hills then I’m not going to accept that argument. (sorry)

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    2. 5 or 6 Beaufort is also quite an obstacle, and that is quite common in the West of the Netherlands. Most cities are located in more or less flat parts of a country. Last years I have been in London, Vancouver, Tucson, New Haven (USA) and Berlin. All cities that in principle suitable for cycling but where other choices have been made. Even Zürich is relatively flat. Cities with a lot of height differences are not very common.

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  5. Unfortunately, and I am learning, I am one of those who end up walking in the bicycle zone…luckily people are kind enough to ring their bicycle bells at me. I’m from the US…pedestrians have the “right of way”; however, we are to adhere to the traffic lights…they are not a suggestion although people sometimes treat them as such. You can get a ticket for “J” walking, crossing the street where there is no crosswalk…but people (including) me do it all the time. Have been to the Netherlands twice…LOVE IT!!! The first time we happened to hit the Queen’s Day celebration in Amsterdam. Super crowded, but not chaotic at all. And we were stunned the next day when we went back and the streets were totally cleared of all evidence there had been a huge party the day before. My theory was that the trash was pushed into the canals and then drudged from the canals, but I’m sure that’s not the case. We are fortunate to have friends in Hilversum. And we love the Amsterdam airport and the convenience of the train station being right there.

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    1. Interestingly, other than in the space used by a street market, we have found that the streets contain very little if any ‘trash’ (‘rubbish’/’litter’). I now presume that it is Dutch habit never to drop litter. I’d be interested to hear Dutch views on this before I state it as fact.

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      1. Unfortunately, a lot of people still litter in the Netherlands. Especially teenagers and children. The biggest problem there is that if a child litters, many parents see it and don’t even teach the kid that it’s wrong or tell them to pick it up. I’ve gotten into a few arguments on the street with parents, because I asked their child to pick up their trash. I don’t do it anymore, because a lot of parents get agressive.
        Often, there is a bin within 10 meters, too!

        I think municipality workers clean the streets quite a lot, though.

        Great write-up by the way. It really lets me appreciate what we’ve got even more.

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  6. Wo, you’ve put into word so much of what we also noticed and felt here that made us decide to make our home here. We moved to Amsterdam from California 8 years ago. You talk about things interrelated… we see that, coming from a capitalistic society to a more socialist one, how different the cultural mindset is. One important aspect, we think, is that here everyone carries liability insurance to cover THEMSELF, not other people. This seems to create a broader intrinsic sense of personal responsibility within the culture, less idiot-proofing everything for fear of being sued. People look out for each other on paths and roads more because each person is more aware of their personal responsibility… not sure I’m explaining well… and to us this serms to make a massive difference that connects to and makes possible all the thing you’ve pointed out that make life here so great!
    i read that scooters will no longer be allowed on bike paths in some cities as of jan 2018.
    Last winter the city announced it would, as a test, allow businesses to open 24 hrs, and citizens complained to the degree that they cancelled the test. The government response blew me away, they actually care about people and society more than shareholders. Yet, they still make a profit and thrive! Amazing!

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  7. Lovely piece and so true. Everything you mention we have found and more. Quality of life is very high. Have you met our lovely dunes? Was lucky enough to give this fabulous country ‘a try’for a year. That was 10 years ago.

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    1. You say: ‘and more’?

      I can think of a couple of really key things I’d still like to write about. The biggest I have in mind today is the level of freedom that children experience. I didn’t write about it because it’s harder to illustrate on photos – but seeing young kids circulating around their towns and cities unaccompanied… at ages where they might not want to get on a bus, was ‘amazing’ (to use the word again). Somehow videos and photos don’t quite convey this and I’m not sure why.

      What else do you think I might have missed?

      I’ve seen the dunes in the past – I visited as a child – but not recently. So much to see, so little time. Next visit perhaps…

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  8. Nice article! In the Netherlands we also use the term ‘self explaining road’. Even if there would be no traffic signs, it should be obvious how to behave.

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      1. No problem. Hit me up if you want to know more. I’m quite interested in the subject, myself, and am also a bit of a language freak (both English and Dutch). The ‘beeld’-part, by the way, means something like ‘image’, but of course it depends on the context and the translation can not be done 1-on-1.

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  9. (Sorry for the many comments.)
    Have you’ve seen this video?

    Especially in the second half, it discusses your points and provides some extra insight. I guess the Dutch narrator targets Americans, but it is informative (hopefully for you still) nonetheless.

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    1. Thanks. I haven’t seen this one and will take a few minutes later to watch it. I’m pretty familiar with the ideas here – I work with these ideas. But I’m always keen to deepen my understanding. One of the more difficult things is to work out how to communicate the ideas to other people. I wrote the article partly because there are people that I work with who I wanted to communicate the ideas to.

      Ideally there would be a whole load of Dutch documentation which showed how Dutch cities are so different. But many of the important things which make the Netherlands what it is are really just conventions and habits – not what tends to get written down but just ‘how things are done around here’. For example I think that one of the most important features of Dutch design is that everything to do with cycling has a red-brown surface. That makes it really easy to see and to understand. Here we have multiple colours or none, and each surface colour being used for multiple things. The UK thinks it is really good at road signage, but neglects this really important thing. So actually what I need to be able to show people is a big Dutch document that says this very clearly – and which explains why it is important. But I doubt that there really is one that does this.

      There are a number of other things like this… I wonder if there’s another article brewing…

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      1. Hi,

        The “big answer book” you seek does exist.

        Not sure on the exact title, but it’s a book published by our “Rijkswaterstaat” describing all standards to be used / available while (re)designing traffic situations.

        On Youtube there’s a lenghty video of a presentation called something like “what can Seattle learn from Dutch road design”, I believe I heard them mentioning this book of standards

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      2. Thanks. Yes, I spent some time with a knowledgeable Dutch colleague talking about what documentation existed. As we spoke he came to this same conclusion – there is no easy way to read about how the whole Dutch system works. So much will just be ‘how things are done around here’ rather than being guided by written standards.

        Many people involved in promoting better urban design and cycling point first to the CROW Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic. While this has some very useful material in it I think that it fails to convey many things. For example ‘continuous footway’ isn’t primarily about cycling – but about a city where those on foot are prioritised – with cycling benefiting too.

        I’ll check out the video.

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  10. Great post. The Netherlands is indeed a great place to live, especially if you like and use bicycle. The care is channeled to cyclists first, pedestrians go after with a big gap, and cars are being squeezed out of the cities. For example foliage and snow moved from cycle pads to pedestrian pads is a norm, hard surface in parks are for bicycles. So if you like walking, you are “advised” to do cross country or bicycle.

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