Amsterdam vs Copenhagen…
…Netherlands vs Denmark
Part 3 – Who wins? Which approach is better?
I set this series up as a comparison of infrastructure in the Netherlands and Denmark, and a comparison of both to the UK. Predictably readers in many other places have pointed out that my descriptions of the UK match what’s found in their country (at least to some extent). This then helpfully becomes a series about what the rest of the world can learn from the Netherlands and Denmark with the UK examples used to represent ‘everywhere else’.
This third part of the series tries to answer the inevitable questions about which approach is better – the one in Amsterdam or Copenhagen – the Netherlands or Denmark. Most regular readers will be able to make a good guess about what I’m going to say initially… but further into the article I move into new ground… asking what designs we should copy. And I don’t think that the answers to this question are as obvious as they might at first appear.
If you’ve not read parts 1 and 2 yet then I strongly suggest you do so first. They give important context to this third part. And remember that I write only as a visitor to both countries and not a native resident. If you have an opinion about what I say (even if you disagree) then I’d like to hear from you in the comments at the end of the article. In parts 1 and 2 the comments are worth reading in themselves.
This 3 part series is spread over three separate blog articles.
The simple question & simple answer: Which is better?
So let’s start with simple answers to the simple “which is better” question (understanding that I’m only telling part of the story at this stage)…
It’s no secret that overall I’m more inspired by the Dutch approach. Nobody reading my articles could doubt this. The Netherlands is where I’d send people to inspire them. The Netherlands is where I think people can gain a vision of what they’re working for and why it’s worth it.
If you agree and you already know why this is the case, you might like to jump further into the article where I ask more subtle questions – but I’m asked this question often so I feel I need to answer it thoroughly…
In many of the places that I’ve visited I see that the Netherlands has managed to properly begin to take control of motorised vehicles, and in particular to take control of the private car. I keep looking for an analogy to explain this. The best I’ve come up with is to think about when you have mice in your home. Imagine trying to stop mice from biting your pipes, woodwork, and cables by giving them something else to eat – accommodating them in your home rather than fighting them. Perhaps you like mice and you don’t want to poison them. This strategy might work in the short term, but soon enough you’ll have a plague of mice. The more you accommodate them the more they will take over… appearing in every corner of your life, defining every thing you do, eating anything and everything. This is how most of the world works in relation to motorised traffic, accommodating it, bending to its every need… but the Netherlands has done something very different.
There are plenty of cars in the Netherlands – and plenty of driving – and I think that we should keep pointing out that the company Waze calculates a ‘driver satisfaction index,’ putting the Netherlands at the top worldwide every year so far. That’s amazing.
What’s going on here is that the country has harnessed motor vehicles for the benefits that they can bring (I’m putting aside any questions about global environment for a moment). But the Netherlands urban design is founded on the basic principle that motor traffic MUST also be strongly controlled in order to have liveable, prosperous, pleasant, healthy towns and cities.
The transformation that the Netherlands has undertaken, taking back control of their towns and cities from motor vehicles, is awe inspiring.
And this is the work of decades.
And they haven’t finished yet.
To demonstrate their ongoing work I recently tweeted two links to Google Streetview showing a profound change in street design in just one place in Utrecht between 2015 and 2016. I stumbled across this while writing part 2 of this series. Here is an August 2015 view – and here is a September 2016 view from the same location (both images combined in the GIF below – sorry if the endless changes are irritating, the Streetview links are better if you follow them).
(Images © Google)
And from a different direction – August 2015 / September 2016. Seriously… look at what they did here. From a UK perspective it’s stunning. They are no longer trying to fit city life in around motor vehicles… they are actively working year by year by year on fighting back so instead motor vehicles fit in around city life.
Here’s another analogy while I’m on a roll…
This is like the idea of ‘getting fit’. Lots of people know ‘getting fit’ would be a good idea. Most people just talk about it. Some join a gym. Some go to the gym on and off. And a few people genuinely work to get fit – making being fit part of daily life.
That’s what’s happened here. The Dutch didn’t just talk about ‘prioritising walking and cycling’. They didn’t just do the equivalent of just joining the gym. They actually did something meaningful, and kept doing it, over and over, and they kept getting better at it. And just like getting fit this was painful at first, and then they saw benefits, and now things which once seemed new and hard work simply go unnoticed and seem normal and ordinary.
A complex question: What does Copenhagen teach us?
But ‘the Netherlands is better’ is just one simple answer to one simple question.
What if we instead ask ‘What does Copenhagen teach us?‘
While I’m not in love with the urban design in Copenhagen – in relation to cycling and walking – I am very much inspired by it. And I also think that some features of their approach may be useful in the UK and other countries… at least in the shorter term.
Copenhagen illustrates what can be done relatively quickly with relatively simple designs (and with some supportive rules and conventions in regard to driving behaviour). Copenhagen shows that even relatively minor changes can make a huge difference. Copenhagen is still dominated by motorised vehicles in many ways. And those on foot and on bikes still take second place in a way that’s not the case in the Netherlands. However, Copenhagen is also a very very long way ahead of many other cities. Copenhagen provides an example for our towns and cities that need to see that a little bit of genuine effort can go a long way.
But take note that the phrase ‘genuine effort’ is important here.
I used an analogy of ‘getting fit’ above. Copenhagen took the decision to change a long time ago. Copenhagen didn’t just join the gym. They didn’t just go for a run. They started to actually work at making a real change. Whether they keep working at it remains to be seen – Copenhagen still has lots and lots of work to do but Denmark genuinely started to make a difference to their capital city. That’s inspiring.
The cycle tracks in Copenhagen are extensive. They go through places where people want to go. They do so directly and efficiently. They are on main roads in straight lines, not winding through the back streets.
Here’s a quick map I created by searching for cycleways and segregated cycle tracks using Openstreetmap. The solid blue lines are roads with segregated cycle tracks (as discussed in this blog series) and the dotted blue lines are separate cycleways away from the road.
Notice that these cycle tracks are on the main roads. Notice how straight they are. Notice how many there are.
What Copenhagen built is simple. It is clear how to use it. Cycling there (in my experience) is an efficient and relatively safe way to get around compared to what this is like in other countries.
Let’s take a whistle-stop tour through some Copenhagen infrastructure photos…
And these further two images show a simple track running straight along an important shopping street (Streetview link).
Copenhagen has also begun to make some changes which put motorised traffic in its place.
Here is a good photo of a piece of continuous footway (but there is no good cycle track here, and that’s a big failure). Many examples of continuous footway in Copenhagen weren’t this clear – but this is a nice one.
There is no doubt to people at this location (driving or walking) that this is a section of footway, not part of the side road. And I like the rocks too – solid – effective in controlling parking – marking that something important happens here – but they don’t hinder visibility.
And here are some photos of a residential junction which has been substantially re-designed to prioritise those on foot. This previously (I assume) would have been a large crossroads with substantial areas of roadway to cross. The side streets have been treated to make it now very different. Look at the building lines. The larger road cuts straight through the junction but look at the line of the side roads – these are narrowed so that this is no longer a crossroads for those driving. It’s also now very easy to cross on foot and has a radically different character to what roads like this look like in the UK and elsewhere. (Streetview link)
Lastly in this Copenhagen photo tour… there is also one simple rather unexpected intervention that, to me, characterises the approach that Copenhagen has taken.
Where people may want to mount/descend a kerb (while driving, cycling, or using anything else with wheels) Copenhagen has simply added tarmac – making a slightly ugly but very practical ramp. I’ve heard this described as a ‘Copenhagen Bodge’ by people from the UK.
(For an explanation of the British English use of the word ‘bodge’ for international readers Wiktionary defines this as “a clumsy or inelegant job, usually a temporary repair”).
Here are a few photos.
You’ll also see these tarmac ramps in some of the previous photos on this page if you look back at them, and they are easy to spot by wandering around Copenhagen using Google Streetview.
For me this summarises Copenhagen for cycling – they’ve worked quickly over large areas to provide a relatively good network of protected tracks. These aren’t perfect. In comparison to Amsterdam the city has only just started to try to re-balance its streets in favour of those who aren’t driving. But what they have done does have very positive effects – and these have required only a few comparatively simple changes.
We can learn from this.
So who and what should we copy?
This all leads to an obvious question. What should we copy in terms of actual design?
Until now with this series I’ve mostly been trying to stick to facts, even if these are delivered alongside opinion, but to answer that question I need to move into pure opinion.
Here are my thoughts…
We should copy the speed that Copenhagen has worked at this.
Most of the UK is trying to ‘have cake and eat it’. There’s plenty of talk about prioritising cycling and walking. Lots of cities will even have policies that declare that this is what they are doing. But most of the UK is still working on the idea that we can ‘prioritise cycling and walking’ without upsetting anyone… without prioritising them over anything else (and yes of course that’s nonsensical). And we seem to have accepted the idea that we can get somewhere significant with a slow and steady step by step approach.
It’s not unusual nowadays (although perhaps not common) to find that some significant money is being spent on trying to improve things for cycling… but it’s rare to see anything being done which will actually prioritise it. So we have signs being added to lots of back-street routes – or everything going into one expensive (and relatively good but fatally compromised) cycle track on one key route.
A single cycle track on a single road isn’t going to make much difference. Even if it is lovely. Even if it is on an important road.
A basic network of back street routes isn’t going to make very much difference on its own. Even if it is a fairly extensive network.
What we need to copy from Copenhagen is the decision to put lots of good enough and direct routes in place fairly quickly.
Copenhagen has demonstrated a track design which is simpler than what’s found in the Netherlands which does work. They don’t re-balance their streets with this – they remain car-centric – but a bit less so. This is important. This makes me think that there is value in Copenhagen style cycle tracks.
There are very specific advantages which arise from the fact that there is a relatively extensive Copenhagen network – and that the cycle tracks are on many of the main roads – which overcome some of the design issues:
- For most journeys by bicycle there will be a combination of relatively decent and relatively direct routes. This makes it possible to get off what may still be a busy residential road fairly quickly.
- Where you’re forced to leave a protected track you’ll very often be on a quieter road.
- People driving in Copenhagen are familiar with the design of cycling infrastructure because no matter what their daily journey looks like they will interact with it.
- A large enough number of people cycle so that those driving really need to pay attention to rules and designs which are in place for the safety/priority of those cycling.
At the same time we need to recognise a tendency for UK copies of Netherlands infrastructure to become overly complicated and compromised. Real Netherlands cycling tracks (forget the inevitable bad examples) are simple and direct. They don’t really feel like they are part of the footway, nor part of the road, but something between the two. UK copies are often designed in such a way that they end up being effectively part of the footway. This makes it difficult to cycle on them even at anything like the relaxed speeds typically achieved on tracks in the Netherlands – and the UK versions end up stopping at multiple side roads… which renders their use extremely inefficient.
With these things in mind it may be more effective in the UK to copy the Copenhagen basic cycle tracks in many places – and maybe even as a relatively standard thing.
It’s worth bearing in mind that there may also be the potential to start with Copenhagen style tracks initially, adding further buffering and/or footway space between this and the traffic later. Of course in places there may be complex engineering considerations which make this difficult, but purely in terms of street space the Netherlands infrastructure is a bit like Copenhagen cycle tracks but with additional space taken from the roadway between the track and the traffic lanes.
We should copy Netherlands quality continuous footway.
Unless side roads are blocked off completely then continuous footway/cycleway at small side roads has to be part of any cycle track solution in the UK. Cycling couldn’t be supported in either the Netherlands or Copenhagen, at the levels that it is, without this very standard piece of design.
The UK – and other countries – will have to find a way to make this feature of design into something standard if we’re ever to have cities which are decent to walk around – never mind to cycle around.
To add some Streetview links to this discussion I’ve randomly selected a UK city street. The following is genuinely from the first street I chose – looking for a city centre street that I didn’t know where walking would be repeatedly interrupted by side streets. Purely by chance, here is the archetypal city centre shopping street struggling with this very problem, with different solutions at different road ends. First we have the standard UK treatment – vehicles have absolute priority (despite there being a rule in the Highway Code that says different). Then – and I’m impressed to find this in the UK – a properly narrowed entrance, although still with high traffic levels requiring traffic signals. Then amazingly, you can see the city getting braver, closing the road altogether for part of the year. It normally looks like this. Finally we have what looks initially like it’s continuous footway – but it turns out to be a closed off (pedestrianised) street.
Given the current dominance of motor traffic in the UK – not just in terms of space but also rules, conventions, habits, culture and driver attitude – I see very little place for Copenhagen style treatment of side road entrances in the UK, simply because it’s not obvious enough. Often the continuation of the footway (as opposed to the cycleway) is distinctly half-hearted (for Streetview examples refer back to section 4 in part 2 of this series). Perhaps the design in Copenhagen doesn’t need to shout ‘look out for the cycle track and footway’ because Danish drivers already know what to look out for. As in the Netherlands there is also the general rule (and habit) of giving way to those on foot who are already crossing a road.
Here in the UK there is instead a long history of incredibly badly implemented solutions for cycling – where no matter how the road looks those on bikes are expected to give way. And there’s an equally wide spread of half-hearted designs meant to protect pedestrians at side roads – none of which ask those driving to give way at all. Indeed we go further here. We have a rule that declares that once you are crossing a side road you have priority – but it’s entirely ignored. And more than that – this is a rule that very few people even know exists. We have a style of road use which I consider to be an extension of the British obsession with rules. If you’re crossing a road on a zebra crossing – or when signals display a ‘green man’ – then those driving will usually be polite and considerate. But get in the way elsewhere, or once signals tell you to wait, then you’re seen to be ‘asking for it’. Not only will people ignore your safety, they’re reasonably likely to try to actually teach you a lesson – driving at you to frighten you based on the theory that you will realise your mistake, repent, and not repeat it.
With such a history and background there can be no room for uncertainty in designs at side roads – and this is even more true if we’re to continue introducing new infrastructure at the current glacial pace – where any design is likely to be completely new to the majority of those encountering it.
So the best examples I’ve found of continuous footway/cycleway are those I’ve seen in the Netherlands. Not all of theirs are clear – but that’s where I’ve seen the clearest designs, where there is little to suggest to those on the road that a side road exists at all.
Often the side road is barely detectable from the main road. It’s clear to all that you’re not expected to use the road to get anywhere. Only local people who know the road would consider driving into it, and it is utterly clear that this involves driving over a footway/cycleway. Seen from the road the priority of those cycling and walking on the footway/cycleway is utterly clear – as is the need to check for their presence before crossing.
When we create half-hearted copies of continuous footway/cycleway in the UK it doesn’t work well.
If we’re to implement continuous footway/cycleway in the UK – and I see no alternative – then we have to copy the best of the Netherlands examples. We must not copy the slightly half-hearted continuous footway/cycleway treatments I often observed in Copenhagen.
We should copy Netherlands residential streets
Until we get to grips with myth that cities thrive on motor vehicle permeability we’re destined to have an unpleasant environment to live in – and restricted levels of cycling and walking (and… I could repeat a long list of other ‘bad stuff’ here but I’ll hold back just now).
The Netherlands residential street design can be copied here and now. And in many ways relatively little actual engineering is required to get started. Designs needn’t be perfect – the Netherlands ones aren’t. They just need to be definite in controlling motor vehicle permeability.
Best of all I reckon that most people, if they see this done properly, will be in favour of this kind of development for the areas where they live… even if it makes the last 5 minutes of their car journey a bit inconvenient.
And remember that the Netherlands designs don’t just drop ugly bollards into an area. As I’ve written in parts 1 and 2 they do a whole range of things to change the feel of the streets. They might block through traffic with a play park. They may narrow the carriageway. They may even make the carriageway bend and snake (even where building lines are straight).
Compare this narrowed street in Utrecht with a typical UK residential street. Take note of the wide footway on the left, and the greenery narrowing the traffic lane, and that the junction has bollards making for tight corners. (Streetview link)
And look at this example too. Look at how much space has been reclaimed. Think about how bare a comparable UK street is – think about the tarmac desert which would exist between the narrow footways in the UK.
And they still have plenty of parking. I’d be happy with a reduction, but if we’re selling designs to a sceptical public this is a plus.
So this is something we have to copy if we’re going to get anywhere significant at all.
BUT – now the difficult bit.
Now I’m relatively sure of the opinions I give above. I’m much less sure of my opinions when it comes to the design of major junctions (junctions of the nature I discussed at the start of part 2). What I’m talking about is junctions where those on a cycleway are inevitably going to have to wait to continue their journey – and particularly where traffic signals are to be used.
I am fairly sure of one thing. The Copenhagen style of junction design isn’t going to work in the UK whilst the laws remain as they are. A junction designed in this way, or anything like this, will not feel safe to most people – and certainly not if it’s the only example in a city. Those already confident on a bicycle in busy traffic may find this design useful in some places – I’ve encountered one of these in the UK – but that’s more a reflection on the current level of risk involved at such junctions than anything else. It’s ‘better’ without being ‘good’.
What we need in the UK currently is for people on bicycles at major junctions to feel that they are not on the road – not mixing with motorised traffic.
This is what the Dutch designs achieve so successfully.
BUT – and it’s a very big ‘but’ – I’m acutely aware that so many attempts to provide this in the UK so very often result in such a high level of compromise as to render the designs useless (or almost useless). And the result of these failures at key junctions is to render whole cycle paths useless (or almost useless). So we build things that cost lots of money, take a decade to complete, stretch for a kilometre or two, look good to the uninitiated, and then they aren’t used… and we dig a hole for ourselves in regard to future developments.
The failures are multifaceted. So we have:
- cycle paths that only the initiated can tell you’re allowed to cycle on;
- cycling and walking mixed together so cycling is slow (or people on foot get upset);
- slow lights that prioritise motor vehicles;
- and of course no end of ridiculous stuff that can’t be categorised as anything other than ‘silly and unusable’.
In essence we’re offered protected infrastructure only in exchange for giving up the advantages that cycling offered in the first place – it can only be used at very slow speeds, it asks us to wait for long periods for those in motor vehicles, and it puts us in unpleasant conflict with those on foot.
So I’m in a quandary. Here, as a conclusion to this three part series of articles, what do I recommend – what positive guiding comments can I make for UK designers – in regard to main junctions.
I think that rather than being specific on the infrastructure design I’m going to provide the following general remarks… and these probably serve as guidance on all infrastructure too…
Good design, in terms of a liveable city, prioritises the needs of those on foot and on bicycles OVER those driving.
This is as true at major junctions as elsewhere. Prioritisation means that those on foot and on bicycles will have to wait for less time than those driving. It means that their need to be safe wins over any need to allow for the flow of traffic. It means that their need for space trumps any need for space for the flow of traffic.
If we’re designing something that doesn’t recognise these things then the design is flawed.
Good design for walking and cycling does not provide protection at the expense of efficiency and simplicity.
Good design for cycling makes it safe for children or those who are new to cycling AND AT THE SAME TIME allows for efficient cycling by adults.
Except for at very specific locations any design which asks people on bicycles to mix with people on foot simply to cross a junction – while motor traffic has dedicated space – is deeply flawed.
And lastly a very very important point that I think is often overlooked…
We do not have to accept the existing framework of laws, codes, policies, conventions and professional habits. It may be that we cannot deliver good infrastructure unless a particular law or convention is changed. We need to talk about this.
Laws and conventions can be changed – of course we should talk about how to deliver things within existing systems, but it’s important that we don’t let ourselves become convinced that this is the only way. Otherwise we become just another set of victims of the tide of apathy that blights our cities… where council officers and other transport and urban design professionals generally can’t be bothered with ‘good’ because that means taking professional risks… whereas ‘ordinarily vehicle focused’ is professionally safe.
Perhaps ‘continuous footway’ is a little bit difficult to deliver at the moment. So let’s campaign for it to become standard infrastructure.
The laws about pedestrian priority at side roads are ignored. So let’s work on having these strengthened. When did we allow ourselves to become convinced that the way forward is to endlessly quote an existing law which lost any weight decades ago?
We struggle with bus stop design? Why are we not having a conversation about fundamental issues, like the laws which apply at bus stops. In Copenhagen the law (and practice) means that people feel safe to walk across a cycle track when boarding/leaving a bus. Their system underpins their bus stop design (you might like to refer back to my article on these designs). Why are we not talking about whether the laws here need to be changed to support cycle track design at bus stops?
We can’t implement good junction designs without taking space away from the traffic? THEN WE NEED TO TAKE SPACE AWAY FROM THE TRAFFIC.
Maybe we need to say ‘NO’ more often. So ‘no’ (for designers) we can’t deliver that cycle path in these conditions. Or ‘no’ (for campaigners) the current cycling/walking community doesn’t want you to build anything at all if that is what is on offer.
A couple of decades ago we were happy with any recognition that bicycles existed – and inevitably we said ‘yes’ to so many compromised designs, just to get cycling recognised. But if in your town or city cycling is now partially recognised as a mode of transport – if it’s in policy that your town or city will support cycling – maybe it’s time to start to say an outright ‘no’ to badly compromised designs?
To finish I should say that while I’m ‘writing in straight lines’ (i.e. in simple firm language) actually I mean these as questions more than statements. As I said in introducing this section I really don’t know what the right answers are here… but I do know that these are good questions to ask… and I do know that compromised junction design on cycleways can end up meaning that a scheme is almost useless and that it undermines cycling overall.
So – on junction design – I guess my final plea is to look again at the really good Dutch junction designs before considering any compromises, even Copenhagen style compromises. Consider – how can we sell these PROVEN designs to a sceptical public, perhaps by emphasising the benefits to those who currently walk, or by at the same time linking these to good residential street design?
And how can we help to make sure that people see that this isn’t about ‘cyclists’ but about generally nicer cities and liveable places for everyone?
- Amsterdam vs Copenhagen (part 1)
- Amsterdam vs Copenhagen (part 2)
- What nobody told me (about Netherlands urban design)
- Copenhagen bus stops
- Scroll below for comments.
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