Baffling traffic situations

Bicycle-friendly? My ass!

Groningen’s traffic situations can be so confusing that students feel they’re taking part in the Hunger Games. Here’s five of the scariest ones. ‘I thought: fuck, I’m going to die here!’
By Ingrid Ștefan and Enrique Aguilar
Photos by Zuzana Ľudviková
6 December om 11:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 December 2023
om 11:07 uur.
December 6 at 11:10 AM.
Last modified on December 13, 2023
at 11:07 AM.

With an infrastructure that makes the city centre less accessible for cars, and cycle-friendly routes that take you from the outskirts to the heart of town with a minimum of intersections, Groningen – in which the average citizen owns one-and-a-half bike – is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. 

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to navigate, though. Groningen has its share of baffling traffic situations which are confusing to any student, let alone internationals, who may encounter road signs they haven’t seen before. How many of them actually know that these white triangles the Dutch call haaientanden, or ‘shark teeth’, inform people who has priority? 

UKrant asked students which crossings they fear the most, and had an expert shine a light on them.

1. Stadspark – Jan Evert Scholtenlaan

Finally! Media studies student Marco* breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted a familiar roundabout. After a party at the Winschoterdiep international student house, he found himself trying to navigate through the Stadspark in the dark, somewhat intoxicated. Now he believed he had found his path back home. ‘I turned right and I was cycling on a narrow road, so I thought, maybe this is the bike track.’

Jan Evert Scholtenlaan | Photo c 2023 Airbus / Google Earth

A little further on, Marco began to realise something was amiss. ‘Everyone was flashing me, and suddenly I was like, oh shit, I’m on the highway! That’s the point where I became a bit worried. I thought: fuck, I’m going to die here!’

Marco managed to take the first exit, but he isn’t the first student to have this experience. Authorities aren’t surprised when they hear about yet another student mistakenly ending up on the ring road.

Dick de Waard, a traffic psychologist, understands what went wrong. ‘The confusion arises from the ongoing roadworks in that area. All traffic is diverted to a specific lane, and you have to cross the road multiple times. I can imagine that in the darkness, it’s even harder to discern the correct route.’

Still, says De Waard, you don’t accidentally end up on the freeway that easily. ‘It’s likely that the fact Marco had “a few” drinks played a significant role here’, he adds.

2. Westerhaven

Do cyclists have priority? Or cars? Perhaps pedestrians? Navigating the Westerhaven intersection near McDonald’s might be one of the most perplexing traffic scenarios in all of Groningen. It’s also one of the busiest spots.

Westerhaven | Image c Landsat-Copernicus / Google Earth

‘You can head towards the Noorderplantsoen, Aweg, Primark, or the city centre. And there are people going in all directions. That’s five paths of movement, which creates a lot of confusion’, says international law student Sofia Reyes. ‘No one has the right of way there. It’s like the Hunger Games. You just go whenever you find an opportunity.’

Particularly during peak hours, the Westerhaven intersection is not for the faint of heart. According to Sofia, though, ‘it’s all about timing’. ‘Even if other people technically have priority there, how are you going to just stop your bike in the middle of traffic with cars coming your way?’

De Waard acknowledges the Westerhaven intersection is not  an ‘optimal situation’. However, the bewilderment there is somewhat intentional, he says: ‘Purposefully confusing situations like this one can actually contribute to preventing accidents. The idea is to make people feel a bit uncertain there. As a result, they slow down, and that makes things safer.’

3. Eendrachtsbrug

Not far from Westerhaven’s ‘Hunger Games’, the Eendrachtsbrug intersection makes for yet another adrenaline rush. There may be traffic lights, but when they turn green for cyclists from all directions at once, will everyone manage to cross in time? 

Eendrachtsbrug | Image c Landsat-Copernicus / Google Earth

‘If you want to turn left, you have to wait for the other cyclists to go first. So you just sit in the middle of the road and hope to God they are fast enough so the traffic lights for the cars don’t turn green too soon. You’re just in the most awkward position’, says game design student Doruk Alkocak.

When he first encountered the intersection, Doruk was so puzzled, that he got off his bike and crossed as a pedestrian. ‘I was coming from Eendrachtsbrug and needed to go left. There’s a street to the right which is one-way traffic, so you can’t go there. But from my point of view, there was no left road, so I didn’t know what to do.’

Again, says De Waard, the confusion here is deliberate. ‘People prefer nicely delineated roads where they can go fast, and then there’s these vague areas where you share the road and it’s not clear who has priority. That forces you to slow down.’ The H.N. Werkman Bridge near the railway station is another example of that, he explains.

4. Eikenlaan

According to international business student Josie Aletrari, traffic situations don’t get more complicated than the crossing where the bike path to Zernike intersects with the Eikenlaan. And she should know, because she was involved in an accident at that exact spot. 

Eikenlaan crossing | Image c Landsat-Copernicus / Google Earth

‘I was trying to go straight ahead towards the campus, and there were so many bikes waiting to cross’, she recounts. ‘Meanwhile, another girl tried to turn left.’ 

Josie picked up her pace so she could make way for the other girl, but meanwhile, there was a motorcyclist going at full speed that didn’t care about all of the students trying to cross the road. ‘I ended up colliding with the motorcycle.’

Any student who has been here knows that there are just too many cyclists waiting to cross for the little space there is. ‘And the biking path is also very narrow’, De Waard agrees. ‘It’s such a high intensity of cyclists there, that the only solution would be an unlevel crossing; so either a tunnel for cyclists or a separation of the two traffic streams. This is a dangerous situation and probably will stay that way unless preventive measures are taken.’

5. Oude Boteringestraat

Last, but certainly not least, is the intersection between Oude Boteringestraat and Nieuwe Boteringestraat. A car could be barreling down Noorderhaven, so if your brakes don’t work very well, you’d better approach with caution. 

Boteringe crossing | Image c Landsat-Copernicus / Google Earth

International business student Andrea Meinero witnessed a collision firsthand: ‘A guy on a motorbike tried to cross, but there was a car that came speeding towards him. The car didn’t stop, and neither did the guy on the motorcycle, so they crashed into each other. Fortunately, it was nothing too bad for anyone.’

The crossing is especially tricky since cyclists coming from Oude Boteringestraat can’t really see if a car is coming on Noorderhaven. ‘I think that there is no clear signalling saying: be careful. Maybe a traffic light would make it safer’, Andrea says.

‘Traffic’s driving fast, it’s the inner ring road of the city. And due to the buildings, you can’t see in advance what is happening there’, De Waard confirms. It may not be clearly signalled, but there is an indication you shouldn’t speed up in the area though, and that’s the higher level at the end of the road. Making it even higher, or adding very broad speed bumps, would slow all down and make things even less confusing, believes the traffic psychologist.

*Marco is a pseudonym to protect the student’s privacy.