Survival of the fietsest
The large yellow signs can be spotted from far away. Up close, their message becomes clear. ‘Watch out! Change in situation!’
It’s Monday morning, well after rush hour. Nevertheless, the Wilgenpad/Eikenlaan intersection is extremely busy. Earlier this month, the new bike path connecting the city centre to the Zernike campus was opened.
The municipality has considerably widened the path, taking it from two and a half metres to four metres wide, spokesperson Floor Olijve says. ‘It was necessary because of the large number of cyclists using it.’
Fifteen to twenty thousand people use the new path every day. The path has been dubbed the ‘Pink carpet’, not just because of its width, but because of the concrete’s bright colour, which distinguishes it from the motorway.
And to top it all off, cyclists on the pink carpet have the right of way on the busy Wilgenpad/Eikenlaan intersection. It’s all part of the status of ‘smart route’ that the municipality has bestowed upon the Wilgenpad. It’s a special route for students travelling from the city centre to the Zernike campus or vice versa.
During the first few weeks of the path’s implementation, traffic controllers were posted to regulate traffic, but people are now left to fend for themselves. Many motorists find themselves abruptly braking. Sometimes, only in the nick of time. ‘Watch out! Change in situation!’ the yellow signs proclaim, but they might as well be invisible.
When you think of Groningen, you think of bicycles. Our northern city is famous for it, even abroad. There are few places in the world where cyclists have it as good as they do here. And for good reason: as far back as the seventies, the municipality decided to consciously stimulate the use of bicycles in the city.
But anyone witnessing the close calls – and actual accidents – at that Wilgenpad/Eikenlaan intersection has to face facts: cyclists are vulnerable. Especially at an intersection as dangerous as this one. And it’s not the only one. What are the number one cycling city’s spots you have to look out for?
‘These are the locations that came up most often during our meetings with for example local residents’, says municipality spokesperson Olijve about the list of dangerous locations. What is it that turns these intersections into bottlenecks?
‘Almost always, it’s caused by other people’s unpredictable behaviour’, says Dick de Waard, assistant professor of transportation psychology and mobility preservation at the RUG. ‘That’s what makes these places dangerous.’
In traffic, you are constantly assessing situations: what is that car going to do? Is that bus turning now, or is it waiting? Can I pass in front of that truck in time? The more difficult to assess a situation, the more risk you run. That’s because there are too many roads leading into the intersection, because it’s very busy, or because you can’t properly see what is happening.
Without a care
The Wilgenpad/Eikenlaan intersection is a textbook case. The Wilgenpad transports twenty thousand cyclists each day. The Eikenlaan is a favourite with motorists, not just because it provides access to the northern neighbourhoods, but also because it leads to the ring road. Trees and fences make it difficult for motorists to see cyclists. But the cyclists cross the road without a care. And why shouldn’t they? Surely the cars will stop for them.
‘I’m a fervent cyclist myself, but sometimes it’s actually safer to deny them the right of way’, says De Waard. ‘They’re crossing in front of a large traffic stream at the Eikenlaan: two bicycle paths and two motorways.’
He is not the only one questioning the new situation’s efficacy. Then again, the situation isn’t a definitive one. The municipality will keep a close watch to see if the changes at the Wilgenpad/Eikenlaan intersection lead to congestion or accidents, Olijve explains. ‘After 1 November, we’ll decide on how to proceed.’
If the priority situation remains, the municipality could decide to improve the intersection even further. ‘Measures to slow down cars, for example, to make it even safer.’
The municipality has plans for other dangerous intersections as well. For example, they want the Korreweg to become a cycling street. And this week, construction has started on a bicycle roundabout at the infamous Wilhelminakade/Prinsesseweg intersection.
According to De Waard, the roundabout plans are looking good. ‘The cars will have to keep their distance from the cyclists, that’s safer. They’ve improved the sight lines. And the decisions that people have to make have been spread out.’ Crossing the intersection while saying a prayer will soon be over.
Getting rid of the rules
Making a traffic situation safer needs a three-pronged approach, advises De Waard. ‘Intervening in the infrastructure, information, and enforcement’, he sums up. When it comes to the Wilhelminakade/Prinsesseweg situation, the roundabout is prong one. ‘You can use signs to inform people.’ And if people continue to refuse to abide by the new rules? ‘You could have them ticketed.’
There is another way to make road traffic safer: get rid of all the rules. No, seriously.
‘It’s called shared space, and it often works really well’, De Waard enthuses. ‘In a shared space, you actually utilise other people’s unpredictability. Traffic lights, signs, and kerb edges are deliberately left out. Everyone in traffic is each other’s equal, and no one has the right of way.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the opposite is actually true. ‘Because there are no rules, people have nothing to depend on. They solve that by looking out for each other and making contact’, De Waard explains. ‘On top of that, the uncertainty makes people slow down.’ That means that collisions, when they happen, aren’t as severe.
Simultaneous green lights
There is a typically Groningen phenomenon that is very similar to the concept of shared space: the simultaneous green lights for cyclists. At almost all intersections in the city, the cyclists’ traffic lights simultaneously go green from all directions.
The normal priority rules go out the window: getting across the intersection alive is a matter of looking out and clever navigation. Newcomers to the city have no idea what’s going on the first few times. Interesting detail: Rotterdam experimented with the simultaneous green intersections once. There were two accidents almost immediately, and the experiment the experiment was cancelled after half a day.
‘Simultaneous green works really well for cyclists’, says Olijve. ‘Cyclists going left only have to cross once.’ In other situations, they would first have to cross the road, turn their bicycle and then wait for another green light, according to the municipality spokesperson. What a hassle.
Additionally, simultaneous green means no one has to worry about motorists at the intersection. ‘This makes it a very safe situation for cyclists. Ten years ago, blind spot accidents (ed.: a cyclist going straight while a truck goes right) used to happen a few times a year. Now they don’t happen at all.’
Dick de Waard is a little more careful with his conclusions. ‘The simultaneous green system is an efficient system, that’s true, but it can’t just be used anywhere. There has to be enough space for people to navigate around each other. It’s not remotely as efficient at small intersections.’ Figuring it out is a skill. ‘People do complain about it quite a bit. Especially older people find it frightening.’