Negotiating more workable paths and traffic rules for bicyclists and those walking

Fifty years ago, Amsterdam’s roads were clogged with cars, drivers high on their newfound authority in the motor age. Their dominance has been eroded thanks to the efforts of a tireless cycling lobby, and especially the Fietsersbond (Cyclists’ Union). It won its most recent battle in March, when scooters were banned from bike paths after years of debate.

The Fietsersbond argues that Amsterdam, where 36 percent of journeys are made by bike, is nevertheless still stuck in a car-dominated paradigm, with cyclists squashed to the side and forced to cross twice when turning left. It says that road design that fails to take cyclists into account is a major reason for their perceived misbehavior.

What we can do is think together, advise, and campaign for public space to be designed in a way that leads to the least possible conflicts between the various parties that share the street, and in a way that ‘invites’ people to behave well,” wrote the Amsterdam chapter of the group in a document it created in response to complaints about cyclists’ behavior.

“Of course we are aware that a better design will not lead to every cyclist committing no traffic violations and behaving more socially. That is why the Fietsersbond continues to argue for more enforcement and education about traffic rules from the government.”

Could it be that the pressure on cyclists is one explanation for the pedestrian-bike conflict? That cyclists may behave unsociably because they are under stress themselves, due to insufficient infrastructure, crowded routes, and the need to negotiate cars, trams, and scooters?

Researchers at the Urban Cycling Institute at the University of Amsterdam say yes. They found that crowded streets spur cyclists to break the rules more, in an observational study in which they filmed 19,500 cyclists at nine intersections in Amsterdam over nine hours. They used the Copenhagenize “Desire Lines” analysis tool, which tracks cyclists’ paths and registers when they deviate from road markings and signals.

An overwhelming 87 percent of cyclists abided by the rules, compared to only 6 percent who cycled recklessly and dangerously (although there were no serious conflicts). The other 7 percent broke rules, but without endangering themselves or others.

Marco te Brömmelstroet, director of the institute and a professor at the University of Amsterdam, wrote in his Dutch-language summary of the results that cyclists are stressed by the small spaces meted out to them, especially during rush hour. Bike lanes are too narrow and there is too little space for cyclists waiting at a red light, causing them to block other cyclists or pedestrians. Poor design, in other words, leads cyclists to transgress.

The influx of tourists into the city has also generated impatience. Oblivious to the unwritten rules of the street and the locations of bike paths—many are the same color as the sidewalk—visitors step willy-nilly into them, sometimes brandishing selfie sticks. And then there are the tourists who rent bikes and zigzag unsurely in front of locals.

The municipality is aware of the stress that its cyclists face: report it published in 2017 found that cyclists feel the least safe of any party on Amsterdam’s streets, with an average rating of 6.1 out of 10, compared to 6.9 for pedestrians. Forty percent of cyclists experience busy areas as stressful. Some of their frustration is caused by other cyclists, due to crowded routes, only a small percentage of cyclists sticking out their hands to indicate turning, and half of bikes lacking working lights.

But trying to fix the cyclist-pedestrian conflict with more rules would inhibit cycling culture, according to te Brömmelstroet (as explained in this video). He thinks high volumes of cyclists are better left to self-regulate in a subtle choreography that he calls a “swarm.”

As Samuel Nello Deakin, a fellow researcher at the institute, puts it: “Ideally, you want as little formal regulation as possible. If you think of a highly regulated traffic environment, with traffic lights and so on, it’s largely based on a car-based logic … Whereas if everything is slower and a bit friendly, you can let things sort themselves out.”

Like te Brömmelstroet, Dello Neakin thinks that applying car-based rules to bikes won’t work. One reason for this is that cyclists crave efficiency, because there’s a physical cost to stopping or going farther than necessary, and they will therefore tend to make up their own rules when confronted with indirect routes and multiple traffic lights. However, that can change the balance of power on the street, Nello Deakin says.

“Of course, what happens in Amsterdam is that there is a critical mass of cyclists, which means they are in charge. So you have pedestrian crossings where in theory you would have right of way as a pedestrian, but it’s kind of expected that you let cyclists pass there.”

The institute’s stance is that cyclists and pedestrians will tend to “negotiate” at crossings using eye contact and gestures, citing studies that show removing external rules leads to more altruistic actions.

The municipality is embracing this ethos by removing traffic lights on busy cycling routes, saying that doing so “can lead to responsible and alert road users.” (The Fietsersbond supports this, as well as replacing junctions with roundabouts where cyclists have priority.)

The city government is also experimenting with shared spaces, which mix different traffic users together without formal signs or instructions, on the principle that this forces them to slow down and personally negotiate right of way, thereby creating a safer and more harmonious environment. One large shared-space area has been implemented behind Amsterdam Central Station.

A group of students from Hong Kong studying public policy at the University of Amsterdam’s summer school this summer found that people with disabilities experience these areas as stressful and dangerous, and go out of their way to avoid them. The people they interviewed said that drivers and cyclists do not slow down or take other road users into account, exploiting their relative speed and the lack of formal traffic regulations to ignore more vulnerable pedestrians.

A spokesperson for the city government said the city is aware that shared-space areas are challenging for those with disabilities, but “there is never a plan that pleases everyone,” and the design does improve the problem of traffic congestion.

Not everyone trusts the eye-contact method, however.

“If I’m walking or cycling by myself, then eye contact is usually enough to work out which one will go and which one will yield. But now I have a baby, I don’t trust eye contact enough. I’m more cautious,” said Menno van de Lustgraaf, 33, who was pushing his four-month-old son one day near the Ten Kate market. “Cyclists don’t stop for zebra crossings. Even if you have a stroller.”

Brouwer, who moved to the city’s outskirts out of her frustration with cyclists’ behavior, finds the new cycle-priority roads, where cars are “guests,” even more difficult to cross than car-dominated roads.

The designers gave zero consideration to the pedestrian who would like to cross to the other side. The cyclist doesn’t usually stop for a [crosswalk], but if there’s no crossings then they really don’t stop at all,” she said.

Despite the tensions, even the most beleaguered pedestrians say they’re proud of their city’s cycling culture. And the city government is eager to help it grow bigger, not least because it accounts for an estimated savings of €21.6 million (about $24 million) in health costs, €87.6 million ($97 million) on mobility, and 40,000 tons of carbon emissions in the five years to 2017. Helping cyclists and pedestrians coexist more happily is a challenge for the years ahead.

Sophie Knight is an Amsterdam-based journalist focusing on climate-related issues. She has written for The Financial TimesThe GuardianThe Sunday TelegraphQuartz, and other publications.