«Our streets are too narrow for cycle paths»

I’ve lost count of how often people have tried to convince me that their city’s streets are too narrow to have cycling infrastructure. The three words “not enough space” are repeated as if they are a mantra.

It is often genuinely believed that Dutch towns were built with wider streets and that there is therefore more space here than in other countries. Of course, that’s not true at all. If you look around an older city like Assen (over 750 years old) then you find many narrow streets just as you would with any older city in another country. Newer wider streets in the Netherlands are also similar in width to newer wider streets elsewhere. It’s the modern day usage of the space which is different, not the width of the streets themselves.

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Take a good look at the photo above which shows one of the streets in Assen in 2014. Quite clearly there’s “not enough space” here now to accommodate motor vehicles. When people see streets like this then they often guess that there was never enough room and that therefore this street was always much as it is today.

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However, that’s not actually the case. Look back to 1957 and we find that this same street was completely different. There was an asphalt through road in this location, and it was quite a busy road which could accommodate large vehicles in both directions. While the gap between those buildings looks small, it is in fact just enough to accommodate this traffic so long as you don’t mind that pedestrians must cross only at certain places and can walk safely only on one side of the street. Note that no separate space at all was allocated for safe cycling. Cyclists had to use the road along with trucks, buses and cars. There is of course no longer a bus route through this location.

1970s city centre street in Assen. No room for cycle-paths here either. Traffic lights were required to deal with the cars in this location.
1970s city centre street in Assen. No room for cycle-paths here either. Traffic lights were required to deal with the cars in this location.

I suspect that this is starting to sound like a familiar situation to some readers in other countries and it was certainly familiar to Dutch cyclists in the 1950s.

The same location in 2014. We don't need traffic lights any more because cars are no longer driven through here
The same location in 2014. We don’t need traffic lights any more because cars are no longer driven through here

An observer in the 1950s in the Netherlands might well have pointed out that this street had “not enough space” for a cycle-path at that time. i.e. exactly the same objection as people give about their streets now. And of course they’d be right if the streets were viewed as having to always manage the same combination of vehicles as was the case in 1950s Assen.

1960s. Pedestrians squeezed to the edge while a lone cyclist waits with drivers for a traffic light
1960s. Pedestrians squeezed to the edge while a lone cyclist waits with drivers for a traffic light

So where did the space for people, pedestrians and cyclists, come from? It came from right underneath where motor vehicles used to be. A second revolution on Dutch streets was required to change things. A decision was made to effect real change. This was not limited to just a few streets, but spread across cities and even the entire nation. Traffic was redirected so that residential areas and the centres of cities could be reclaimed by people.

Now: Pedestrianized with good cycle access
Now: Pedestrianized with good cycle access

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that cycling was in decline in the Netherlands while streets were dominated by cars. It’s not difficult to work out why. Transforming the streets reversed this decline. As you look at these photos, consider how convenient and how safe it was to cycle on the streets of Assen in the past vs. how convenient and safe it is today.

1960s: Main through routes for motor vehicles and cyclists alike
1960s: Main through routes for motor vehicles and cyclists alike
Now: Still accessible by motor vehicle but very much a downgraded route. Still a busy through route by bicycle, which no longer has traffic lights around the corner.
Now: Still accessible by motor vehicle but very much a downgraded route. Still a busy through route by bicycle, which no longer has traffic lights around the corner.
1940s: Major intersection, in this case busier than usual due to an event. Traffic stopped at a junction.
1940s: Major intersection, in this case busier than usual due to an event. Traffic stopped at a junction.
Now: A pleasant place to sit and have a drink. Bicycles flow freely here and it is no longer a bus route
Now: A pleasant place to sit and have a drink. Bicycles flow freely here and it is no longer a bus route
1974: Assen city centre was a car park. The car park was often full.
1974: Assen city centre was a car park. The car park was often full.
Now: Assen city centre is a square with cycle parking and where events are held. There's no longer any need to have the streets leading to this area dominated by cars. Note that small children are free to cycle even in the city centre.
Now: Assen city centre is a square with cycle parking and where events are held. There’s no longer any need to have the streets leading to this area dominated by cars. Note that small children are free to cycle even in the city centre.

People often believe that Dutch cities somehow have more space than other countries. As you can see from these photos, it’s simply not true. What happened in Assen and across the Netherlands was that planning on a large scale gave streets a defined purpose rather than all of them operating in a chaotic manner as through routes by car. Motor vehicles were not prioritized above all other transport but careful considerations were made of where they should go and where they should not. Busy roads still exist, but careful junction design removes conflict.

Streets where cyclists and pedestrians needed to go weretransformed to exclude through motor traffic.

When ring roads were built, old main roads became pleasant routes for bicycles and crossings were nearly always grade separated.

When a new route was required to take cyclists to the centre of a city from a new suburb, the original direct route was turned over to cyclists and the driving route took a required detour to traffic lights.

Drivers are now kept away from the city centre by a special type of one-way system leaving what were once the busiest city centre streets to cyclists and pedestrians. A similar network of one-way streets is used in residential areas.

Shops cater for cyclists with parking by the door, while car parks are by necessity larger and more remote.

Residential streets were treated in a similar way, even the narrowest now serving as bidirectional through routes for bicycles while being made useful for access only by car.
Residential streets were treated in a similar way, even the narrowest now serving as bidirectional through routes for bicycles while being made useful for access only by car.

Together with an extensive grid of high quality cycle paths, these changes have resulted innearly 100% segregation of cyclists from drivers. Cycling routes are largely unravelled from driving routes, resulting in lower noise, less danger and cyclists having the most direct routes and fastest journeys possible. This is what makes cycling extremely attractive tothe entire population.

Of course it’s not just Assen but every Dutch city which has done this and they have all been successful. Nothing stops other countries from making similar changes. There is no better time for other countries to start a similar transformation than today.

See the result of the transformation for yourself. We visit these locations on our study tours.

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