Lessons from the World’s Cycling Capital

In Amsterdam, bicycling has become so popular that government officials now identify bike congestion as a major transportation problem. Particularly at intersections, bike congestion causes queues that make it difficult to move everyone through the intersection in one signal cycle. This is an issue that pro-bike planners and city officials in the U.S. can barely fathom until they see it.

Earlier today we met with Meredith Glaser* for a tour of Amsterdam by bike to see some of Amsterdam’s challenges and solutions when it comes to cycling infrastructure.

Turning Off the Lights

It’s almost hard to believe, but Amsterdam has found that turning off traffic lights has improved the flow and safety at some intersections. Meredith brought us to the intersection of Alexanderplein and Sarphatistraat to watch this kind of Dutch magic in action. At first, it was hard to see what was so special about this intersection because it seemed to be working seamlessly–and then we realized that none of the traffic signals were on.

Cyclists, pedestrians, light rail trams, and cars all “dance” through the intersection with relative ease and with little delay.

In a survey of residents prior to the change, planners found that at least 95% of residents did not think it was a good idea to turn off the traffic signals. However, seeing its success has changed minds and residents are now more open to trying this treatment at other intersections.

Amsterdam’s First Bicycle Street

Along Sarphatistraat is Amsterdam’s first bicycle street, which was recently constructed in the past two weeks. A street sign at the beginning of the street reads “fietsstraat | auto te gast,” or “bicycle street | automobile is a guest.” On one side is a curb that provides separation from the light rail and through travel lanes and on the other side a double dashed line separates on-street parking from the street. The street itself is painted red to denote that bikes have priority in the space. During rush hour it is easy for bikes to ride five abreast.

Curbing the Protection

The intersection of Mr. Treublaan and Weesperzijde is one of the busiest intersections for bikes in Amsterdam. It can easily see 3,500 cyclists during its peak rush hour.

Because of this, the corner refuge islands that make it into a protected intersection have created pinch points for cyclists. This leads to longer queues and delays for cyclists from feeder streets with the most cyclists. To solve this issue, the City has removed one corner refuge island and replaced it with a large bike box. From this corner, diagonal movements are possible, although not sanctioned by the City because it would require a much longer signal cycle.

*Meredith Glaser works as an urban planner and consultant for Copenhagenize Design Company and as an editor the Amsterdam Cycle Chic blog on the side.