This past week, Seattle Greenways advocates learned about the Dutch approach to traffic safety. After brief progress updates from represented neighborhoods, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Director, Cathy Tuttle turned the meeting over to Fred Young, Landscape Architect with Alta Planning+ Design.
Young recently returned from touring The Netherlands to study traffic design, alternative transportation as well as the interactions among bicycles, cars and pedestrians. He enhanced his presentation with his own photos and a video, “How the Dutch got their cycle paths.”
Contrary to popular belief, bicycling is popular in Holland not just because of flat terrain. Those who watch the attached video will learn as meeting attendees learned, the Dutch didn’t always have the bicycling reputation that now exists. Just as in the United States following World War II, there was an economic boom which among other things resulted in a surge of cars and the ensuing traffic and decrease in quality of life. However, two major occurrences heralded the rebirth of bicycling for the Dutch. In 1971 there were 3,300 fatalities involving bicyclists and pedestrians, 400 of which were children under 14. The people came out in droves demonstrating for safer streets and the ending of the slaughter of their children. The government listened. Then with the 1973 oil crisis, the conditions were set for establishing a bicycling culture.
Though some of this history was similar to what was occurring in the United States, Young explained the different choices made by the Dutch. The people of The Netherlands demanded safe streets for their children, bicyclists and pedestrians. They also saw their quality of life was suffering from the automobile glut. In addition, according to Young, there was political will to make the changes necessary to move the population away a car-centric and energy-dependent culture. Bicycle infrastructure development was a nation-wide effort and viewed by the Dutch as for the common good hence, very little resistance existed toward the development of bicycle infrastructure.
Three principles guided the design of the Dutch system of sustainable safety. It would prevent accidents, minimize injuries, and enable even the most vulnerable users feel safe. Furthermore, Young explained that the system was organized around three types of roads: local, distributor and through-roads. Speeds were determined by the type of road, the third of which, through-roads, are most like our freeways. Sustainable safety focuses on comfort for the bicyclist. In some cases, one-way streets are designed so they are one-way for cars while two-way for bicycles. Entry to distributor lanes is always to the right, some streets are primarily for pedestrians and bicycles with cars viewed as ‘guests’ added Young. In 1998, a law was passed that imposed the burden of safety on the automotive driver. Improvements from 2009 through 2012 included greater development of separated lanes where the red asphalt was laid down to indicate bike ways.
Though seen by Americans as nearly perfect, the Dutch continue to analyze the development of their infrastructure. One traffic designer when asked by Young, replied “It could be so much better.” A simple take-away for Seattle is to:
- Prioritize safety for all users
- Slow speeds on local streets
- Develop a complete network
Michael Weisman of Ballard summed the application of sustainable safety for Seattle Greenways “[It’s about getting] bikes and pedestrians safely across intersections, not cars safety across greenways.”