Through the eyes of a Google Street car

The resident Vehicular Cyclist Sect member of the UK Bike subreddit often disparages infrastructure, regardless of quality. More recently he has been persuaded to take a look at Amsterdam using Google Street view, and he did not approve.

AndyFatBoyMorris comments "Go on google maps, look at a few streets in Amsterdam, like this one, spot the gutter lane, notice the cyclists deciding weather to wait for their light phase or run the risk of a hook., Looks so much better than the crap we get. This street was the second one I looked at, the first was a shared use ( bikes and cars) back street."

Is this what Vehicular Cyclists actually believe?

A junction in Amsterdam

A much hyped Dutch junction. What’s so great about it?

So it’s not a gutter cycle lane, we can’t tell light timings from a photo, and the guy is clearly looking behind at the weird Google car covered in cameras. But it is a fair point, other than the dedicated space for cycling and cycle specific lights it doesn’t blow you away, though I can see two large improvements over typical UK infrastructure.

  • People walking and cycling can cross all lanes at once, there’s no pig-pen in the middle.
  • The light phases don’t allow for right turning cars to cross and conflict with people walking and cycling straight ahead.

So why doesn’t the junction look like the solution to the UK’s disastrous approach to transport?

The problem is that Google Street View is very good for looking at what’s been built, but not at all good for showing why, nor that statistics showing that roads in the Netherlands are the safest in the world. Something must be working. Indeed just a bit up the road you can see the hordes of bikes parked outside shops as well as spaces for motor vehicles.

bike parking

Parking for everyone; bikes, cars, motorbikes, and lorries.

So why is the quality of the junction, while superior to anything in the UK, not so important?

Dutch cities are managed at much larger scales than single junctions, which imbues the city with an entirely different philosophy, so even if some infrastructure is a bit bollocks (the cycling city of the world ain’t Amsterdam) this isn’t as important as the overall design.

So on the Google Street View of the junction you’ll notice there’s not many cars. It’s probably always like that, as it’s not a useful through road for cars. You’ll notice the other way there’s quite a lot of people cycling, but still not many cars. Is it always like that? I don’t know, and Google Street View can’t tell us. We need more information.

junction angle 2

The same junction from a different angle. More people on bikes than on cars, it must be bliss!

Google Maps still isn’t completely useless. By having a play around with the directions we can see that that junction would probably only be used used if you are travelling from the west into the Jordaan district. Again, Google Maps can tell us that this is an area riddled with narrow, confusing, one way (to motor traffic only!) streets. This is not a good place to be if you are in a car, there’s far better routes that will take you to your destination faster.

Jordaan amsterdam area bridge

The junction would only be useful if you’re travelling from A to somewhere near B. Try it yourself.

There’s a wealth of information out there, so you can learn about how the Dutch make transport work for everyone. I highly recommend David Hembrow’s blog, which is an excellent source that expertly puts junctions like this into the larger context. Mark Treasure praised David Hembrow for exactly that reason, and describes a road in Utrecht that looks awful.

In a UK context, the layout is, in principle, pretty appalling, with the narrow cycle lanes, the pinch points, and the door zone issues, but in practice these issues don’t really matter, essentially because this street has very low motor traffic volume – roughly equivalent to a lightly-trafficked suburban street. Four vehicles over the course of a two-minute video, taken at about 4pm on a Friday, equates roughly to around 100-200 vehicles per hour, gives some idea of the (motor) traffic volume.

So being Dutch cannot just be about street based infrastructure. Though it’s very important to get the details right (or we could build the best junctions in the world everywhere, at incredible cost!) individual junctions cannot fix the root causes of our transport problems. More strategy is needed, and copying or judging what we see from the point of view of a Google car is not going to be enough.


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