Review: A perfect bicycle route in Utrecht

The bicycle route between the inner city of Utrecht, the Netherlands and its outlying university is what I consider to be a perfect bicycle route.  As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a specific name, but it consists of a bidirectional bicycle path along the east side of Waterlinieweg, Pythagoraslaan and Archimedeslaan.  I’ll call it the Archimedeslaan path, or Archimedespad for short.

For virtual ride along the route, check out the following video by Dutch cycling blogger Mark Wagenbuur.  He starts roughly in the middle of the line on the map above and heads toward point A, which he reaches about 2 minutes in.

This bicycle path is far from exceptional in The Netherlands, I chose it simply because it’s a route I have used several times.  There are countless other routes in the Netherlands that are just as good.

First thing a North American rider would notice about this route is that there is absolutely no interaction with motor traffic.  It’s barely even nearby!  Immediately adjacent to the path is a busway with a 70 km/h speed limit (50 km/h at intersections), and private motor traffic is on the other side of it.

Complete separation of movements
Complete separation of movements

Providing so much separation between cyclists and motorists has the potential to actually increase collisions, because the road users are less visible to each other.  But of course Dutch traffic engineers have solved this potential issue.  Every motor vehicle movement that crosses the path is controlled by dedicated traffic signals.

In the photo above, you can see that traffic turning left across the busway and bike path has a completely separate signal from traffic travelling straight.  There is therefore no risk that a turning motorist cut off a cyclist by not seeing them.   This is the key detail that is typically missing on the similar-looking paths we have here in North America.

The main excuse I hear from our engineers to explain the lack of protected signal phases for traffic movements across bicycle paths is that protected signal phases increase delay and reduce capacity. Along the Archimedespad, delay is managed by having traffic signals that are highly responsive to real-time traffic movement, rather than simply cycling through a pre-timed sequence.  At relatively major cross-streets such as at Leuvenlaan pictured below, bicycle phases are provided on-demand, and bicycles are detected in advance using dual-loop detectors*.  When a bicycle is detected, the signal switches as soon as possible to the bicycle phase.  Outside of rush hour, that means immediately.

Dual loop detector in advance of traffic signal. Also note the perfectly smooth crossing - no bumping over curbs.
Dual loop detector in advance of Leuvenlaan traffic signal.
Also note the perfectly smooth crossing: no bumping over curbs.

At driveways and minor streets, the opposite is true. The signal rests in green for the bicycle path, and provides cross-street phases as vehicles arrive. Capacity is not a particular issue at the traffic signals along the path because the cross-streets are all relatively minor.  The Netherlands has a policy of consolidating motor traffic movement onto major arterials and expressways, where it does not bother or endanger people going about their daily lives.  The Archimedespad crosses those types of roads using underpasses – so there is no delay to cyclists and no impact on motor traffic capacity.

No delay at major arterials - simply pass underneath!
No delay at major arterials – simply pass underneath!

The underpasses themselves are fairly well designed, with adequate lighting and clear sightlines from one end through to the other.  The geometric design allows for high speeds within the tunnels, allowing cyclists to maintain their momentum from descending into the tunnel to get up the ramp on the other side.

Decent lighting and clear sightlines in the tunnels.
Decent lighting and clear sightlines in the tunnel under the A28.

Working with the framework of my Bicycle Route Report Card, I came up with a score of 97% for the Archimedespad.  The full report can be viewed here.

The only actual fault I could find was the social safety aspect.  Although the path is lit and has clear sightlines, I’m still not sure how safe people would feel riding along it at night.

The other two deductions were really nitpicking.  According to my formula for directness, the path scores only 4 out of 5, and I took off a mark on effort because I was once stopped at a traffic signal even though no one else was around**.

If the Archimedespad makes accommodating cycling along a suburban arterial road seem easy, that’s because it is.  Waterloo Region would do well by copying the standard practice exemplified here: rather than providing scary on-street bike lanes often supplemented by a conflict-ridden multi-use trail that requires dismounting at every intersection, simply provide a bicycle path that is fast and safe for everyone.

*A dual loop detector compares the signals from two adjacent induction loops to deduce a vehicle’s speed and direction.  In Ontario they are commonly used to monitor traffic characteristics on arterial roads and expressways.  Along the Archimedespad, they are used to prevent bicycles from triggering the signal when they are travelling away from the intersection.  Even though the detector only covers the half of the path heading toward the intersection, a cyclist could still be travelling in the opposite direction while overtaking.

**The loop detector northbound at Leuvenlaan (pictured above) was not installed far enough away from the intersection to provide me green by the time I arrived – I was stopped for about a second before the light changed.

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