It's the Design Guide, Stupid - American vs. Dutch Cycling Infrastructure

There are many myths explaining why so many people in the Netherlands cycle. I have heard it all: from explanations relating to altitude and elevations (“The Netherlands is flat”) to analyses of the Dutch genetic form (“They are more suitable to cycling”). I’ve even heard that the Dutch prefer the bicycle over the car because they are so damn cheap.

Of course these stories are nonsense. The 21th century Dutch cycles because the Netherlands is home to great, complete and safe infrastructure. While other countries keep making the same excuses for not becoming a cycling heaven, the Dutch just build better infrastructure. And while some nations, like the Danes, successfully follow the Dutch model: providing safe paths for cyclists, others don’t quite do so.

Case in point: I’ve recently made a plan for a new bicycle lane. Since the relevant street is somewhat narrow - the possibilities for the bicycle lane’s design were limited. I decided to consult several bicycle design guides, in order to investigate the minimum width for a bicycle lane that would still provide a safe and convenient cycling experience.

Two of the more comprehensive design guides out there are the American NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide and the Dutch CROW’s Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic. The former is a stylish design guide, a must in every planner’s library. If not for the design schemes in it, then for how it visualizes them. This guide can be read by anyone interested in cycling solutions for cities, and not just professionals: it’s clean and clear.

The CROW guide looks pale in comparison to its American counterpart. The graphs in it are technical and seem like they were taken from a 60’s planning book. They are intended for professionals - not for the public. Just comparing the covers of the guides can tell the style difference between the two.

NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide

But never judge a book by its cover! At the end, schemes from design guides are implemented in our streets. If the guide doesn’t offer first-class design examples, it doesn’t help that it’s chicly designed. I much rather prefer stodgy diagrams as long as they help planners to create great places.

The ‘boring’ Dutch guide offers so much more than the American one. Just by comparing how the guides suggest to build bicycles lanes and tracks, we can see the difference in infrastructure quality. Bicycle infrastructure is more than just lanes and tracks: interactions and connectivity are also important. But let’s focus now on the straightaways.

Conventional Bike Lanes

Bike lanes are typically on the right side of the street, between the adjacent travel lane and curb, road edge, or parking lane.” (NACTO’s guide, page 3)

While the Dutch guide recommends bicycle lanes in 50km/h roads to be 2m/6.5ft wide, the American guide states that the desirable width would be 1.8m/6ft. The later suggests that the minimum width of the lane can be even 0.91m/3ft. 91 cm bike lane! That’s insane. The minimum width of a bike lane in the Dutch guide is 1.5m/4.9ft. Not optimal, but definitely the safer option.

Minimum width of a bike lane, according to NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide

Minimum width of a bike lane, according to CROW’s Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic

Recommended width of a bike lane, according to CROW’s Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic

One-Way Protected Cycle Tracks

Bikeways that are at street level and use a variety of methods for physical protection from passing traffic.” (NACTO’s guide, page 29)

Again, the Dutch are much more generous with the space they give cyclists. The cycle tracks in the Netherlands are decided according to the number of cyclists per hour. They should be between 2m/6.5ft to 4m/13ft. In the US? Between 1.52m/5ft and 2.1m/7ft.

Minimum width of a protected cycle track, according to NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide

Minimum width of a protected cycle track, according to CROW’s Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic

The differences between the design guides are not just cosmetic. Half a meter can be the difference between a stressful adventure and a great cycling experience. That’s one of the differences that make so many Dutch people to pick the bike when they need to go somewhere. Wide and safe infrastructure is what brings the masses – and not only the fanatics - to cycle.

Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.