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Cycling is encouraged as a solution to keep Dutch cities liveable and healthy. But as more people take to the bike, Dutch cities face a new challenge: traffic jams - for cyclists! To improve the traffic flow for bikes, Utrecht City Council has opened a hotline where cyclists can report stoplights that cause traffic build-ups.
Probably the most notorious traffic lights for cyclists in the centre of Utrecht. Photo © Holland-Cycling.comProbably the most notorious traffic lights for cyclists in the centre of Utrecht. Photo ©

Bikes replaces cars

Like urban areas all over the world, cities in Holland have had to deal with the problems of traffic congestion, pollution and overfull car parks. Cars have been discouraged to enter the busy city centres and the use of bikes has been stimulated as a healthy, environmentally friendly and more convenient alternative. The Dutch have done themselves proud as a cycling nation and have taken to their bikes en masse. This has led to an unexpected side effect: traffic jams on the cycle paths.

Utrecht is one of the cities with the highest number of cyclists. Around a quarter of the daily journeys in and around the city are made by bike. Most of the day you’ll have no problems cycling through the centre of Utrecht. But come rush hour, you might suddenly find yourself in the middle of a traffic jam. One of the busiest places is the Neude. Four years ago this bottle neck had to cope with 18,700 cyclists per day. It is estimated that in 2020 this number will have increased to 22,400!

Report a traffic light

In recent years Utrecht has already invested a lot in bike infrastructure (See: World’s largest bike parking facility), but faulty signal timing is causing build-ups on the cycle paths during rush hour. So now Utrecht City Council is focussing on making the traffic flow for bikes better by improving signal timing for cyclists. And who better to ask for advice than the cyclists who are experts on the traffic lights they come across every day?

The idea behind this project is simple. If you think a traffic light is unnecessary or the waiting time is too long, you can report the 'offending' traffic light on the Utrecht City Council website (in Dutch). Not only can you say what the problem is, you can also come up with a solution. Utrecht City Council says it will use this feedback to tackle the problem of bike traffic jams. Cyclists are happy with this initiative. Immediately after the hotline was opened an impressive 1500 reports on traffic lights came in.

Division of space

Asking cyclists to report problem traffic lights is a great start in the battle against bike traffic jams. But is it enough? In most cities infrastructure is still pretty much car-dominated. Looking at the video below in which Mark Wagenbuur shows Utrecht's busy cycle paths, one can't help noticing the contrast between the narrow cycle lanes packed with bikes and the broad roads with surprisingly few cars. It seems such a waste of space. Hopefully Utrecht's next step will be to reconsider how to divide the road between cars and bikes.

Wednesday afternoon in Utrecht (14 November 2012, 2 p.m.). Busy streets, but once the light turns green all the waiting cyclists can pass the junction. In the morning and evening rush hour that can be different. This junction is clearly not well constructed for cyclists. Video by Mark Wagenbuur.