Thursday, June 02, 2011

Straten Van Amsterdam - Streets Of Amsterdam

It is remarkable how little traffic congestion there is in central Amsterdam. The city is densely populated, and the streets were laid out between the middle ages and the seventeenth century, when there was little traffic except for pedestrians.

Though the streets are filled with pedestrians and bicycles, there are relatively few cars and trucks - and there are none of the traffic jams that are common in American cities that have lower densities and wider streets and freeways. Cars have to wait for pedestrians and bikes, but they do not get stuck in backups of cars. They are accustomed to driving cautiously, and there is little road rage. Drivers are willing to wait patiently for a moment in situations where American drivers would leaning on their horns to get people out of their way.

There are three major street types in central Amsterdam - in the area within the Singelgracht (which was the protective moat around the seventeenth-century city.

The most common type of street has one lane for traffic. The sidewalk generally is not at a different level from the street; instead, it is protected by bollards. Cars share the one lane with bicyclists. Usually, cars pass bicyclists, but the narrow street forces them to slow down to pass. Sometimes, bicyclists make cars follow behind them at bicycle speed, as shown in the picture below.

The narrow sidewalk areas are sometimes blocked by parked bicycles or by people who have stopped to talk. Sometimes, the steps of house protrude into the sidewalk area, as shown in the picture below. As a result, pedestrians are often forced to spill over into the street to avoid obstacles, which slows down traffic even further.

A second type of street has four lanes (in addition to bike lanes), one in each direction for mixed traffic and one in each direction for trams, as shown in the picture below. Even in these collector streets, the widest streets in central Amsterdam, traffic flows in one lane. Everyone drives at the speed of the slower cars, because there is no fast lane.

A third type of street is the steeg (alley), shown below, which is too narrow for cars to use except for occasional deliveries.

You would expect these medieval and seventeenth-century streets to be too narrow for the traffic of a dense, modern city. But notice that there are no cars in sight in the picture of the major street above. You can routinely cross major streets without going to the crosswalk because there are so few cars.

How is it that Amsterdam is far less congested and less frustrating for drivers than Los Angeles, a city that is less dense and that has wide streets and freeways?

In part, it is a matter of incentives. There is very little automobile parking in Amsterdam. Residents can buy permits that let them park in their own neighborhoods, but anyone without a permit must pay 8 Euros per hour to park on the street. As a result, people store their cars on the street but use their cars primarily to drive out of the city on vacation, and they bicycle to destinations in the city.

Even more important, the city was built at a time when walking was the most common form of transportation, so it works well for pedestrians and has been easy to adapt to the bicycle. It does not work for cars, which discourages driving. Thus, the city can charge so much for parking, because there is so little parking available.

Most important, the Netherlands has a strong bicycle culture, which is part of its larger cultural bias. International surveys have shown that more people have "post-materialist values" in the Netherlands than in any other country. In 1950, the Dutch worked longer hours than Americans; now they work 70% to 75% as many hours per year as Americans. Many of them would rather have more time to live well rather than consuming more - and one of the best ways to reduce expenses is by bicycling. This, I think, is the deepest reason that Amsterdam's streets are filled with bicycles and have not filled up to capacity with cars, as the streets of Paris and most other older cities have. They clearly live better as a result of this cultural bias, with less traffic congestion and less road rage than other cities.

Though Amsterdam's streets work very well, today's traffic engineers would never allow streets to be designed in this way. The first type of street that we looked at is the most common and the most pleasant type of street in the city. It works so well because pedestrians are constantly spilling from the narrow sidewalks into the roadway, slowing traffic. Traffic engineers would never allow obstacles to block the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk in the street. They would say it is unsafe. But in reality, those pedestrians help to make the streets safer by slowing traffic.

The streets work well in the central parts of Amsterdam, where they developed over time with little planning - and with no planning to accommodate the automobile. But in the outer parts of Amsterdam, developed after World War II, the streets were designed by traffic engineers, who based their designs on projected demand for road space and for parking.

As a result, the outer parts of the city have commercial areas like the one shown below, with parking between the sidewalk and the stores. This works for cars, but does not create attractive shopping streets for pedestrians.

And the outer parts of the city have streets devoted to automobile traffic, like the one shown below.

Only traffic engineers could design such an ugly, pedestrian-hostile street - the same traffic engineers who will not let us design narrow streets and sidewalks like the streets that attract people to central Amsterdam.


Blogger Jim Moore said...

It is worth noting in the last picture that this seemingly pedestrian-unfriendly intersection appears to have segregated cycling paths. Quite probably it could do with what Americans call a 'road diet' to reduce the number of motor vehicle lanes to improve conditions for pedestrians and the shops and businesses along the road.

I have just found your blog today and already have saved for future reference the articles on Amsterdam's bikes, noise and streets, and the work-time one. To quote that famous Dutch character Goldmember, they're all keepers!

Thanks once again, from a now-reformed traffic engineer in Australia. I have added your blog to my newsreader.

PS Other useful Dutch blogs I like are David Hembrow's View from the Cycling Path, which has many blogs on cycling infrastructure in Holland (not so much Amsterdam), and Amsterdamize for the pretty pictures of daily cycling in that city. And the Dutch Cycling Union's site is good too and has quite a few articles in English.

9:27 PM  

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