While I’m waiting for some photos of Vilnius to come back from the camera shop, I wanted to write about another issue that came up in my mind when visiting Amsterdam.
When talking about city planning, we do a lot of talking about how the roads should be laid out, what kind of cycling-specific infrastructure we need or don’t need, how we should limit on-street parking or allow it and use it to create separated lanes, or how to interact with streetcars and other modes of transportation. All of this is certainly important, and needs to be thought through carefully and planned well. The physical built environment has to encourage the behavior we want to see happen.
But there’s another equally important issue to consider in all of this. The law.
Let’s consider this road that was outside our apartment in Amsterdam.
So, what you have here on the near side of the street is sidewalk, then the bike path, then another bit of sidewalk, then the road. At each perpendicular street intersection, there is a kind of ramped curb or driveway from the street up onto the sidewalk/bike path from the left, and then back down on the other side of the sidewalk to the street on the right-hand side. This allows cars to cross, and people in the bike paths to turn left or right out of the bike bike path. Because the bike path/sidewalk is continuous, and not the road, it sends the message that the cars are entering space which is designated for non-motorized traffic and that the bikes and pedestrians have priority to keep moving across the street, and not the other way around. This is one of the many benefits of well-designed roads. You can see some of this more clearly on this photo of a larger road, which has tram tracks down the middle – note the continuous bike path across the intersecting street, and the ramped curb going up onto the bike path/sidewalk (click through and view the full-size for more detail):
But what happens if the person in the bike lane wants to turn left and cross the street? This is where infrastructure and law really come together. When a person wants to turn left out of the bike lane, they slow down, start to turn, check to make sure they’re not going to be cutting off any cars sharply, and then just go. Why are they able to do this? Because if a person driving a car hits a person riding a bike, unless it can be clearly shown that the person on the bike did something really stupid, the person driving the car bears the brunt of the legal responsibility and it’s not just a $50 slap on the wrist. Because of a combination of the way the road is designed (it’s not really comfortable to drive very fast on the roads) and the fact that people know there is a heavy penalty for causing damage with their cars, they drive slowly enough that they can feasibly stop for someone, should someone try to cross.
If you come from the U.S. and you’ve never seen this, it’s eye-opening to say the least, to see a person on a bicycle just turn across the road, and all the car traffic just comes to a slow crawl, waits for the bike to cross, then keeps going. As I mentioned in one of my other posts about Amsterdam, traffic of all types there rarely comes to a complete stop – bikes, cars, pedestrians, etc. But you can be sure that other people are watching out for you, and it was clear being there that people, however they choose to travel, are aware of what is going on around them always. As Marc said to me one day, “you can see how Amsterdammers are always ready for anything to come from any direction.” It’s really true, and it makes for a very comfortable and relaxed public space.
So yes, when we think about how we want to plan our transportation in America, we need to look to places like the Netherlands for ideas about how to physically lay out our roads so they make sense, and enable and encourage good behavior from all road users, but we also need to look to their example in putting responsibility where responsibility is due. The law must protect those who are most vulnerable, and back it up with something that will cause people to follow it. The infrastructure and the law are a package deal, in order for the whole system to work really well, they have to go hand in hand.