How does a Dutch environment work for pedestrians?

Last week I was a guest on a three day trip to Amsterdam and Utrecht, with some UK transport planners, including John Dales and Phil Jones. It was an interesting visit for me particularly because I was with a group who were looking at the street environment more generally, and not specifically at cycling infrastructure (although that was the purpose of the trip). 

On previous trips to the Netherlands I had, unconsciously or otherwise, focused to a large extent on how cycling works there, and how easy it is to ride a bike; that probably meant I wasn't paying too much attention to how people move about when they're not using bicycles. So it was really interesting to see things through different eyes, particularly with regard to pedestrians - how they use junctions; how they cross the road; how they get about generally.

These are important issues, because new cycling infrastructure in London and other places will mean different kinds of interactions between people on and off bikes. Bikes will no longer be purely in the carriageway, moving like motor vehicles; they will represent something 'extra' that pedestrians have to deal with. Pedestrians will lose out in certain places, to an extent, although I think across the board mass cycling makes walking a far, far more pleasant experience. I hope to show here how things are different for pedestrians in the Netherlands, both for the worse and for the better.

The most significant difference between the Netherlands and Britain, at least from a walking perspective, is, of course, the presence of cycle tracks on major roads. But unlike in Britain, where cyclists are all too often just plonked on an existing pavement which pedestrians are expected to share with them, the Dutch do this very well, and make clear what is a pedestrian area, and what is a cycling area.DSCN9972

Pavements are not necessarily narrower than in Britain, but in a number of places they are narrower than they might be on an equivalent UK street, particularly when there is a public transport function as well, in older development. Sometimes the pavement is narrower than the adjacent cycle track. (Note that in this example, the street accommodates two pavements, tram tracks, a cycle track, and a one-way road).


This is not as bad a problem as it might first appear if you are walking about in the Netherlands; where pavements are this narrow, not many other people are walking about either. The Dutch are not cramming lots of pedestrians onto narrow streets; the layout simply reflects demand. So, while your pavement may be a touch narrow, you won't be encountering many other people on it. 

Of course, if there were more people walking, then this would become an issue, and something would have to give. But as things stand, it's cycling that makes more sense as a mode of transport in the suburbs, and because it's just as easy for the Dutch to cycle as it is to walk, the bicycle is chosen more often. In the suburbs and outskirts, walking rates seemed, to me at least, to be lower than those for cycling, and this is reflected in the space allocated.


Really far out, there's often no pavement at all, because the demand for walking is so low (and with cycling volumes low too) the cycle track is an adequate place to walk.


Even on busy shopping streets, the pavement is sometimes only barely wider than the cycle track.


This example is in Utrecht. From a British perspective, the respective width of pavement and cycle track looks quite odd, taken in isolation, because it seems that 'pedestrian' space' has been sacrificed for 'cycling' space. But I doubt that this is how the Dutch would look at this situation; their boundary between 'cyclist' and 'pedestrian' is rather more blurred than ours, not just in the way they ride bikes, but also in the way they can effortlessly transform from 'pedestrian' to 'cyclist' and back again as, in this case, they do shopping trips. The 'cycling' bit is as wide as the 'walking' bit because, as you can see, plenty of people are arriving at the shops, and moving past them, by bike. 

These kinds of designs - where there genuinely isn't space to create width for cycling in the existing carriageway - are obviously going to be difficult to transfer to the UK, where pedestrians generally don't cycle, at all, and can't identify with cycling as a mode of transport that might be 'for them'. Pedestrians would naturally resent space being allocated for 'cyclists', because they are not 'cyclists' themselves. 

But the amount of narrow pavements in Dutch cities shouldn't be over-exaggerated; they occur only intermittently. Pavement width is usually generous, and I haven't ever encountered congested pavements on previous trips, when I've mostly been walking. 


It's not all about putting cycling ahead of walking either; in historic inner city areas, where walking rates are higher, and streets are even narrower, or where they have a public transport function as well, you will find that cycling is often prohibited. This is, again, simple reflection of demand.


At a higher level, one significant way in which the Dutch plan their towns and cities differently from Britain is by creating 'cells'; blocks that are primarily residential, through which it is pretty difficult - if not impossible - to drive. This is very different from Britain, where many residential streets are a route to somewhere else, even a short cut, unless they are a cul-de-sac. The Dutch are quite explicit that residential streets should be just that - residential - and that motor traffic should be access only. This requires a connecting network of distributor roads, which are through routes.

For pedestrians, this system has significant benefits, and some minor disbenefits. The first benefit is that it is much easier to create priority for pedestrians across side roads. In most cases I saw in Amsterdam and Utrecht, the pavement simply continues across the mouth of the side road; you have to drive up and over this bit of pavement if you want access. These pedestrians are casually strolling along a pavement that runs across a side road.


This works principally because there are very few motor vehicle movements into these side roads, due to the 'cellular' nature of the block. There's not even any tactile paving to indicate that this occasionally functions as a 'road'; it is up to drivers to pay attention and yield to pedestrians moving through this space.

The other benefit of this 'cellular' approach is that residential streets are extraordinarily calm and safe places; streets where kids can ride their bikes in safety; where they can play about; even do artwork on the road itself. 






There's no lack of social safety, because there's still traffic passing through; it's just predominantly on bikes, instead of in cars. 

The downside of the cellular approach is that motor vehicle movements are concentrated on specific streets, and are bunched together at intersections. This means that these junctions can often appear rather larger and more complicated than an equivalent British junction. 


It should be stressed, however, that these junctions are not on every corner, like they might be in Westminster, where a high percentage of intersections are major signal-controlled junctions, and walking is impeded by frequent waiting to cross. This is because side roads in London are often open as routes to motor traffic, in a way they are not in the Netherlands. 

Nor is motor traffic significantly heavier in volume on these 'concentrated' routes; the high Dutch modal share for walking and cycling means (to my eyes, at least) that although they are busy with motor vehicles, they are certainly no worse than similar British signal-controlled junctions, maybe even a bit better, as far as the amount of motor traffic is concerned.

But these junctions are probably a bit worse for pedestrians, because they involve having to cross cycle tracks, as well as a road.


The cycle track is always crossed on a zebra, where cyclists should yield to pedestrians (although, in practice, we found that there appears to be a degree of 'negotiation' between pedestrians and cyclists at these points). The woman in the picture above is then waiting at the signal-controlled portion of the intersection. 

The crossing is not staggered; it is direct, crossed in one signal phase. This seems to be the case for all pedestrian crossings; certainly 'pig pens' or multiple signalised crossings are not very obvious. We didn't see any. 

Once the signalised portion of the crossing has been dealt with, there is then another cycle track to be crossed on the other side of the road, again on a zebra.


This is complicated and unfamiliar to British eyes, and it's impossible to deny that it introduces an extra level of complexity. But it's not significantly worse than crossing the road at a signalised junction in the UK, once you are used to it. Indeed, the directness of the crossings is certainly rather better than in the UK.

The other added level of difficulty and complexity for pedestrians is, of course, bus stops, which are, in the Netherlands, almost always located outside of cycle tracks (where cycle tracks exist), with the cycle track running between the pavement and the bus stop.


There's no help to cross the cycle track, as far as I could tell. No dedicated crossing point, or measures to slow cyclists, or make them yield. 


I think these kinds of arrangements are difficult to conceive of in London, at least at present, where 'cyclists' are fast and seem to travel and behave like motor vehicles, and where in many places there are huge numbers of people stepping on and off buses. But they seem to work perfectly well in the Netherlands, where the boundary between walking and cycling is rather less distinct, where buses do not seem to be so heavily used, and where people are used to large amounts of cycling.

The more serious issues in the Netherlands seemed to be with trams, where the stops often seemed to me to be quite narrow, and involved crossing roads to access. There's not a huge amount of subjective safety here, for instance, especially given that taxis and municipal vehicles can use the tram tracks.


And another example -


Note again that the road has be crossed to get to the tram stop. The crossing on this side isn't particularly brilliant either, although it should be noted that motor traffic restraint exists on these kinds of streets, with limited access and/or entry points.

But the huge upside for walking in cities with mass cycling is greatly reduced danger and improved public space in their centres. Walking about in Dutch city centres is usually an absolute joy, often entirely free from interactions with motor vehicles.





This is the big win for pedestrians - when bicycle trips from the suburbs are made easy, then cars become increasingly redundant, and you can create calm, pleasant and inviting centres, which are still highly accessible.

The Dutch environment is also very good for those with mobility problems. The cycle infrastructure is used by those on mobility scooters, for instance, and is a much better way of getting about than the pavement, due to the smoothness and continuity of surface. Here, again, the line between 'pedestrian' and 'cyclist' is blurred, because a group of users who would traditionally use 'pedestrian' infrastructure in the UK use 'cycling' infrastructure in the Netherlands.


Dutch towns and cities are, I think, far far better for pedestrians than British ones. Pavements are smooth, flat and continuous to a much greater extent than they are in Britain. There are fewer interactions with motor traffic, particularly in town and city centres.

The problem is that moving from a British to a Dutch-style system, with much greater levels of cycling, will require some changes that will impact on pedestrian comfort, such as bus stop bypasses, and cycle tracks at junctions. These will be a hard sell, so I hope that the bigger picture - how mass cycling has significant benefits for walking - doesn't get lost.

Thanks to John Dales and Urban Movement for organising the trip


This is an excellent post. One of the big problems I see in this country is the unwillingness to cause motorists any inconvenience or make them work any harder, which I thinks leads to the lazyness, aggression and I own the road type opionions. I stumbled up the plans for a t-junction change in York, original plan here:, doc here I thought brilliant design, gives cyclists and pedestrians priority, gives vehicles space to wait when turning into the side road, not dutch quality but far better than the normal rubbish. Turns out it got changed at the last minute to, same old rubbish with priority for cars, because from what I read in the doc here these discussions it was concluded that the proposal to give cyclists priority over traffic did carry a high risk of road safety problems with particular concern over drivers turning left off Boroughbridge Road not having sufficient time and space to give way for cyclists crossing Ouseacres." Really, what, this is just like a dutch design with a car lenth of space after the turn before the crossing - a good design. What is the problem in this country making drivers wait a few extra seconds or make them actually think about what they are doing. From your pictures i see even the pedestrian crossings at signal junctions are even zebra and have give way markings so assume even if the light turns green for cars they still have to give way to pedestrians who are waiting to cross. In most countries also when cars turn left at a junction, pedestrians are also allowed to cross the turning path, cars have to give way, if we had this rule junctions could be simpler and allow straight across crossings instead of seperate stages, better for pedestrians with nearly no impact to traffic movement and would allow proper dutch cycle junctions easier. So yes maybe in the Netherlands cyclists do impact on pedestrians more but it appears cars inpact them far less, I am sure most pedestrians would prefer it this way given the choice.

Actually zebras appear to work subtly differently in the NL than in the UK, this first occured to me many years ago when I was shocked to see how eager the Dutch were to get run over (at least in my opinion at the time).

In the UK we have the rules that as a pedestrian, you stop and wait at the curb for the traffic to stop and give way to you before you start crossing. The motor cars are in control, as a pedestrian you yield to them until they let you cross. In NL this isn't the case, on a zebra pedestrians have right of way and can walk out at any time, motor traffic must yield and expect people to behave this way.

When it comes to signalised zebras, aka pedestrian crossings at signalled junctions, the rules seem to be very similar to the UK, the red man overrides the default zebra behaviour and pedestrians must wait on a red man. The only differences are that the crossing is still marked with the zebra markings to show drivers where pedestrians might be. This appears to be because pedestrians (and bikes) can be given a green man at the same time as motor vehicles have a green light that allows them to turn across the pedestrians, in these instances the zebra behaves like a regular zebra and motor vehicles have to yield.

I hope this makes sense, it's quite complex to explain and much easier to see for yuorself on the ground.

The driver should give way. It's just you'd be well to have an escape route planned if they don't. 

In London I was the mistress of the 'stepping onto a zebra crossing apparently oblivious to oncoming traffic' manouevre (while all the time prepared to leap backwards if I had to) - it's amazing how many drivers suddenly decide they're going to stop for you after all.

AKA TownMouse

No, Dutch crossings with traffic lights are generally created such that no conflict occurs. The zebras are really just to show pedestrians where to cross and other road users where pedestrians are to be expected. Perhaps it's part of the 'forgiving' thing in Dutch road design: The design is such that conflicts are diminished and/or more easily solved, even if someone decides to drive, ride or walk through a red light.

This is an excellent piece.  Well researched, balanced and well written.

I certainly found it very useful for future battles with Traffic Engineers!



A great post. Thank you very much.

Having just returned from a holiday on the mainland which took in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, I was struck by the absence of friction between pedestians and cyclists in the places I visited. It is just not an issue there. This is proably due to the fact that cyclists on the mainland are more likely to behave like wheeled pedestians in built up area, rather than vehicular cyclists. On the mainland, riding fast is something you do out in the countryside where there is more space, there commuting to work is just a normal activity, not an adventure sport. Much of the conflict here is caused by mix of differnt transport types in an inapprorate way.