In the United States, each new piece of quality, dedicated bicycle infrastructure is a victory for advocates and planners working to carve out safe, efficient space in which bicyclists can travel. In Amsterdam, where bicycle infrastructure has been a centerpiece of planning for decades, traffic engineers have been experimenting with removing infrastructure in service of that same goal.
The Netherlands’ capital isn’t about to do away with its nearly 500 miles of bike paths and lanes, but it is, in certain cases, experimenting with taking out protective barriers and other traffic controls to improve flow and speed for its hundreds of thousands of daily bicyclists.
In Alexanderplein, a busy intersection near the city center, engineers went so far as to remove traffic lights for all transportation modes. The pilot project was successful enough that it led to permanent removal of the lights and plans for similar treatment at other busy intersections.
The Alexanderplein pilot grew out of the city’s 2012-2016 mobility plan. With nearly 70 percent of trips in the center city being taken by bicycle, bike traffic was getting jammed up at intersections. The city identified spot changes that would improve bicycle traffic flow on the busiest bicycle routes where up to 40,000 bicyclists rode each day. According to Meredith Glaser, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam’s Urban Cycling Institute, the Alexanderplein intersection was seeing upward of 6,000 bicyclists an hour at peak times. It also has cars, streetcars and pedestrian crossings.
“In the end, traffic light infrastructure is an infrastructure for cars, not an infrastructure for people on bikes and people walking,” says Glaser. “In locations with high levels of people on bikes and people walking, traffic lights maybe aren’t appropriate.”
Because so many bicyclists were passing through the intersection, red lights would lead to big backups of bicycle traffic and long delays. City traffic engineers postulated that eliminating traffic lights would actually speed things up for everyone. After eight months of planning and negotiations among city officials, the transportation department, the transit agency, cycling advocates and accessibility advocates, the city was ready to flip the switch. In May 2016, they shut off the traffic lights.
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