HOW TO MAKE WALKING AND CYCLING SAFER
However dangerous walking and cycling currently are in the USA, it is definitely
possible and essential to make them much safer. As shown by the wide range of
coordinated policies in The Netherlands33,34 and Germany35, the necessary techniques and
programs already exist and have been proven to work extremely well. They include
better facilities for walking and cycling; traffic calming of residential neighborhoods;
urban design sensitive to the needs of non-motorists; restrictions on motor vehicle use in
cities; rigorous traffic education of both motorists and non-motorists; and strict
enforcement of traffic regulations protecting pedestrians and bicyclists. American cities
lack only the political will to adopt the same strategies.
Due to space limitations, we can only briefly summarize here the six categories of
public policy measure implemented in The Netherlands and Germany. For detailed
descriptions and illustrations of the Dutch and German measures, readers can consult a
range of publications about walking and cycling in Europe.10,26,36,37,38,39
Better Facilities for Walking and Cycling
One emphasis of Dutch40 and German35 policy has been to improve the
transportation infrastructure used by pedestrians and bicyclists. For pedestrians, that has
included extensive auto-free zones that cover much of the city center; wide, well-lit
sidewalks on both sides of every street; pedestrian refuge islands for crossing wide
streets; clearly-marked zebra crosswalks, often raised and with special lighting for
visibility; and pedestrian-activated crossing signals, both at intersections and mid-block
Dutch and German cities have also invested heavily to expand and improve
bicycling facilities. From 1978 to 1996, the Dutch more than doubled the extent of their
already massive network of bike paths and lanes (from 9,282 km to 18,948 km). From
1976 to 1995, the Germans almost tripled the extent of their bikeway network (from
12,911 km to 31,236 km).10 In addition, there are an increasing number of so-called
“bicycle streets,” where cars are permitted but cyclists have strict right of way over the
entire breadth of the roadway. Unlike the sparse and fragmented cycling facilities in the
USA, the bike paths, lanes, and streets in The Netherlands and Germany form a truly
coordinated network covering both rural and urban areas. Importantly, Dutch and
German bikeway systems serve practical destinations for everyday travel, not just
recreational attractions, as most bike paths in the USA.
The provision of separate rights-of-way is complemented by various other
measures: special bike turn lanes leading directly to intersections; separate bike traffic
signals with advance green lights for cyclists; bicyclist-activated traffic signals at key
intersections; and modification of street networks to create deliberate dead ends and slow,
circuitous routing for cars but direct, fast routing for bikes.
Traffic Calming of Residential Neighborhoods
Traffic calming limits the speeds of motor vehicle traffic, both by law—30 km per
hour (19mph) or less—and through physical barriers such as raised intersections and
crosswalks, traffic circles, road narrowing, zigzag routes, curves, speed humps, and
artificial dead-ends created by mid-block street closures.10 Traffic calming gives
pedestrians, bicyclists, and playing children as much right to use residential streets as
motor vehicles; indeed, motor vehicles are required to yield to these other users. In both
The Netherlands41 and Germany, traffic calming is area-wide and not for isolated streets.
That ensures that faster through-traffic gets displaced to arterial routes designed to handle
it and not simply shifted from one local road to another.
The most important safety impact of traffic calming is the reduced speeds of
motor vehicles. That is crucial not only to the motorist’s ability to avoid hitting
pedestrians and bicyclists but also to the survival of non-motorists in a crash. The British
Department of Transport, for example, finds that the risk of pedestrian death in crashes
rises from 5% at 20mph to 45% at 30mph and 85% at 40mph.
Area-wide traffic calming in Dutch neighborhoods has reduced traffic accidents
by 20% to 70%.43 Traffic calming in German neighborhoods has reduced traffic injuries
overall by 20% to 70% and serious traffic injuries by 35% to 56%.44 A comprehensive
review of traffic calming impacts in Denmark, Great Britain, Germany, and The
Netherlands found that traffic injuries fell by an average of 53% in traffic-calmed
neighborhoods.45 In short, traffic calming greatly reduces the danger of traffic deaths and
injuries in residential neighborhoods. Traffic calming greatly improves not only
pedestrian safety but also the safety of bicycling, since much bike use—especially by
children—is in residential neighborhoods.
Urban Design Oriented to People and Not Cars
New suburban developments in The Netherlands and Germany are designed to
provide safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycling access.10 Residential developments
almost always include other uses such as cultural centers, shopping, and service
establishments that can easily be reached by foot or bike. Both residential and
commercial developments have sidewalks and bicycle paths to serve non-motorists.
Parking lots almost never surround buildings, as in the United States; instead, they are
built next to or behind buildings, thus permitting easy access to pedestrians and
bicyclists. When an obstacle such as a highway, railroad, or river must be traversed,
Dutch and German cities usually provide safe and attractive pedestrian and bicyclist
crossings. By comparison, strip malls in American suburbs are difficult and dangerous to
reach by foot or bicycle, and most bridges lack provisions for pedestrians and bicyclists.
In the United States, the separation of residential from commercial land uses
increases trip distances and makes the car a necessity. Suburban cul-de-sacs further
discourage walking and bicycling by making trips circuitous and excessively long.
Residential roads often feed directly into high-speed traffic arteries, increasing the danger
of any trips outside the neighborhood. The lack of sidewalks in most American suburbs
further exacerbates the problem.
Restrictions on Motor Vehicle Use
Dutch and German cities restrict auto use not only through traffic calming, autofree
zones, and dedicated rights of way for pedestrians and cyclists.10,26,29 They also
enforce lower general speed limits for motor vehicles in cities—usually 50 km per hour
(31 mph). Parking is much more limited and more expensive than in American cities. In
addition, most Dutch and German cities prohibit truck traffic and through-traffic of any
kind in residential neighborhoods. Motor vehicle turn restrictions are widespread;
moreover, right turns on red are illegal.
Driver training for motorists in The Netherlands and Germany is much more
extensive, thorough, and expensive than in the United States.46,47 A crucial aspect of that
training in The Netherlands and Germany is the need to pay special attention to avoiding
collisions with pedestrians and cyclists. Motorists are required by law to drive in a way
that minimizes the risk of injury for pedestrians and cyclists even if they are jaywalking,
cycling in the wrong direction, ignoring traffic signals, or otherwise behaving contrary to
Traffic education of children has high priority in both The Netherlands and
Germany.46,47 By the age of 10, all school children have received extensive instruction
on safe walking and bicycling practices. They are taught not just the traffic regulations
but how to walk and bicycle defensively, to anticipate dangerous situations, and to react
appropriately. That sort of safety education is completely lacking in the United States.
Traffic Regulations and Enforcement
Traffic regulations in Germany and The Netherlands strongly favor pedestrians
and bicyclists. Even in cases where an accident results from illegal moves by pedestrians
or cyclists, the motorist is almost always found to be at least partly at fault. When the
accident involves children or the elderly, the motorist is usually found to be entirely at
fault. In almost every case, the police and the courts find that motorists should anticipate
unsafe and illegal walking and cycling.
In addition, German and Dutch police are far stricter in ticketing motorists,
pedestrians, and cyclists who violate traffic regulations. Thus, walking against the light
is not allowed in any German city and can easily result in a ticket and fine. Likewise,
cyclists caught riding in the wrong direction, running red lights, making illegal turns, or
riding at night without functioning lights can expect at least a warning notice and
possibly a ticket and fine.
The most significant contrast with the United States is the much stricter
enforcement of traffic regulations for motorists in Germany and The Netherlands.
Penalties can be high even for minor violations. Not stopping for pedestrians at
crosswalks is considered a serious offense and motorists can get ticketed for noncompliance,
even if pedestrians are only waiting at the curb and not actually in the
crosswalk. Similarly, red traffic signals are strictly enforced, and some intersections in
German and Dutch cities have cameras that automatically photograph cars running red
lights and stop signs. Finally, the punishment for traffic violations by motorists is far
more severe in The Netherlands and Germany than in the United States.