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At this intersection, drivers have to ask the bikes to stop

In more bike-centric countries, like the Netherlands, it’s the bikes and pedestrians whose travel gets prioritized.

At this intersection, drivers have to ask the bikes to stop
[Photo: courtesy Dutch Cycling Embassy]

At an intersection in the Dutch city of Delft, the light is almost always green for cyclists and pedestrians. If a car pulls up, it has to wait as the intersection automatically triggers a red light for the bike path—but the light only lasts for seconds, and then the flow of bikes and people can move again.

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[Image: courtesy Dutch Cycling Embassy]
“This completely flips on its head the paradigm that we may be used to elsewhere in the world, especially in U.S. cities, which prioritize the flow of motor vehicles and put the pedestrians and cyclists as kind of an afterthought,” says Chris Bruntlett, coauthor of Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, a book that examines the benefits of “low-car” cities in the Netherlands. The intersection, one of numerous examples in the book, is the opposite of a typical urban American street, where pedestrians push a walk button and then wait to cross, sometimes for minutes.

While a few other intersections in Delft have similar signals, it’s even more common for streets to have no traffic signal at all. “They basically remove any type of signalization or priority, and just rely on trust and hand signals and social cues and cooperation to get people through the intersections,” Bruntlett says. In part, this is possible because so many people travel on bikes or by foot—roughly half of Delft citizens get around by bike, versus only 20% by car. When people are inside the bubble of a car, he says, they tend to move on autopilot, less aware of their surroundings; when people are on bikes, they’re naturally more aware of the others around them, making it easier to make eye contact and navigate crowded spaces without traffic lights. Removing traffic signals completely means that drivers are forced to move more carefully. The physical design of the street also helps. Many roads are narrow, making them easier for cyclists and pedestrians to cross. Curb extensions bulge into the street at intersections, so drivers have to slow down to turn and can clearly see anyone in their path.

At both the intersections that prioritize cyclists and those without lights, it’s easier for cyclists to keep moving to their destinations. The design favors bikes because they’re the dominant mode of travel, and Bruntlett acknowledges that it could be difficult to make the same changes right away in cities that have fewer bikes on the road. The Netherlands has a half-century head start on making streets more bike-friendly. (In the 1970s, many Dutch streets looked a lot more like American streets, filled with cars; it was a conscious choice to create a more bike-oriented society.) Bike-friendly Copenhagen also has traffic lights that prioritize cyclists, and in London, the city is testing traffic lights that automatically turn green for cyclists.

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Each improvement helps make it even more likely that people will choose to ride a bike rather than driving. That shift isn’t just better for a city’s carbon footprint and for reducing air pollution that leads to asthma and other health conditions. The book makes the case that bike-friendly cities are also much more livable: When anyone, including children and the elderly, can walk or bike around a city with little stress, quality of life measurably improves. “Traffic and livability are kind of mutually exclusive qualities,” Bruntlett says. “The more you can do to remove or reduce the amount of space for cars in your city, the better city you’re going to have for all of your residents.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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