Signpost to freedom: The anatomy of a bicycling network

The Road Not Taken

How do people read transportation systems?  How does one know he is riding the right train line, taken the correct exit, or gone north as opposed to south?  Rapid transit and highway systems in most developed countries have a tremendous number of subtle cues that people unconsciously read and reference every day during their commutes. They allow otherwise chaotic, directionless flows to cohere into a safe and efficient network- a system.

The essence of a great bicycling network lies in its details, those subtle hints which indicate direction, manage circulation, and define right of way. Together, these elements create connectivity and legibility- a truly comprehensive infrastructural system. The following slide show is meant as an overview of the basic signage and maps which govern the Netherlands’ advanced bicycling infrastructure.

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Searching for the Bicycle superhighway

The Netherlands has recently developed a large number of routes it refers to as bicycle superhighways. These are intended as fast, direct, intercity routes for people who would like to try long-distance commuting by bicycle as opposed to waiting in Ranstad traffic. On my way from Amsterdam to Utrecht, I attempted to find one of these superhighways, but found myself zigzagging through winding local roads and farm paths for an hour before stumbling upon it. Once I finally discovered the superhighway, along the Amsterdam-Rijn Canal between Utrecht and Amsterdam, I felt as if I had wasted hours in my desperate search.

One of the problems with the Netherlands bicycling network is that it lacks a clear hierarchy between routes in terms of time, distance, and, most importantly, comfort. Whereas a driver can readily distinguish between a local versus an interstate route, or  a pedestrian between a private lane and a public thoroughfare, the bicyclist must to rely on his experience, intuition, and gut. Locals, born and bred on bicycles, choose their favorite path and commit it to memory. For them, the system is second nature and the signs are largely irrelevant. But for the outsider, the provisional signage of red regional pathways and green cycle touring routes does not adequately structure such a full-fledged and potentially legible system of bicycling infrastructure.

Beyond Amsterdam

As other cities, regions, and countries continue to develop bicycle systems, the effectiveness of signage will represent an even more essential piece of what makes those systems comfortable, efficient, and accessible. Without this kind direction, the most significant demographics to initiate a bicycling culture- children, elderly, and women (those who are not thrill seekers, at least)- may feel stranded. With the appropriate hierarchies and design elements to differentiate between fast routes, safe routes, and smooth routes, potential bicyclists afraid of cars, wayfinding, or road safety might just test the waters.

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