Dutch Transportation and Planning Official Reflects on SF Infrastructure

Mark Sloothaak, an urban transportation planner with the City of Amsterdam, says that even parking protected bike lanes need a curb to prevent cars from getting into the bike space. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless otherwise indicated
Mark Sloothaak, an urban transportation planner with the City of Amsterdam, says that even parking protected bike lanes need a curb to prevent cars from getting into the bike space. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless otherwise indicated

Mark Sloothaak is a “Beleidsadviseur” (policy adviser) and urban transportation planner for the City of Amsterdam. But he’s currently taking a sabbatical in San Francisco “to see what’s going on over here in smart transportation and smart mobility,” he told Streetsblog during an interview in the South of Market neighborhood. “There’s a lot going on with new tech companies such as Uber and Lyft and bike-share companies.”

As Streetsblog readers are surely aware, when it comes to public transit, pedestrian safety, and above all good bicycle infrastructure, the Dutch are the global champions. Amsterdam’s modal split, which is typical of Dutch cities, is 32 percent of trips by bike, 22 percent by car, and 16 percent by public transport. In the city center, according to the Amsterdam web page, 48 percent of traffic movement is by bike. And Amsterdam doesn’t have to pursue Vision Zero goals–they’re already there, although the Dutch constantly tweak their infrastructure to make it even better.

So as long as a Dutch transportation planner is here studying our developments, Streetsblog thought it was a good opportunity to get his take on some of the city’s newest bicycle and pedestrian safety infrastructure. Yesterday afternoon Streetsblog escorted Sloothaak on a tour of SoMa, mid-Market, and the Wiggle to find out what he thinks we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and where there’s room for improvement.

The tour started at SoMa’s Design District traffic circle, where 8th, Division, Henry Adams, and Townsend meet. Sloothaak was impressed to see a traffic circle, usually referred to as a “roundabout” in European parlance, which is the preferred intersection treatment in the Netherlands. “Roundabouts are better… the most important thing is it slows traffic down, you don’t need traffic lights, it’s safe, people are more aware of other traffic, and traffic flow is better,” he said.

It was interesting from the start of the tour the way Sloothaak used the words “better” and “slower” almost interchangeably. As someone who has toured Dutch bike infrastructure in Rotterdam, that seemed a familiar theme–the goal of a Dutch traffic engineer is not to pump as many cars as possible through a given intersection, but to keep cars moving at a steady, slow, and safe pace through populated areas. Thus the preference for traffic circles, which force cars to slow down–relative to a standard American-style intersection–but rarely make them come to a complete stop, which is also more fuel efficient. It’s also better for bikes, at least in theory, because cyclists don’t have to lose all their hard-earned momentum unless there’s actually a car or another bike or pedestrian there to yield to.

Sloothaak started his tour at SoMa's traffic circle.
Sloothaak started his tour at SoMa’s traffic circle.

That said, he was a bit puzzled by San Francisco’s design, mainly that it also has stop signs, rather than yields. “Why should you stop if there’s no traffic?”

And in the Netherlands, of course, protected bike lanes are included where there are major roundabouts on the scale of the one in SoMa. The bike lane is a concentric circle around the automobile lane that keeps cyclists segregated, by a very wide buffer, and safe from motorized traffic, as seen in the image below:

An example of a Dutch roundabout/traffic circle. From the 'Bicycle Dutch' website.
An example of a Dutch roundabout/traffic circle. From the ‘Bicycle Dutch’ website.

From there, we continued to San Francisco’s first, and recently christened, protected intersection at 9th and Division. Sloothaak had some strong criticisms. For one, he didn’t think the bike lanes were raised high enough where they crossed the car space. “Raise it with the sidewalk… like this it’s not raised enough to slow traffic.” He also was disappointed to see that the solid green paint of the bike lane stopped where it was needed most–in the conflict area with cars. “It makes it unclear who has the right of way.” That was another major theme of Sloothaak’s–everything should be 100 percent intuitive. He also felt the turning signs were misplaced, in part because they were too high for cyclists to see and just not well positioned generally.

Sloothaak had some constructive criticisms of San Francisco's only protected intersection at 9th and Division.
Sloothaak had some constructive criticisms of San Francisco’s only protected intersection at 9th and Division.
Sloothaak said the fact that the solid green lane suddenly stops in the conflict zone just leaves people confused as to who has the right of way.
Sloothaak said the fact that the solid green lane suddenly stops in the conflict zone just leaves people confused as to who has the right of way.

The lack of a fully raised intersection, he said, fell into a “it’s better than nothing” trap. Speaking of which, the protected intersection at Division and 9th only goes in one direction, which, as Streetsblog pointed out in a previous story, is a mistake–SFMTA said they did that because bike counts were low going north-south. “But that’s a chicken and egg argument,” said the Dutch engineer. “If you don’t build something, of course people aren’t going to use it… a lot of what I see here are half-solutions.”

From there, we backtracked to 7th Street, to see the newly protected bike lane there. Sloothaak pointed to the bus-boarding islands approvingly and commented that only a curb or some kind of raised concrete, such as the island, is really sufficient to keep cars out of the lane. That became abundantly clear when we had to stop and go around a van parked in the bike lane, as seen in the lead photograph. In other words, a parking-protected bike lane isn’t something that should be done with paint alone. Sloothaak recommended the addition of soft hit posts until a concrete curb can be installed–or anything that is a physical barrier. He also wanted to know, again, why the green of the bike lanes doesn’t continue across intersections. That’s a question Streetsblog has asked many times and has never actually received a satisfactory answer.

Sloothaak learns a bit about some of the tragedies that has resulted from San Francisco's poorly designed streets. Seen here near Kate Slattery's ghost bike in SoMa.
Sloothaak learns a bit about the tragedies that have resulted from San Francisco’s poorly designed streets. He’s seen here near Kate Slattery’s ghost bike in SoMa.

Streetsblog brought him to the intersection of 7th and Howard to see the ghost bike for Kate Slattery, who was killed a year ago this month. He explained the concept of a “Black Spot,” as they call them in the Netherlands. “If someone dies in a traffic incident, we immediately take measurements and analyze it,” he said. He said police, public transportation agencies, etc., look for ways to prevent the type of crash from happening again–and they implement changes. He was also shocked to hear about San Francisco’s automatic speed enforcement camera woes. “I’m amazed there are not speed cameras… at this speed, with multiple lanes,” he said, shaking his head and looking out at 7th and Howard. “The city wants to encourage cycling but they’ve created an unsafe environment.”

We then proceeded to Market Street to head towards the Wiggle. Sloothaak agreed with something Streetsblog’s readers know all too well–Market Street is a dangerous mess. We discussed taking some space from the outer edge of the sidewalk to create a truly protected bike lane. He liked the contra-flow bike lane on Polk, and remarked that it was the first piece of really good bike infrastructure he’d seen.

That said, he was critical of the sidewalk cut-through for cyclists riding across Fell and turning uptown on Market. Because the bike lane ends and the cut-through is the same color as the rest of the sidewalk, it was too hard to figure out, he said. He recalled riding through the intersection previously and thinking there was no way for a cyclist to turn right. While it was obvious what to do after watching local cyclists during rush hour, there was nothing intuitive about it for a newbie. “If I don’t get it, there’s something wrong,” he said of the infrastructure. Fortunately, following the Dutch precedent of painting the bike lane all the way through the intersection and, in this case, across the cut-through, is a fairly simple prescription that Streetsblog hopes the SFMTA will consider.

He also didn’t like that the bike signal was placed so high (well above the sight-line of a cyclist) and on the far side of that intersection, saying that he didn’t even notice it until it was pointed out to him.

Sloothaak was impressed by the Polk contraflow lane, but found the right turn to Market Street terribly confusing.
Sloothaak was impressed by the Polk contraflow lane, but found the right turn to Market Street confusing.

From there, we headed to the start of the Wiggle. Sloothaak seemed pretty baffled by the Buchanan intersection with its mess of train tracks and green sharrow bike markings. “How does this work!” he exclaimed. It took a while to explain to him that cyclists coming from the Wiggle and heading downtown had to cross Market on the left side of the intersection, instead of the intuitive right. “It doesn’t make sense to cross on the left side of an intersection–make a new crossing on the opposite side,” he said. “You see this and you are just confused.”

Sloothaak also said the intersection of Market and Duboce was terribly confusing and counter-intuitive.
Sloothaak also said the intersection of Market and Duboce was confusing and counter-intuitive.

Once on the Wiggle, with its smaller, two-way neighborhood streets, Sloothaak seemed less critical. “It’s fine not to have protected bike lanes here.” But he did have one comment, and one that will be music to the ears of anyone who was involved in the Wiggle protest. He looked at the many four-way stop signs. “Do these intersections with bicycle priority in the bike [route] direction.”

In other words, don’t make cyclists come to a complete stop unless it’s absolutely necessary, if you want to encourage cycling.

Once at the Panhandle, Streetsblog and Sloothaak stopped on the steps of the William McKinley monument and the Dutch “Beleidsadviseur” summed up his impressions: “It’s really easy to get around by bike,” he said. And despite his criticisms, he said that he “hasn’t felt it’s dangerous to bike… and there is a strong sense of bicycle lifestyle.” He also said that in a conversation with members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, he came to the conclusion that San Francisco needs a strong, pro-bicycle mayor to advocate for safety and better infrastructure. That said, he believes it should be a relatively easy lift. “Bike infrastructure is so much cheaper than new highways or transit… the improvements cost a fraction of what those others take.”

But he knows that will take time. It took the Netherlands a few decades to get where they are–but they started in the 1970s. “You must design for bikes, for pedestrians, for small vehicles–you need to get rid of all of those multiple lanes.” And if money to redesign the streets is still a problem, he recommends a process of removing free parking and charging for permits “with all the money going to bike infrastructure.”

That’s a prescription Streetsblog can get behind. That said, SF politics, especially when it comes to parking, are hard–and Streetsblog is well aware that SFMTA planners do the best they can. Some have even traveled to the Netherlands, Denmark, and other places to learn best practices first hand. SFMTA Project Manager Mike Sallaberry, for example, has made a real effort to study infrastructure overseas. And Supervisor Jane Kim was also part of a group that went to Denmark to study bike infrastructure.

Unfortunately, learning what to do is one thing. Actually getting it built, in the face of local and state politics, is another story.

Another view of top notch Dutch intersection design. Photo from the Amsterdam government.
Another view of top-notch Dutch intersection design. Photo from the Amsterdam government.

What do you think of Sloothaak’s observations and recommendations? Can they be applied here in the Bay Area? Have you been to the Netherlands (or other bike-friendly countries of Northern Europe) and seen what top-notch infrastructure looks like?

Comment below.

  • jd_x

    I can’t understand why SF can’t do roundabouts right. The damn stop signs defeat the whole point. And SFMTA needs to protect the bike lanes: almost every car exiting the circle cuts across the bike lane on Townsend and Division. It’s only a matter of time before a bicyclists gets hit at these conflict points. Anybody at the SFMTA who gave a damn could sit at this intersection for all of 5 minutes and see this glaring problem and see that they must put a curb between the bike lane and the car lane. And since it’s all green protected lanes just west of the circle on Division, I cannot understand why they didn’t protect the bike lane on Division all the way until and through this circle.

    And don’t even get me started at the atrocity that is Townsend, especially at the Caltrain station where bicyclists literally haven to run the gauntlet between cabs, ride share, Muni buses, private cars, and even the bike share truck which always parks at the most dangerous pinch point.

  • p_chazz

    If you look at the Dutch roundabouts pictured, you will notice they take up a lot of real estate. I don’t see many areas where such roundabout would work in San Francisco. The streets are just too narrow. The buildings on the four corners of an intersection would need to be demolished to make room for it. Roundabouts are more appropriate for suburban settings that have wide boulevards. And I don’t like the idea of taking sidewalk space for a bicycle lane on Market Street. Pedestrian space should not be sacrificed for wheeled vehicles, be they cars or bicycles.

  • Roger R.

    Here’s a little more on Dutch round-abouts…this one with Streetcar tracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhqTc_wx5EU

  • gneiss

    In the United States, rotaries are not designed to slow traffic. Instead, they act as “slip lanes” where you merge into the existing traffic. This design does not slow traffic enough, which is why in many locations they need to add a stop sign as a remedial measure. If you look at the Dutch design, you’ll see that the round-about design is similar to a 4-way stop, where streets come in at 90 angle instead which forces drivers to turn significantly when entering it.

    As for Townsend, the city should ban private cars between 4th and 5th streets. There is simply no reason why people need to drive their own cars here, given the volume of people walking and biking and the profusion of public transit options. Most people who drive here are trying to use this street as a cut though to I-280 anyway, which blocks up traffic even more as people try to turn right. There was a time when the Caltrain station here didn’t carry many passengers and this intersection wasn’t as bad. However, that has changed, and the SFMTA needs to alter traffic flow to reflect that.

  • Stuart

    As marked, there actually isn’t a bike lane in the circle at all, which is part of what makes it a complete disaster. Instead, cyclists are supposed to merge with vehicle traffic before entering the circle, and then there’s just (in theory) a single shared lane in the circle. Thus the mostly-centered sharrows, and the sign about bike and car lanes merging when approaching from Townsend.

    But almost nobody actually does that. Most cyclists coming from the Townsend direction treat it more like a four-way stop, biking to the right of cars and proceeding “straight” onto Division, and most drivers seem to expect that behavior. If you are a cyclist trying to get from Townsend to Henry Adams when there’s any traffic though, good luck. You have to either aggressively merge on Townsend, or try to thread car traffic (much of which is also exiting onto Division, so will cross your path) within the circle.

    It’s easily the worst part of my commute—and since that includes the TNC loading zone on Valencia that pretends to be a bike lane, that’s saying something. I can’t imagine how anyone looking at it from the perspective of a bicyclist could be “impressed”.

  • SF Guest

    “As for Townsend, the city should ban private cars between 4th and 5th streets. There is simply no reason why people need to drive their own cars here . . .”

    Several residents with private garages and businesses with commercial loading docks and zones would rightfully disagree with you.

  • John French

    I follow the signage and merge with cars before entering the rotary, then “take the lane” once I’m in it. Several times I’ve had cars pull out into the circle and nearly hit me… the concept of “yielding to traffic in the circle” doesn’t seem to apply if you’re on a bike. The doctrine of “vehicular cycling” might actually work here… if drivers would actually treat cyclists as vehicles, which they evidently do not.

    There’s also the matter of trying to signal intent to exit the circle while steering around it, covering the brakes in case someone cuts you off, and not getting bounced off your bike by the atrocious potholes…

  • John French

    But Townsend is sufficiently wide to protect the eastbound bike lane on that block, perhaps by placing the taxi stand/bus stops on an island like the new bus islands on 7th and 8th.

  • SF Guest

    I certainly don’t disagree Townsend is sufficiently wide to protect the eastbound bike lane; I only voiced a concern over a permanent street closure to private cars.

  • Bruce

    Take a look at my plan for protected bike lanes and intersections along Townsend Street from 7th to 3rd. I’ve shared it with the SFMTA (which is planning a project there to improve safety). I’m working on modifying it to Dutch-ify the 8th & Townsend traffic circle. I’d love some feedback on my ideas!

    https://drive.google.com/open?id=1k9nyVPxlnZqCXekdKHNJDmFDfA4&usp=sharing

  • Bruce

    It’s sufficiently wide to protect both directions, with a Muni boarding island to boot:
    https://streetmix.net/BruceHalperin/6/townsend-street-in-front-of-caltrain

  • Asher Of LA

    Had the same though about roundabouts and space. In city built for walking, central land is scarce, and that is far far too much space to accommodate vehicles. The intersection, with a simple one lane for each direction, would be merely the size of the inner circle.

    Plus, if there were little or no car traffic, cyclists can negotiate a small intersection well without stopping (there’s a great example of this in a Dutch video somewhere). A little coasting suffices.

    So even though the pictured roundabouts are bike friendly, it’s not something you’d build if biking and walking is your focus.

  • Bruce

    Since the embedded map above doesn’t seem to be zooming properly, here’s a screengrab of the segment in front of Caltrain:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/679e6cdafd4f360929cc0a815b504489c87b94fd009bbebb8e65c7f21c446fa6.png

  • Thank you for writing this article. I really hope the people at the SFMTA are reading this. I just can’t comprehend why we keep getting such boneheaded and confusing intersection designs. Safely navigating an intersection should be simple and instinctive for everybody to comprehend. Why do we keep ending up with these stupid monster intersection designs that merges everybody together creating confusion and conflicts? Most of the problems he’s pointing out we all know about and experienced, and wouldn’t take very much time or money to fix. It’s frustrating to see such half-ass attempts at replicating Dutch-style bicycle infrastructure fail spectacularly because the effort was only half-ass.

  • Most of our streets are plenty wide enough to have safe intersections. The problem is that most of our intersections are monster-sized and only designed to accommodate vehicles, like the roundabout mentioned on Townsend. Every intersection is unique, but all of them should have the same safety characteristics: keep vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles as separated as possible; keep bicycle crossings perpendicular to vehicles so that everyone can see each other, and make everything instinctively simple for everyone to understand where they should go. Right most of our intersections fail every single one of those basic safety requirements. We can absolutely do a better job this.

  • DominicL

    Can you send this guy to Oakland while he’s in town? I’d love to hear his take on the East Bay’s bike infrastructure.

  • Ditto except for the Inland Empire. Maybe Riverside.

  • For the record, the roundabouts like in this video with priority for bikeways aren’t as safe as the ones that assign the priority to the motor traffic arms.

  • One thing to keep in mind about roundabouts is that because they are more efficient that square intersections, less queuing space is necessary. A lot of multilane roads have multiple lanes not due to traffic volumes, but rather to meet LOS requirements at the intersections. Thus, converting to a roundabout provides the opportunity to rip up some lanes, which suddenly provides a lot more room at intersections for a roundabout. Then, if it’s not a truck route, don’t design it for 53′ trailers.

  • Several comments.

    First, I’m surprised that he didn’t expressly call out the vertical curbs on the protected intersection. I guess he got there in a roundabout way by saying that it should be “sidewalk level” (but maybe not really), but it really can’t be understated how dangerous vertical curbs are for bicyclists, especially in relatively narrow channels like are present at that intersection.

    He also wanted to know, again, why the green of the bike lanes doesn’t continue across intersections. That’s a question Streetsblog has asked many times and has never actually received a satisfactory answer.

    Some jurisdictions will continue the green through an intersection, but the reason why more do not is because it is extremely problematic from a legal standpoint. Under Dutch traffic law, turning traffic must yield to any traffic continuing straight on either side. As a result, that means that the cyclists going straight have right-of-way over any driver turning across the bikeway (except on bikeways that indicate a yield/stop at that location). As far as I know, no American traffic law is similar. Instead, the turning traffic has the right-of-way, so continuing bikeway coloring through an intersection could be incorrectly interpreted as establishing priority that does not exist. The situation could be potentially lessened or mitigated completely by sticking up modified R10-15 signage, but I’m not an engineer or lawyer, so I could be wrong.

    It took the Netherlands a few decades to get where they are–but they started in the 1970s.

    Yes, the Dutch have been making improvements since the 1970s, but the big changes happened in the decade or so between the mid-1970s and late-1980s. That’s not to say that they haven’t been improving since the 1980s, especially since the Sustainable Safety policy only came into being in the early-1990s, but recent progress really has much slower (or even regressive). Dutch progress now is more incremental showy stuff like green light countdown kiosks than it is transformative projects such as doing a road diet to make a separated bikeway. Of course, the other side of the story is that due to the Sustainable Safety policy, something that violates its principles usually isn’t even built anymore. That removes the need to correct issues at a later date (often at great expense) as well as greatly reduces the cost of building good infrastructure by including it right in the midst of all the plans. Houten is a moderately well-known bike-friendly Dutch city, but it’s not expressly unusual as all new Dutch developments include a comprehensive plan of how bicyclists will be able to reach transit, schools, work, etc. and invest in the infrastructure necessary to accomplish that vision.

  • Vooch

    painted bike lanes on Van Buren don’t count as bike infrastructure 🙂

  • Vooch

    pedestrian zones exist the world over in commercial districts

    businesses love pedestrian zones

  • The bike lanes are the least of the problems. Van Buren is an inexcusable failure in so many ways. Unsignalized turns across three lanes of traffic signed for 50 MPH or more would never be allowed in The Netherlands. They wouldn’t even allow driveways on something like that but Van Buren has dozens, many at close intervals. Then it has too many traffic signals, the Dutch would grade-separate more intersections. I could go on.

  • Vooch

    Dude – agreed in so many ways.

    The painted and buffered bike lanes are a decent start in Riverside County. I hope it builds towards a true protected bike lane network. The roadways are so massive and carry so little motor traffic, it should be a no brained to add beautiful PBLs

  • If the leaders could be coerced into doing so, perhaps. Hopefully, SB743 helps them along with that.

  • PJ_van_Dijk

    The jury is still out on that one. It depends a lot on the situation, amount of traffic (cars vs cyclists), mentality (do cyclists actually wait, do cars tend to speed?) and some other factors.

    But both designs are much safer than a crossing.

  • No, the jury met over a decade ago and pronounced its results: not safer. As summarized by SWOV [PDF], roundabouts with priority for bicyclists only exist to be “bike friendly”.

  • John SFO

    Where the sixth paragraph of this article is concerned, I agree with Sloothaak’s dismay with the preference for stop signs instead of yield signs. This is needlessly annoying to bicyclists and motorists. I should like to know who the imbecile is who placed stop signs at the roundabout at Dewey Blvd. & Taraval St. US traffic engineering can be moronic. More roundabouts and fewer traffic signals are a wonderful idea, but how to convert intersections to roundabouts in San Francisco’s crowded environment remains to be seen.

    As for Sloothaak’s comments about taking lanes away from arterials and charging for parking & using the proceeds to pay for bike projects–not! Let’s have bicyclists–who are a tiny minority of road users–start paying road taxes instead before expropriating automobile traffic lanes, which will impede Muni, which most of us who choose not to drive will take instead of bicycling most of the time unless the distance is not too great or topographically nasty. If the weather is bad, the vast majority of us will immediately reject bicycling in favour of taking Muni or driving.

    Buses and trolleys move people more comfortably and safely, and can move more people than bicycles. Most of us don’t particularly fancy riding westbound into a strong, cold offshore headwind–especially when it’s drizzly. For those who are unhappy with the status quo, it is suggested that they move to the Netherlands.

  • PJ_van_Dijk

    Sorry, but that data is not conclusive. Dijkstra 2005 didn’t correctly adjust his data for the actual situations and differences in implementation. Most roundabouts with priority are within built-up areas, most with cyclists outside of the priority are not. It’s very hard to compare the two, and given the minor variations in accidents, even harder to draw hard conclusions from that. As I’ve said: the jury is still out. I’ll try to find some recent figures to demonstrate.