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Reflection: Considering diverse human experiences in Dutch bicycle planning

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

One year ago, I wrote a post about how user experience for cycling is happening in the Netherlands. This current post is a qualifier of that post: it aims to expand the picture painted.

Dutch cycleways are lined with many best-practice universal principles of design (see book of Lidwell et al). Design manuals such as the one by CROW align with user experience and usability principles. And in both more typical Dutch bike infrastructure, and in the case of cycle highways, a consideration of people's needs is apparent. Thus, I argued that "despite different contexts and language, both practices [user experience/usability, and Dutch street design] are thinking through how people will actually use the environments that they are creating."

Dutch cycling and street design principles aligned with universal principles of design (Sources: Giacomin, J. (2014) for human-centered design, Morville, P. (2004) for user experience design, Nielsen, J. (1994) for usability)

True, and this is a remarkable shift from in many places in the world, where people cycling are treated like cars, or are not considered at all. However, this does not paint a full picture. If there is user experience for cycling, then who is the user? And what kind of future are you planning for? Beyond the idea of user experience, we need also to think about the diverse users and goals that exist. This includes people that may not currently cycle, but that we want to make comfortable, so that cycling is an inclusive practice.

In Dutch practice, many different types of people cycle for all different purposes. Diversity exists in multiple ways, for example: age, race, class, culture, physical ability, cycling identity and meaning, trip purpose, motivation, and riding style. In many cases, I think cycleway design works an enabler of this diversity (an, not the only enabler). But this is not always the case, and I will use a brief example of the Vredenburg cycleway in Utrecht to explain.

Claimed by some to be the busiest cycleway in the world, the bike path on Vredenburg is a key connector of the historical center of Utrecht to the central train station (busiest in the Netherlands). The area for cycling has been widened, and images have gone viral on social media. Logically, many remark on how much space is given to cycling, as this is quite significant.

Widening of Vredenburg cycleway in Utrecht, the Netherlands (Tweet: Lennart Nout)

However, despite the path becoming wider, it is apparently still insufficient for traffic. Furthermore, by approaching the situation from a traffic perspective, planning for numbers instead of people's experiences, it is not considering diverse users. Widening to deal with increasing volumes is done commonly with cars in traffic planning (although it's not proven to be effective), but who is this improving conditions for, and what is the end vision of cycling on the path?

How do diverse users experience a busy 7 meter wide cycle path differently? Think about: how does this affect children and the elderly, people that ride slower, people that have to carry groceries or other persons, and those with varied riding styles? Already as a mode of transport, people cycling have different characteristics and needs from cars. But the many types of people taking part in an embodied practice also have their own distinct considerations.

People cycling are not a homogenous design vehicle, and this is where there are limits to the current Dutch practice. Of course, this is not a problem everywhere in the Netherlands. But the Vredenburg path is an example of where it's more apparent.

So: while user experience for cycling is happening in the Netherlands, there is room to think further about diverse users of the cycle paths and their needs. Assuming cyclists are a uniform design vehicle limits the potential of street design as a tool for inclusiveness. Instead of a vision of traffic, we can choose to have one where diverse types of people cycling with different riding styles interact and can co-exist.

Note: kudos to the city of Utrecht, who are now thinking on a network level and have plans to create more cycling options in the area rather than further widen the existing path.

Want professional guidance on better understanding different user groups in your city? See what BUX offers for organizations. Want to learn more about how yourself? See our online and in-person courses.

Image credit clockwise from top-right: CROW Manual cover (CROW), Sustainable Safety cover (SWOV), two photos of people by author




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