Traffic Enforcement in the Netherlands

We had the opportunity to spend about two hours with Chief Smoorenburg during our visit to Amsterdam (the chief’s HQ was outside Utrecht, a one hour train ride, 30 minute tram ride and 20 minute walk from Amsterdam). The Chief is responsible for traffic enforcement for the county surrounding Utrecht.

We had the opportunity to spend about two hours with Chief Smoorenburg during our visit to Amsterdam (the chief’s HQ was outside Utrecht, a one hour train ride, 30 minute tram ride and 20 minute walk from Amsterdam). The Chief is responsible for traffic enforcement for the county surrounding Utrecht.

That’s PDOT bicycle coordinator Roger Geller (left) and BTA Executive Director Evan Manvel with the Chief.

Perhaps the first thing that we noted was that the Chief’s unit had 80 officers for an area with 1.1M residents. By way of comparison, Commander Bill Sinnott tells me that Portland, with a population of about 550,000, has 46 officers in the Traffic Division. So the resource levels are not radically different relative to population.

The secret to why accident rates in the Netherlands are much lower than the U.S. must lie somewhere else.

So with 25-40% of trips made by bicycle, where does the Chief focus his enforcement resources? On cars. That’s still where he believes the biggest potential reduction in accidents will come from.

But what about the bikes – do they run red lights? Yes, I’m afraid it’s a worldwide phenomenon [which I do not condone]. Of course, the stats on that may be different than in the U.S., since there are virtually no stop signs to run. During our time in Amsterdam we saw all of about three stops signs. Short of a traffic light, yield is the general way of dealing with conflicting traffic streams. This seems to make both cars and bikes pay more attention – and perhaps more respect – to each other.

Another eye-opener was the Chief’s response to complaints about speeding. When they are requested to do speed enforcement on a street, they first analyze the engineering of the street. If they conclude that the street is designed for a higher speed than the posted limit, they won’t try to bring the speeds down by enforcement – they turn the issue over to the transportation department to fix the road instead!


14 responses to “Traffic Enforcement in the Netherlands”

  1. If you can come up with any tips that could be used in Portland to help the escalating red light running problem, it would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Over at Sam Adams’ blog, Linda Ginenthal of PDOT is posting about her experiences on our trip to the Netherlands.

    Linda reminds me of one leg up for traffic safety in the Netherlands that I forgot to mention. In an auto/bike crash, the auto driver is assumed by law to be responsible, and has the burden of proof to demonstrate otherwise. This is one mechanism that makes drivers pay more attention!

  3. When wannabe auto drivers go through traffic school(which normally takes about a year btw!!! On contrary to the US where you almost get your drivers license for free), they will learn to always watch out for cyclists. It’s one of those things that, if you don’t pay obvious attention to, while taking the driving test, you will fail it.

    Traffic law is enforced by the police for both car and bicycle riders. I never see a police officer stopping a cyclist here in Portland because he ran a red light or because his/her lights aren’t working.

    Having traffic laws enforced is your first line of defense for preventing accidents. As long a there are no obvious traffic laws or regulations for bike safety like lamps, reflectors and all that, you really can’t teach people how to ride a bike safely for both automobiles and cyclist.

    I remember being stopped by an officer because the red lamp thingy on the back of my bike was broken. Instead of being red it now was a white light which of course was confusing for car drivers who would think I was approaching them.
    I was given 24h to fix it and had to come by the station to show it that I did fix it or I would be send a ticket.

    Of course I was annoyed, but in fact that is really where your first line of defense is, traffic and safety laws that are being enforced. If you want to reduce accidents here in Portland you will have to start by educating people. It should be part of traffic school education.
    Children in Holland all have to take a ‘traffic exam’ when they’re in 4th grade. This is about the time they will start to ride their bike to school by themselves.
    Traffic classes are being given by a police officer and the exam will be in 2 parts one with all kinds of questions that they have to fill out and the practical part will be on their bike. They will learn how to signal when they want to turn left or right, and the basic traffic laws. If they pass they get an diploma, some don’t pass and have to take another class.
    Funny thing is that this forces a lot of children from immigrants(Moroccan, Turkey, Aruba etc) to whom this biking thing is totally foreign, to learn how to ride a bike and learn about traffic laws as well.
    There are even bike riding schools for older female immigrants it’s part of the integration education ;-)
    Maybe the traffic classes would be a good idea for Portland children as well? After all, if you want things to change you have to start at the base ;-)

    And as I wrote earlier, it’s all in the mind ;-) Dutch people are raised on bikes, every car driver was a biker rider before he took a year long course, long driving hours and shed loads of money to get his permit. People who live in Holland can’t imagine a society without bicycles, they are part of every day life, like brushing your teeth in the morning.
    The country is so small, there are places where you can’t even go by car, parts of Rotterdam and Amsterdam are better accessible by bike.
    Even politicians ride their bike to congress ;-)


  4. Chris:

    Thanks for another great post from your trip. However, I think there may be other ways to determine relative need for enforcement than number of officers per capita.

    Have you looked at need for levels of enforcement service based on number of lane miles in each city? Or, more to the point, the amount of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)?

  5. Greg, those are probably very valid comparisons to make, unfortunately I don’t have that data. I was just making the point that at an order of magnitude level, the resources were not vastly different.

  6. I guess I disagree. If you look at the scale of the space and volume of the motorized traffic that Amsterdam Police serve, I’d be shocked if it wasn’t substantially less than the service levels Portland Police would optimally maintain.

    Portland is working towards a more compact urban form. Amsterdam has a model compact urban form. That’s significant in terms of how many lane miles there are to cover.

    To give you a sense for how big a difference land use can make, here’s a domestic comparison. Portland has 538,544 people and is 145 swaure miles. Oklahoma City has 528,042 people and is 621 square miles. (numbers found at Wikipedia) That mega-difference in land use translates into major differences in service areas for the Police. I could not find the area for Amsterdam in my quick search.

    Amsterdam started with a high bike mode split in the 70s when their paradigm shift occurred. Their motorized VMT started at a lower point than ours. The disparity has to have only grown since that point. There are currently 26.8 million miles per day driven in Portland. (anyone want to figure out how many trips to the moon that is?)

    I think the impact of suburbs on our community (not always negative), the impact of car culture, and the impact of land use really make a better comparison for necessary service levels of traffic safety enforcement.

  7. Greg, I don’t really think we diagree, we’re just working at different levels of precision :-)

    Also, the Chief was from Utrecht, not Amsterdam. So it’s probably more like Washington County than Portland itself for comparison.

  8. I love Amsterdam too, but I told Chris that he and the PDOT gang should have just taken the S-bahn into Frankfurt when they landed to see a big, modern, busy city with every mode you could ask for….bikes, cars, trucks, lightrail, commuter rail, streetcars and no doubt lots of lessons. Maybe next time.

  9. Hi,

    I came across this site doing a search on dutch immigrants to Portland. My dutch husband and I (I’m originally from S. California) are considering moving to Portland this year.

    I lived in in Holland from 1998 – 2002 outside of Utrecht and am very familiar with riding a bicycle in the Netherlands from an expat/immigrant viewpoint as well as hearing years of stories from the locals and my Dutch family.

    I can tell you that one of the main reasons I believe there is more awareness around bikes is fear. There was more than one incident when I lived there where a drunk or unobservant cyclist hit a car who was in the right of way and yet the auto driver was held responsible. The dutch have a saying “regels zijn regels” meaning rules are rules and pretty much hands down for years it was always the car drivers fault by default. Before I moved back to the states I believe they had adjusted the laws to reflect the inbalance in favor of auto drivers.

    The country is indeed a culture of cycling. Most dutch joke that no one owns a bike they just take the one closest to them. Stealing bikes is such a huge problem that I know many expats and locals who just got in the habit of paying 20 euros from the local junk to get a bike because they knew it would be stolen.

    This mindset in a weird way I believe contributes to the fear and greater awareness of cyclists. The reason being there tends to be a recklessness on the part of a lot of cyclists in town and cities because they don’t have an attachment to their bike like long distance or pleasure riding cyclists in the country do. The fear thing comes out in how many cyclists in the city ride with a “get out of my way or else attitude” which is unnerving to first time visitors and new residents.

    As an outsider just briefly reading this topic I would say that one reason I enjoyed riding a bike in Holland was because of the general ease to park my bike. Unfortunately most places had little protection from theft. Some small towns like the one I lived in had manned fenced bicycle lots that you paid a small fee to have your bike safely parked. Bicycle lanes were another benefit.

    To me the best thing is to raise the awareness and acceptance around a cycling city for transportation purposes vs just leisure. Increasing safety around the bicyclist and their needs (separate lanes, safe parking structures) vs. increased punishment for auto drivers.

    If someone has any questions for me specifically I am more than willing to share my experience.

    Hope this provides some helpful additional insight.

    Julia Ferguson Andriessen

  10. I live in a town, pop. ca. 80,000, where bike lanes and bike riders are increasing all the time. Two major problems: 1.In general, neither bikers nor vehicle drivers know what to expect from the other, so it is scary to ride a bike where there is very much traffic. 2. Although there is a law that requires bikers to have adequate lighting at night, it is not enforced, and drivers practically have heart attacks, and near accidents, when they notice a biker at the last moment. Would a solution be to require both bikers’ licenses and drivers’ licenses, with each requiring knowledge of traffic laws pertaining to both bikes and vehicles, to be tested before a license to ride/drive is granted?
    We need help and advice! Thank you.

  11. Joan –

    I think there is a tendency for police not to enforce those kinds of bicycle violations because they see the bicyclist as mostly endangering themselves, rather than the public.

    I would suggest a public campaign, including organizagin a concerted effort by police to give warning tickets to bicyclists. If you are in a northern climate, spring is probably the best time for that. School programs get at kids, but that doesn’t deal with the adults who ride on the wrong side of the road because they are more comfortable facing traffic.

    In addition, you need to include education of drivers about the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists. The truth is that motorists are more dangerous to bicyclists than the other way around. So whatever public education you do directed at bicyclists also needs to communicate an appropriate message to motorists. Focus on how people should ride, not what they shouldn’t do.

    As for licenses, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to set up more barriers to people riding their bikes. Its kind of like a license to use the sidewalk because some pedestrians violate the law. And if you have ever been a pedestrian trying to share a sidewalk with young teens on bikes, you don’t want to discourage them from using the road instead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *