A commuter town comparison between the Netherlands and Ireland – From Baarn to Naas: Part 1

— From Baarn to Naas – Part 1: Town Centre to Train Station

COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: Ireland is a long way behind the Netherlands when it comes to cycling, progress is being made, especially in major cities, but we have a long way to go, and even now we often repeat mistakes the Dutch made, and corrected, decades ago.

I have seen countless articles giving great comparisons between city scale cycling infra and the Dutch gold standard, and even a good few comparing rural infra, both on and off road. But what about the average sized town? I’ve seen a few great examples, but often as part of a piece focused on a city to city route, usually just passing through, or focused on a specific aspect of the Dutch infrastructure, like cycle parking at a town station.

I wanted to take a closer look at a commuter town, take a look at each type of road and street, see how and where connections exist or don’t exist, take a look at how Pedestrian and Cyclist friendly the town centre is, how easy is it to get to a cycleway that connects you to the nearest major city? What about connections the villages nearby?

This series of articles will be a deep dive into two towns; Baarn, located in the province of Utrecht, Netherlands and Naas, Co. Kildare, Ireland.

First of all a comparison of these two towns; Baarn is located about 40km south-east of Amsterdam, has a population of around 24,000, has a railway station located 1km from the town centre and the A1 Motorway towards Amsterdam 2km from the town centre. Naas is located about 30km from Dublin, has a population of around 24,000, has a railway station located 3.4km from the town centre, and the N7 Dual Carriageway to Dublin 2.5km from the town. For the purposes of a comparison of active travel provision this should be close enough to give us a good idea.

It is important to note that Baarn has been chosen only because it is similar in setting to Naas, the infrastructure here is not particularly noteworthy for the Netherlands, indeed it may not follow current best practice in many cases ( I will try to point these out when I can), but that is, in part, the point. This town isn’t unusually cycle friendly, just an average Dutch town, there is no reason why this couldn’t be achieved in Ireland, but it would require a change in thinking from our planners and politicians.

To begin with we will start with a key commuter link, getting from the town centre to the train station. Here Naas does begin with a disadvantage; the nearest station is a 40 minute walk, while Baarn has a much quicker 8-10 minute walk. Naas did originally have a station just 6 minutes from the centre, but this has been closed for some time and the line has been built on.

Cycling offers a better prospect, 10 minutes from town centre to the station, when coupled with a roughly 30 minute train journey, gets a commuter to Dublin in 40 minutes, compared to 51 minutes to Amsterdam from Baarn. But how easy is that cycle?

Town Centre

Beginning in the Town Centres of both towns, we can see an immediate difference

Figure 1: In Baarn town centre motor vehicles are guests
Figure 2: In Naas town centre pedestrians are pushed to the margins to maximise motor vehicle space

In Baarn the surface is continuous and clearly indicates that pedestrians have priority here, the vehicle is a guest, as a result there is a welcoming feel to the space, the trees and hanging flowers provide a nice feature, vehicles are clearly allowed here, but it’s clear that they do not dominate the space, cycling is viable and feels like it would be a fairly pleasant experience in this space.

Naas meanwhile shows a very hostile environment for pedestrians, the pavement here is fairly wide, but still feels squeezed into a space dominated by between 4 and 5 lanes of traffic and on street parking, pedestrian access to shops is limited by only being able to safely cross the road at the traffic lights (no pedestrian crossing is available at this junction on the 3 lane road visible to the right). The junction here feels very unwelcoming to pedestrians and cyclists, manoeuvres such as turning right across the fork would feel fairly dangerous to many cyclists, surrounded on both sides by flowing traffic while waiting for the light sequence.

Heading towards the station

We meet a junction shortly after leaving the town centre, in both cases leading towards a car park

Figure 3: In Baarn we see a cycle lane already present on one side of the road space

 

Figure 4: In Naas a superfluous right turn lane results in a difficult to cross unsignalled junction for pedestrians

The side to side width of these spaces is similar, around 12-12.5 metres shared between pedestrian, cyclist and motor vehicle, however in Baarn we see clearly marked space for pedestrians and cyclists on the left, the road width itself in Baarn is around 6.5 metres, giving a relatively generous 3.25 metres clearance for vehicles travelling each direction.

The road space is about a metre wider in Naas, giving an extremely generous 3.75 metres of space to each carriageway, reclaiming this space and reconfiguring the split between pedestrian, cyclist and vehicles would go some way to making this a more equitable space for all. The removal of the right turn lane on the side street (Wolfe Tone Street) in Naas would also go some way to easing the challenges posed to pedestrians trying to cross such a wide road.

The red signpost in Baarn has indicative distances in kilometres for the cycle routes between towns and cities in the area, on the far side of the junction the road narrows to enable a second cycle lane to be added on the opposite side.

Moving slightly further up the road we come to a junction with a residential area

Figure 5: The same main street as before is now significantly narrower in road width (5.5m)

 

Figure 6: In Naas the available space is reduced, however road space remains the same (7.5m)

The main street into the town in Baarn is now significantly narrower; an extra metre of space has been taken to allow cycle paths and pedestrian space on both sides of the road (enough space is available to allow for some on street parking on the left), this narrow space for vehicles encourages low speeds while passing through this increasingly residential space (note the speed limit in the town centre of Baarn is 30km/h, compared to 50km/h in Naas).

The space in Naas is definitely more restricted here, but two extra metres of space could easily form a cycleway on the left or a footpath on the right beyond the junction, the reduced speeds resulting from a narrow road space could then make cycling on the road viable, especially if the road surface was changed to visually indicate the low speed zone.

The visible junction on the right in both images leads to a residential space, in Baarn this junction gives clear priority to pedestrians and cyclists, as it is a minor residential road joining the major road, the pavement remains at a continuous height, with a sloped down kerb right at the roadway for cars to gain access to the side street. The side road space is about 5 metres wide, allowing two cars to pass each other slowly.

In Naas we see that the pedestrian space gives way to the road space at this junction, there is no provision of dropped kerbing, or better a raised crossing, for mobility impaired pedestrians, and the road space is a generous 6.25 metres, with wide sweeping kerbs allowing cars to enter the side road at speed.

Road Junctions

We now approach a moderately sized road junction, in both locations the junction has pedestrian crossings, indicating that we have reached an area where car priority has increased, but not superseded pedestrian or cyclist priority.

Figure 7: The junction in Baarn is visually distinct from the surrounding road surface, highlighting an area of caution to the driver

 

Figure 8: In Naas there are markings on the junction, but they mainly serve to aid in vehicular progression and there is nothing marking this as a distinct high awareness area

The major distinction between the two locations is the profile of the junction, in Baarn, the entire crossing is a raised platform with a visually distinct yellow surface colour, and pedestrian crossings are level from footpath to footpath ensuring easy access for those with impaired mobility. The junction features a narrow profile curve at the turns, forcing cars to manoeuvre slowly in this area of pedestrian and cyclist interaction. The speed limit remains 30km/h at this location, ensuring a safe speed in the built up area.

In Naas we see the road surface continues at level, pedestrian crossings are dished here permitting mobility impaired crossing, but with risks of the sloping surface negatively impacting mobility. The junction features wide curves at the turn, allowing drivers to take the turn faster than is necessary. A 50km/h sign is visible just beyond the junction; restrictions remain 50km/h at the junction and along the adjoining roads.

Further on we come to another junction, at this point Naas now provides an advisory painted cycle lane on both sides of the road, Baarn retains a narrow street profile (6.5m), this time without cycling provision for the most part, the expectation being that cyclists will take position on the road.

Figure 9: While Baarn does not have cycle lanes either side of this road, one is provided at the junction to allow cyclists to bypass the junction
Figure 10: In Naas an advisory cycle lane is now visible, however this ends abruptly at the junction, leaving cyclists to fend for themselves in the junction and giving no visual warnings to drivers

In Baarn the road remains limited to 30km/h, cyclists share the road on the approach to the junction, but at the junction a cycle lane appears allowing cyclists to take the corner safely and avoid vehicles turning left, this lane also includes a crossing point if cyclists wish to cross towards the road on the right from the cycle path. Again we see the red signage which indicates a cycling route, which will indicate distance to towns.

In Naas advisory cycle lanes have appeared on the road, however they end abruptly at the junction, leaving cyclist to either mount the kerb to cross at the very wide pedestrian crossing (With no pedestrian sequence at the lights) or fend for themselves crossing the junction. Markings disappear giving motor vehicles no visual cues to maintain awareness as the cross the junction or turn. The very wide junction again contains broad curves for the corners. The junction leads to a small housing estate, Naas GAA club and a school, with no indication of a slower ‘school zone’, and poor cycling provision to reach the school. On the opposite side of the junction the road widens to accommodate a right turn lane.

The Road Widens

Figure 11: The available space has widened considerably, but is used to provide green space and a wide grassy median, the width of the driving lanes is now 3.75m, but speed limit remains 30km/h

 

Figure 12: In Naas the road has widened enough to include a diagonal line median the size of a car lane, the cycle lanes remain advisory, meaning the car lanes are 3.75 m here, the speed limit is about to increase to 60km/h

Here the road has widened considerably, as the speed limit is still only 30km/h cyclists are deemed safe to mix with cars, the widened street space is used to provide a wide green traffic island with crossing spaces for pedestrians that doesn’t feel ‘hemmed-in’.

In Naas the space shared by cyclists and cars is the same as in Baarn, however traffic speeds are still 50km/h at this point and are about to increase to 60km/h. The wider space allows car drivers to feel they can safely increase their speed, the ‘advisory’ nature of the cycle lane means that drivers view it as space they are permitted to encroach on, losing any psychological benefit of the ‘narrow’ space between the advisory lane and the hatched section. The advisory cycle lane continues on through the 60km/h zone.

School Zone

In Baarn the road to the station now passes a ‘school zone’ this is clearly marked on the road and a coloured pencil totem is visible in the streetscape to indicate the zone. A cycle way on the school side of the road begins here and continues toward the train station.

Figure 13: A ‘school zone’ marked with road markings and a pencil totem, this pairing is seen at other schools in the area as a consistent design

 

Figure 14: Example of approach to a school in Naas, no indications of school zone

Roundabout

In Naas we reach the Sallins Road roundabout, straight on leads to the station.

Figure 15: In Naas we see a fairly modern design of roundabout, raised shared pedestrian and cyclist crossings show some improvement in design philosophy

 

Figure 16: In Baarn, a roughly equivalent roundabout, here all arms have a single lane of traffic; an off road cycle lane has continuous priority around the entire roundabout, set back from the main orbit

The road from the town centre intersects with the Naas ring road at the Sallins road roundabout, this is a fairly well designed roundabout, raised pedestrian and cycling crossings force a reduction in speed by drivers, the use of zebra crossings also gives pedestrian priority over vehicles.

In Baarn the entry points to the roundabout are single lane, reducing speeds and the distance required to cross the street here. A continuous cycle lane orbits the roundabout, set back from the junction, allowing a free flow for cyclists in a position within driver’s line of sight.

Naas performs quite well here but is let down by use of shared space mixing cyclists and pedestrians and wide dual lane entry points.

Continuing on from the roundabout in Naas an advisory cycle lane continues into the village of Sallins. Speed limits remain at 60km/h until approximately 500m before the train station is reached, when speed reduces to 50km/h.

Figure 17: The advisory nature of the cycle lanes results in impossibly narrow driving lanes with a very wide median; significantly reducing the median width and creating a protected cycle lane here would greatly improve the safety of the route.

This section on approach to Sallins would benefit greatly from reduced speed limits; the road width could also be significantly reduced, with the potential to create green spaces as seen in Figure 13, wider footways and protected cycle provision or low speed shared space.

Figure 18: A wide main road and 50km/h speed limit force this junction to be light controlled for pedestrians, generous wide turns are again present.

Just before reaching the station in Sallins we get to a junction, this could benefit again from a lower speed limit, a reduction of main road width and removal of the right turn lane in each direction. As it is close to the station it could also benefit from raised pedestrian and cyclist crossings, allowing easy movement from the left carriageway to the station side of the road. A contra flow cycleway from here into the station may also be beneficial to ease access.

Station Facilities

Finally we reach the station in both towns; an immediate difference can be seen in terms of cycle parking

Figure 19: A very small number of cycle stands are visible at Naas and Sallins station, which is dominated by car parking

 

Figure 20: In Baarn a huge area is dedicated to cycle parking, only a small number of car parking spaces are required.

In Baarn a large area provides cycle parking for a huge number of bicycles, there are comparatively few car parking spaces available nearby. At Sallins station there is cycle provision at both sides of the railway, including a selection of recently installed cycle lockers, however there remain very few provided cycle parking spaces, roughly enough spaces to lock 20-30 bicycles.

Conclusion

What can we learn from this?

The provision of physical cycle infrastructure in Baarn is good, but it is not applied universally, instead we see two key choices that make the town considerably safer to cycle and walk around even without physical infrastructure.

It seems the absolute key is the speed limit, almost the entirety of Baarn is a 30km/h zone, at this speed it is deemed that most streets are safe for cyclists to share with cars, relative speed of travel will be closer, so cars will feel less ‘held-up’ by cyclists, this low speed also makes it significantly safer for pedestrians and means most crossings are safe for pedestrian use even without lights or other traffic management, as braking distances  are significantly reduced and driver awareness is significantly higher at low speeds.

The second key element is the design of the road space itself, driving lanes are intentionally narrowed, medians are kerbed to create a psychological sense of a narrow space which leads to reductions in driving speeds, left/right turning lanes are generally avoided as car progression is a lower priority than pedestrian and cyclist safety.

In addition to these key changes there are of course many other design elements, such as reduced corner radii, raised platforms for crossings, continuous footway/cycleway at minor junctions etc. all contribute to a more walk-able and cycle-able environment. A large section of the town centre being pedestrianized encourages people to walk or cycle into the town.

The changes required to make a safer and more accessible space for walking and cycling are often not found in major projects but in small place making interventions. The biggest task it seems would be narrowing the excessively large carriageways, and creating a 30km/h zone in the town, are Irish commuter towns up to the challenge?

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting comments. There is an absence of the frequency of train from Baarn to Amsterdam as well as the capacity on these trains and the time the journey takes. What you will find is that it is much superior to our absence of rolling stock and frequency.
    You will also find that Centraal Station in Amsterdam is Central, unlike Hueston which is either a 30 minute walk to the city centre or another battle for either a feeder bus or the Luas.
    At the moment and until the transport network in Ireland works – the car is King!

  2. Great article. Well done Conor on choosing these journeys as comparators. The local contexts appear remarkably similar. Not easy to find such good matches. Great way to illustrate the differences.

  3. On the topic raised above about train frequency to A’dam Centraal, here is this morning’s schedule (vertrek means “departs”, aankomst means “arrival”, reisduur means “travel duration”, the 11:39 train is one minute late)

    vertrek 10:09 aankomst 10:49 reisduur 0:40

    vertrek 10:39 aankomst 11:19 reisduur 0:40

    vertrek 11:09 aankomst 11:49 reisduur 0:40

    vertrek 11:39 met 1 minuut vertraagd aankomst 12:19 met 1 minuut vertraagd reisduur 0:40

    vertrek 12:09 met 1 minuut vertraagd aankomst 12:49 reisduur 0:39

    vertrek 12:39 aankomst 13:19 reisduur 0:40

    vertrek 13:09 aankomst 13:49 reisduur 0:40

    vertrek 13:39 aankomst 14:19 reisduur 0:40

  4. There are lots of articles on cycling in Dublin and Dutch cities so it was good to compare a smaller town in each country. We now have adequate funding to provide good quality cycle infrastructure in Ireland but still have a long way to go on quality. I hope that you will be making a submission to Kildare Co Co re their next County Development Plan. We will need a proper Cycling Plan/Strategy for all the towns in Kildare with monitoring and reporting of outcomes.

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