On a foggy Monday morning in May 2016, 14 Amsterdam officials, engineers and civil servants gathered nervously at Alexanderplein – a busy intersection near the city centre with three tramlines – where many people were walking, driving, and, as in any Dutch city, riding bicycles. With a flip of a switch, the traffic controls were shut off for all transport modes, in all directions.
This live pilot project came about as a result of the rapid growth in cycling in some Amsterdam neighbourhoods. Nearly 70% of all city centre trips are by bicycle, and more space is needed on the bike networks. Traffic designers are deviating from standard design manuals to accommodate this need. Among the tactics being used are the removal of protective barriers, altering light phases, reducing vehicular speed limits and designating entire corridors as “bicycle streets”. Designers have created their own toolbox of solutions for other Dutch cities to use.
Alexanderplein, a busy intersection near Amsterdam’s centre and a popular commuter route. Officials decided to shut off traffic lights as a pilot, hoping to improve traffic flow. Photograph: Meredith Glaser But switching off traffic lights for all modes on a busy intersection for days on end steps up a level of disruption. Even in Amsterdam, the pilot sparked debate among engineers and politicians.
“It took eight months to plan this intervention,” says Amsterdam’s former bicycle program manager, Iris van der Horst. “We had to get all the stakeholders on board, including the police and public transit authority. Everyone was nervous and wanted to be sure safety was not compromised.”
The pilot is part of a larger mobility strategy across the city to make more room for cyclists and pedestrians. That means limiting access and space for private vehicles.
“Amsterdam’s public space is limited,” says the vice mayor for traffic, Pieter Litjens, who ultimately approved the pilot. “We need to be thoughtful and strategic about who and what uses that space.”
The city measured the impact of the intervention through a technical study, evaluating safety, conflict, and traffic flow. In additional, the Urban Cycling Institute studied the impact on human behaviour, perceptions, and experiences.
In the weeks before the lights were shut off, we intercepted about 200 cyclists on their morning and evening commutes. A majority of them disliked the intersection and made complaints: “it’s chaotic”; “messy”; “no one obeys the lights”; “the lights are all green at the same time”.