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The Dutch Approach



British roads are not designed like those in Holland, where Shared Space originally started.   The Dutch take care to distinguish between roads, streets and lanes, build them differently, and have clear and widely understood differences in the expected use of and behaviour on them.  They build them following the principles of “Sustainable Safety”.   It is the principle of design by which Dutch roads and streets are made to be easy to use, self-explanatory and safe by default.  Dutch roads are different, they're a pleasure to drive on.  Very easy to use and as a result, very safe.

It was introduced and quickly adopted by all road managers in 1992 and has since been very successful. In 2005 it was revised and extended.  The approach began with establishing that the road system was inherently unsafe.  The goal was to fundamentally change the system by taking a person as a yardstick. The guidelines for design were to be the physical vulnerability of a person, but also what a person can and wants to do (humans make mistakes and don’t always follow rules).  There is now an integral approach to the road system which refers to ‘human’ (behavior), ‘vehicle’ (including bicycles!) and ‘road’ (design). Roads and vehicles must be adapted to the human capabilities and the human has to be educated enough to be able to operate a vehicle on a road in a safe manner.  The approach is pro-active, it wants to remedy gaps and mistakes in the traffic system before crashes occur. So Sustainable Safety is about a lot more than just infrastructure.

Sustainable Safety is based on five principles: 

  1. Functionality of roads

  2. Homogeneity of mass, speed and direction of road users

  3. Predictability of road course and road user behavior by a recognizable road design

  4. Forgivingness of both the road/street environment and the road users

  5. State awareness by the road user​


1. Functionality of roads

To the Dutch, the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose.  To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.

  1. Through Roads for high volumes of fast traffic on longer distances

  2. Local Access Roads from which end destinations can be reached

  3. Distributer Roads which connect through roads and local access roads


All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers.  This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B.  Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed.


2. Homogeneity of mass, speed and direction of road users

Large differences in speed and mass of different road users in the same space must be eliminated as much as possible.  Road users can best be forced to travel at lower speeds by road design.  This works better than using signs.  If crashes occur at lower speed differences they cause a lot less damage to the most vulnerable road user.  Where speed differences cannot be eliminated types of traffic must be separated.  On roads with higher speeds road users travelling in opposite directions should be separated by a division as well, to further eliminate conflicts.  Cycle paths and pedestrians are always separated from these through roads, following the principle of homogeneity of mass as well as speed.  Because of this principle the Dutch will never implement a combined bus/cycle lane as is common in some other countries. Eliminating crossing movements is possible with roundabouts because on roundabouts traffic flows in less conflicting directions than on an ordinary traffic junction.


3. Predictability of road course/road user behavior by recognizable road design

Road design should be so consistent that road users instantly understand what they can expect and what is expected of them on a certain type of street or road. The road design itself gives information about the type of road/street. If the street is paved with bricks, there are parked cars and the street is shared with cyclists and gives access to homes, the road user will instantly know and feel this is a 30km/h (19mph) local access street.  However, if the road has two carriageways separated by a median, there is no parking and cyclists have their own cycle paths, it is clear to the road user that this is a through road.

4. Forgivingness of both the road/street environment and the road users

Humans make errors and willingly or unwillingly break rules.  This is a given that cannot be changed.  So roads and streets should be designed in such a way that this natural human behavior does not lead to crashes and injuries.  An example is a shoulder with a semi-hard pavement.  A road user coming off the main road will not crash immediately; the semi-hard shoulder will give this road user the ability to get back to the main carriageway.  The equivalent for cyclists is a curb with an angle of 45 degrees instead of 90 degrees. Hitting this curb with your front wheel will not immediately result in a fall. Forgivingness towards other road users is enhanced when road design leads to a predictable behavior of road users. A result of this principle is that motorized traffic sometimes gives priority to cyclists even if they don’t have it.  Because it is so clear where the cyclists want or need to go the motorist anticipates their behavior and gives the cyclist more room than he or she is legally obliged to, often to the surprise of especially foreign cyclists.


5. State awareness by the road user

This principle is about the ability of road users to assess their own capabilities to perform tasks in traffic.  This has to do with understanding vehicle operation and knowing how speed changes the behavior of the vehicle to understand what speed is safe in a certain situation. But it also has to do with the assessment of speeds of other traffic users to estimate crossing times for instance.  These abilities can be improved by education but there are limits, for instance when road users are children or elderly.

Effects of Sustainable Safety

Many countries have seen a considerable drop in traffic injuries and deaths since the 1970s.  Reasons were the introduction of seatbelts, drink-driving laws, helmet laws for motorcyclists and mopeds, car cages and airbags.  But in the Netherlands there also was a dramatic drop in injuries and deaths of the most vulnerable road users: cyclists and pedestrians.  Traffic researches attribute this difference to the introduction of Sustainable Safety.

Ten years after the introduction researchers found a traffic death and injury reduction of, on average, 6% per year - and that wasn’t the only positive outcome.  When the costs of the measures that had to be taken were compared with the benefits of the reduced traffic injuries and deaths it was found that the benefits outweighed the costs by a factor of four.

Students of the Northeastern University in Boston compared the Netherlands with the US. After analysing all they had learned on their study tour in the Netherlands in 2010 they found the following: “In the 1970’s, the Netherlands and the US had the same traffic fatality rate.  Both countries have seen dramatic decreases in traffic fatality rates over the past forty years.  However, the Netherlands has put much more emphasis than the US on making their roads inherently safer.  The result: the Netherlands has reduced its traffic fatality rate to less than half of the US traffic fatality rate; the Netherlands now has a traffic fatality rate that’s only 23% of its 1970 rate, compared to the US whose traffic fatality rate is 54% of its 1970 rate.”

So the system of Sustainable Safety is undisputedly successful.


SWOV Factsheets (English, PDF) from the Institute of Road Safety Research (Netherlands)

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