Protected crossings: Why not in Germany too?

I am Jarrit Grafe and I am studying civil engineering with a focus on transport infrastructure at hochschule21 in Buxtehude. The degree programme is a dual study programme with a three-month alternation between theory and practical phases. In my last practical phase, I worked at Mobycon. I mainly dealt with the differences in the planning process between Germany and the Netherlands.

When you cycle in the Netherlands, you can’t avoid the ‘protected crossing’. In every city I went to during my internship at Mobycon, I cycled through protected crossings, and every time, I always knew immediately how to behave— and yes, I felt safe crossing.

Now I’m back in Germany and miss the Dutch cycling infrastructure. Why does the cycle path suddenly stop here? Should I get into the left-turning lane of motorised traffic, or should I perhaps have followed the pedestrian crosswalks instead? Is the driver behind me honking because I’m doing something wrong, or is he just annoyed because he wants to pass?

Figure 1: Model of a protected crossing

Since every intersection is different, these problems arise anew every time. Even when there are cycle lanes in Germany, I sometimes wonder whether using it is really the safest option if it means I’m standing between two lorries and can’t even see the traffic signal.

Why don’t we take more inspiration from our neighbouring country when everything supposedly works so well there? Because I was able to experience its potential myself, I took a closer look at the protected crossing during my internship.

Protected crossings in the Netherlands

Protected intersections have various structural features to reduce the points of conflict between different road users and to increase safety. For example, smaller turning radii reduce the speed of turning vehicles. This creates more time to react to other road users.

In addition, a queuing area is created for right-turning vehicles when they have to wait for crossing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. A vehicle can easily stop and wait while the flow of straight ahead traffic is not interrupted.

Cycling traffic is separated and offset from motor vehicle traffic. On the one hand, this makes it possible to turn right directly without getting caught up in the action of the intersection (the only potential conflict is with pedestrians crossing). Additionally, the stop line for cyclists is well in front of the stop line for cars, improving visibility. Waiting cyclists can thus enter the intersection before motor vehicle traffic.

Figure 2: Characteristics of a protected crossing

Can a protected crossing be used in Germany?

For my project work, I tried to plan a protected intersection on an existing junction in my university town of Buxtehude. For the drawing, I used AutoCAD. For both the German and the Dutch version, I followed the current rules and best practices. I chose an intersection that should no longer be built according to the current state of the art: The intersection has triangular islands to facilitate faster right turns for motor vehicles. However, they are too unsafe for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

In fact, the re-planning was not as difficult as thought. Due to the area previously used for the triangular islands and the smaller radii, there is enough space to include the protective islands and the offset cycle lanes. Only in the south did additional space have to be spent, as there was no pavement there before.

So if it seems so easy to do, why don’t we have protected intersections in Germany?

The German crossing standard

In Germany we use a different model, which is described in the FGSV regulations and is named as the “safer” option.

For motor vehicle traffic, the German intersection design means more comfort when turning due to larger radii. However, there are no set-up areas for right-turning vehicles and tailbacks can occur.

Similar to the Dutch best practices, an advanced stop line for cyclists is common. This is located a few metres in front of the vehicle stop line and thus in front of the pedestrian waiting area. There can be no conflict between cyclists and pedestrians at this point.

Left turns for cycling traffic work via direct or indirect left turns. The indirect left turns are slightly safer, but take more time because you have to use two circulation phases. For this reason, there are even intersections with both cycling routes, so that you can decide for yourself how you want to cycle. This is confusing for some and does not provide uniform guidance.

Straight ahead cycling traffic is routed directly parallel to the carriageway, for better visibility— so, exactly the same argument that is given in the Dutch model for a separated ford. The German Insurers Accident Research (UDV) recently justifies this with turn-off assistants on lorries. These do not function properly if the ford is set back too far. However, there is also criticism of this study, for example from Darmstadt fährt Rad.

Figure 3: German standard of a junction

This already puts us in the middle of the discourse and the dilemma: there are no studies so far that can comprehensively compare the concepts and give us an objective answer. Mobycon is currently working together with the TU Dresden on a corresponding BASt research project. For the study, video analyses are being conducted at protected and conventional nodes in Germany and the Netherlands and detected conflicts are being evaluated. However, the results are still pending.

The discussion in Germany

Even with the concept commonly used in Germany, it is possible to design an objectively safe intersection. The accident figures in Germany in 2022 were below the EU average. With optimised signal switching of the traffic lights and consistency in the design of different intersections, it is possible to further increase comfort and safety.

However, there are a few details of the protected intersection from which cycling benefits greatly:

First, subjective safety: subjective safety means how safe you feel in a situation, regardless of how safe the situation actually is. FixMyCity conducted a study on this, comparing the subjective safety of different types of cycle paths. Not surprisingly, most people feel safer when cycling traffic is separated from motor vehicle traffic (by the way, this is true not only from the point of view of cyclists, but also from the point of view of motorists).

For intersections, the Susi 3D project investigated subjective safety at intersections using 3D simulations and qualitative interviews.

Through my research, I conclude that subjective safety is higher at protected intersections than at other types of intersections. Higher subjective safety can lead to more cycling, because precisely those people who do not cycle because of safety concerns are offered a better deal.

The only thing is: what good does it do us if cyclists feel safer but motorists are supposedly less able to react to cycling traffic?

The answer is error-forgiving design, which automatically comes from protected intersections. This means that mistakes can happen without having too serious an impact. If a cyclist is not seen in the turning process with the design that is common here, an accident usually occurs directly. In the Netherlands you have more time to react if the cyclist was not seen at the first moment.

But: Shouldn’t the goal be to design intersections in such a way that as few mistakes as possible happen?

And now we are back in the circle in which I found myself during my research. It is not possible to come to a final conclusion. Again and again one finds new arguments against the protected crossing. And again and again you can invalidate them – until a new argument emerges.

I am of the opinion that it is important to test protected crossings. Especially because it can lead to a higher cycling mode share and it works in the Netherlands. Even though the traffic climate is different from Germany, because most people in the Netherlands are more considerate of each other, both when cycling and driving, and the cycling mode share is already very high.

Model projects can be used to analyse whether the protected intersections are also possible in Germany, despite all the differences. Of course, this type of crossing is not the perfect solution for all occasions. But it can be a good approach to promote cycling further and in the long term.

The first projects are already being planned. In Darmstadt, the first protected intersection based on the Dutch design is to be built by 2024.

I very much hope that the protected intersection in Darmstadt will happen despite all resistance. Because we have a problem in Germany around intersections and junctions, and I hold it here like Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Author: Jarrit Grafe

This was originally published in German in October 2023:


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