Clever Traffic System Helps Dutch Cyclists Sail Through Green Lights

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Flo, a bike traffic system in Utrecht, the Netherlands
In response to mounting frustrations over long red light wait times, Utrecht is now home to a clever system that keeps bike traffic moving at a smooth, non-aggravating 'flo.' . (Photo: Springlab)

Now matter how you choose to get around town — car, bike, moped or self-balancing electric unicycle — there’s one thing that we can all agree on: getting stuck at red light after red light after red light stinks. Big time.

In the bustling Dutch city of Utrecht, a recent study showed that waiting at red lights ranks as the top grievance amongst cyclists. A shared red light angst isn’t entirely surprising considering that canal-laced Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city, boasts a sizable population of on-the-go (and maybe a touch harried) university students. Utrecht is also slated to be home to the world’s largest bike parking facility, a three-level, 12,500-bike capacity affair that’s going in directly beneath the city’s main train station, which just happens to be the busiest and largest in the Netherlands. (Utrecht has long served as a vital rail hub due to its location smack dab in the center of the country.)

With so many bikes on the road (even for the Netherlands), local innovation studio Springlab set out to devise a solution that aims to prevent cyclists from seeing red. And it’s rather ingenious.

Called Flo, the system is located along a busy bike path flanking Amsterdamsestraatweg, one of Utrecht’s main commercial drags. Using radar to detect the speed of passing cyclists, the system will ultimately be comprised of a series of poles — kiosks, really — installed along the path, each located 120 meters (roughly 394 feet) before an upcoming traffic signal. As cyclists approach a Flo unit, the tall blue pole flashes an image of a critter that corresponds to how fast they should be going to avoid waiting at a red light.

If Flo displays a hare, cyclists should increase their speed to make it through the upcoming light. If it flashes a tortoise, cyclists can ease up and coast for a bit as maintaining their current speed or pedaling even faster may result in an encounter with a dreaded red light. If Flo shows a cow ... well, an upcoming red light is unavoidable no matter how fast or slow one is going. Flo’s one non-animal symbol, a reassuring thumbs up, means that passing cyclists can maintain their current speed without any sort of adjustment — they’ll make it through a green light a-ok.

So about that cow ....

“We chose animals because a hare and a turtle are universal symbols for high speed and slow pace,” Jan-Paul de Beer of Springlab tells CityLab. “A cow, however, is a new symbol, because we couldn’t find a playful, widely known symbol for waiting. We chose a cow because when you go on holiday to France, which every Dutchman does, you often find yourself waiting for cows blocking the road.”

Fair enough.

For now, there’s only a single Flo kiosk dispensing "personal speeding advice" to cyclists along Amsterdamsestraatweg, although de Beer tells CityLab that more are in the works. In the coming months, Eindhoven, the Netherlands’ fifth largest city, is slated to test the technology. The Belgian city of Antwerp also plans to give Flo a go in the near future.

“The number-one frustration in the Netherlands is the traffic light,” says de Beer. “There are too many and you have to wait very long. It is impossible to stay in a flow when cycling through the city.”

While Flo, described by Springlab as the "the first personal bike traffic light in the world," is unique in its role of advising passing cyclists how fast — or how slow — they should go to avoid sitting at red lights, it’s certainly not the first bit of Dutch-borne technology that aims to decrease red light wait time for bikes.

In late 2015, transportation officials in Rotterdam, a major city with over 360 miles of bike lanes, installed the first of what’s expected to be many "regensensors" — or rain sensors — at a busy intersection in the city center. When the sensors detect moisture, the red light wait time at the intersection’s dedicated bike traffic signals is slashed from three minutes to a mere 40 seconds. The idea here is to promote cycling in less-than-ideal weather by making those comfortably shielded from the elements (read: folks driving cars) wait a bit longer and bike commuters wait a bit less.