In Groningen, the Netherlands’ sixth largest city, the main form of transport is the bicycle.
The city is famous for having the highest percentage of bicycle usage in the world. How has Groningen done it? Cycling in Groningen, and indeed much of the Netherlands, is just the norm. The success in Groningen comes from a series of sound policies viewing cycling as an integral part of urban renewal, planning and transport strategy. By providing proper infrastructure and amenities cycling has blossomed over time and today the main 46 routes of the cycling network is used daily by 216,000 citizens. Prioritising cycle traffic over cars and promoting cycling as the main mode of transportation, city planners, local authorities and cycling advocates have played an important part in the city’s reputation as a great place to live.
The city has a relatively young population of approximately 180,000 inhabitants, which account for a large proportion of the city bikers, but indeed there are people of all ages opting for two wheels over four. And this is a growing trend. Research by Groningen municipality in 2008 showed a considerable growth of cycling in the last years: an average of 1.4 bicycle trips per person per day in the city, making up more than 50% of the total journeys, a growth of 9% from 2007. In order to futher understand the sucess of the bicycle in Groningen, it is important to look at the how urban design and policies have changed over time to make it the carfree and leading cycle city we see today.
History of Carfree Development
The city has a long history of urban developments which have maintained the value of keeping the inner city as a central point for a host of activities: a blend of living, working and shopping which favours pedestrians, cyclists and public transport over the car. Since the 1960s the municipality has been way ahead in its traffic plans and spatial planning policies; maintaining a vision of a ‘compact city’ and implementing policies which have lead to a carfree city centre, with all areas easily reachable by bicycle. However, the path has not always been easy.
During the 1950s and 1960s most cities and towns in the Netherlands were making room for vechicles – some even removed bicycle paths in order to free up space for the car. In Groningen, motorisation was growing rapidly and so was a suburban sprawl – there were no restrictions for cars driving through city and very few cycle routes to the centre. The motorist was king at this time.
In 1972, local authorities changed the emphasis of urban planning and development in Groningen. The centre of the city was to be considered as the ‘living room’ for its people. The basic concept used in urban planning was based on the ‘compact city’ vision, which placed an integrated transport system high on the agenda – for an inner city favouring to combined use pedestrians, cyclists, buses and other means of public transport. A traffic circulation plan divided the inner city into four sections and a ring road was built encircling the city and reducing access to the centre by car. The result was an inner city which is entirely closed off to cars; it is only possible to travel between sectors by walking, bicycle or public transport. What has spurred the use of bicycles over all other sustainable transportation is the huge expansion of the cycle network – there are many traffic free bike lanes from the outskirts to the city centre – making cycling is the most viable mode of transport for most journeys.
Importance of policy
The city treats cyclists with respect. A series of sound transportation policies has maintained a carfree urban space, favouring walking, public transport and predominantly cycling. This has resulted in a major trend away from car-use to bike-use in the city of Groningen. Between 1989 and 2000, 23 million Euros have been invested in cycling infrastructure and the annual amount continues to grow. Investments have been made in expanding the network of cycling lanes, improving the pavements, bridges for cyclists, many more bike parking facilities – make cycling faster and more convenient in the city. As cycling is the lifeblood of the city, it has been given adequate space and time to flow safely and efficiently.
During the 1980s and 1990s a parking policy was strictly implemented. Car parking with time restrictions was introduced in a broad radius around the inner city. Park and Ride areas were created combined with city buses and other high quality public transport. But overall, cycling policy has been central to the traffic plans, and in contrast car accessibility has been restricted within the city centre.
Reaping the Rewards
Over a long period of time local authorities have made clear choices, however manifold criticised. Traffic circulation plans were based on the concentration of motorised traffic into a limited road space on the outskirts of the city, and developing a very coherent, comfortable and dense cycle network. This is the result of a clear vision of urban development – based on the idea that a city is for its people. Groningen is a compact city, and for now at least, continues to stay this way. For example, newly built neighbourhoods are no more than 6 km from the city centre. Residential areas are developed with good connections to the city centre and green lungs in between. There are entire housing developments built along major bicycle and scooter ‘roadways’, massive bike parks everywhere, many roads that are one way for cars but two way for bikes, and special signal phases for bikes. Groningen municipality research showed in 2008 78% of residents and 90% of employees now live within 3 km of the city centre.
There are some interesting economic repercussions to come out of replacing space for cars with greenery, pedestrianisation, cycleways and bus lanes. Banning car traffic has boosted jobs and business. Groningen’s economic development has improved, particularly for businesses which were once in revolt against car restraint, but now are clamouring for more of it. The main function of the inner city has become a successful mix of living, working and shopping.
Cycling into the Future
Groningen undoubtedly leads the way in the ‘cyclisation’ of European cities, but many others are putting two wheels in motion to follow its example. However, no other European city can match Groningen’s record, where 57% of all trips around the city are on bikes, but in quite a few cities the ratio is rising to a third or more.
The impressive high rate of cycling in Groningen can be explained best by consistent urban development and transportation policies based on reclaiming inner city space from cars, making it into a living room for its people. This spatial concept of city development has undoubtedly been rooted in the clear political vision of the social democrats for several decades. Such legislative commitments do seem to be the key in getting citizens to kick the car habit. Apart from a political vision, many other actors involved in making Groningen the ‘World’s cycling city’ cannot be ignored – the cyclists themselves. In a nutshell, the success of cycling in Groningen can be explained as a result of a strong vision for a liveable city for its people.
Groningen in Numbers
Population: 180,000 inhabitants
Size of Groningen: 87 square kilometres
Number of residents travelling by bike: 57%
Average number of cycling trips each day: 1.4 per person
Number of cycling routes in Groningen: 46
Number using cycling routes each day: 216,000
By Ton Daggers
Illustration by Annette van der Molen