Dynamic parking guidance systems are well-known all over the world, for cars at least. Utrecht has just started using such a system to guide people to bicycle parking facilities and that is a first! The Dutch are sometimes accused of resting on their laurels, there would be no innovation in The Netherlands. Anyone who knows just a little bit about the situation in this country should know that that is utter nonsense! There is a lot of innovation in all aspects of cycling and cycling infrastructure. Adjusting the lights in a cycle tunnel to your personal taste, with your smart phone? Check. Setting the traffic lights to green as you approach? Check. A bicycle roundabout? Check. Dynamic information about the fastest route across an intersection? Check. Bicycle streets? Check. All directions green? Check. And what about all the new big bridges that are built? There is so much innovation in The Netherlands that it becomes the norm really. And now Utrecht has installed dynamic signs to guide you to the bicycle parking facility that is best at that moment. The P-Route Bicycle – as the city calls it – makes it easy to find an open space to park your bicycle free, dry and safe.
My video about Utrecht’s Bicycle Parking Guidance System
The alderman for traffic started the system by unveiling the last of the 21 digital signs on Tuesday 2 June last. The system guides cyclists coming from all directions into the city centre to 6 of the 17 municipal bicycle parking facilities (4 of which are pop-up parking facilities that operate at peak hours only). The system will be expanded if it turns out to be a success. The city published a fact sheet (in English) that explains how it works. “Along the access roads to the city centre and the Railway Station Area, 21 digital signs inform cyclists of the number of free parking places in the nearest bicycle parking [facilities] and indicate the route to these facilities. If a parking [facility] is full, cyclists are guided to the nearest parking [facility] where places are available. Cyclists can use the P-route bicycle to find a place for their bicycle quickly and conveniently.” This describes the part that the cyclist sees of the system, but of course there is also a technical system needed to feed the signs with the right data. “The number of free parking places is established by means of an innovative detection system equipped with optical sensors. In combination with smart software these sensors detect whether or not a parking place is free. The sensors look like cameras, but the images are not captured or saved, so the cyclist’s privacy is not violated.”
The computer programming language used to operate this system is Haskell.
The system will also ‘learn’. After a while there should be sufficient data to help predict when a parking facility is reaching its limit. When that happens the most distant signs can indicate beforehand that the facility will be full once a cyclist has cycled the distance to that facility. The data is also stored for management information. The city can adjust its pop-up facility policies based on figures provided by this system. So the facilities are there when and where they are needed most.
The city of Utrecht funds the system with financial help of the Province and even the Ministry of Transport (Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management). It was developed by two companies working together: LumiGuide and Armada Mobility.
Bas van Dijk is chief technology officer at LumiGuide in Nijmegen and he walked around with a laptop at the opening ceremony. With one stroke on his keyboard he started all the 21 signs throughout the city. With a big smile he told me: “Naturally, we think that our system, that detects bicycles with an optical sensor, is much better than switches in the bicycle racks that other companies use.” On their website his colleague explains: “Our system was initially developed to detect cars, but when we were presenting it, municipalities started asking if it could be used for bicycles as well. When we were asked that same question several times, we couldn’t ignore this demand. So we decided to remodel our system for bicycles, with this result.”
Lot van Hooijdonk is the alderman for traffic in Utrecht and she is very proud of the results of the current cycling policies in Utrecht. “We have decided that the bicycle is the main form of transport in the Utrecht city centre. This comes with the obligation to really take care of the needs of people cycling. You can see that we seriously do that from all the infrastructure and parking facilities we have opened recently. This system is one more service for cyclists in Utrecht.” She re-tweeted my picture of herself with the sign and told me: “That picture is already eye-opening. You can see that the Westplein facility has more free spaces, even though the Jaarbeursplein facility is much larger. I can imagine that I would adjust my behaviour when I see that when I cycle into the city. It is best to go to the facility with most available free spaces, not the one you know to be the largest.” That is in line with what the city aims for: a more evenly spread bicycle parking load in the city centre. The Utrecht long term Cycle Action Plan (2015-2020) that was presented after the opening, has a summary in English that you can download as PDF.
This new system goes a lot further than just reporting how many places one facility has at the entrance, which is the case in Groningen or Delft. This system has the potential to be copied elsewhere. Other cities look at it with great interest. Notably my home town ʼs-Hertogenbosch, where a council member already asked the alderman for traffic to look into the Utrecht system as something that could be beneficial for ʼs-Hertogenbosch as well.
Video by the city of Utrecht about the “P-Route bicycle”.