City streets used to be designed with only the private car in mind, but that has changed (in The Netherlands at least). In many Dutch city centres the car is no longer the dominant form of transport and so the streets can become places. These places need to be attractive and safe, also for the most vulnerable road users: children, the elderly and people with disabilities. A city centre street is only good enough if these groups can use it freely. In the afternoon that I filmed in a recently reconstructed street in Utrecht I saw people of all of these groups. That must mean the street was successfully redesigned.
Sint Jacobsstraat is a strange street in the historic city centre of Utrecht, in the way that it didn’t exist before the 1930s. The street (of just 300 metres long) was planned right through an infamous working class neighbourhood, and named after the church it passes; the church of Saint James (Jacobi). The street was officially built for traffic reasons, but it is also whispered that the ruling class at the time tried to break up that part of the city and spread the former residents over the entire city to reduce the social problems they supposedly caused.
A wide street with large buildings required a lot of space. Many old homes in some tiny streets, a square and a neighbourhood park were sacrificed to build this street. Tall buildings would conveniently block the sight on what remained of the ‘slums’ of the working class. And so it was done. By 1940 many of the buildings were destroyed. Then World War II reached The Netherlands and the development came to a standstill. The first new buildings were only finished well in the 1950s. A bank and some flats in an apartment building at the north end of the street. But the reconstruction did not progress very fast. Large areas of empty city space were used as parking lots, not 10 years, not 20 years but well into the 1970s. Long enough for me to remember. By the time the last apartment building was finished in the 1980s the 1950s bank building was already due for replacement. Around the turn of the century the street was finally finished. It was built as a street to carry a lot of traffic. There were multiple lanes for motor traffic and only in the widest parts (or parts that had not been filled in yet) there had been cycleways. Some narrow on street cycle lanes existed until December 2014 when the reconstruction started.
The street had not been a through street since the 1990s when Potterstraat and Lange Viestraat were closed (I explained that in an earlier post). With these feeders closed, it meant there was also almost no traffic left here. Today, the only important destination for private motor traffic is a parking garage for a shopping mall. Coming from Vredenburg and looking north, the first part of the street is completely closed for private motor traffic. It is only used by buses (lots of them!) and people on bicycles or on foot. The remaining part of the street further north now got a road diet and it was transformed to reflect that it is now a 30km/h zone. Only one travel lane in each direction remained and there are no longer any dedicated turning lanes, nor can buses be passed at the one remaining bus stop. The entire length of the street now got separated cycle tracks, mostly unidirectional and at least 2.5 metres wide. At the square in front of Jacobi Church there is much more space and to make crossing easier, bidirectional cycleways were built there on each side of the street. Cycleways in a 30km/h zone are not common; with such low speeds mixed traffic is the rule. But in this particular street there are so many buses that the protected cycle tracks were seen as necessary. All side streets got raised entrances that are interrupted by the cycleways to make sure that it is clear that cycling has priority over turning motor vehicles. The street varies in width from a mere 19 metres to almost double that at 35 metres. The largest intersection with Waterstraat used to be signalised. But road managers try to reduce the number of signalised intersections in the Netherlands and this was one of the intersections that no longer needs traffic lights.
One of the reasons for this street’s new design was to give cycling more space. So it was ironic – to say the least – that during the reconstruction it was forbidden to be used by people cycling for about half a year. That is because the city said there were no options for a detour for the many buses. The detour for cycling was much easier to arrange, but it led to questions in the council. To no avail: the plans were not changed. The street was supposed to become more liveable as well, so the residents were also very cross about 12 trees that had to be removed. Especially when these residents found out that the designers chose to do this “for reasons of symmetry”. But that too was not changed. New trees will replace the 27 year old trees that were chopped down, but the 19 new trees will only be planted this autumn. Some spaces that will get low shrubs (which can also only be planted in autumn) are still empty. But some stunning new Aster flowerbeds were already created. These blooming flowers are very nice. The splashes of bright colour really make the street very attractive. Not only for humans, I saw a lot of bees in them as well. Great, because bees have a really hard time now.
Other street furniture items still have to be placed: under ground waste containers. Their future locations are covered by concrete plates. The total number of bicycle parking racks is 212, but that used to be 270. The council hopes that after the reconstruction the use of the racks will be different and so fewer racks are needed. They promise to monitor if the number of bicycle parking racks is sufficient.
What really changed the street is that the travel lanes were reduced in width and number, giving it a very different atmosphere. It is much more people friendly now, but even that part of the reconstruction is not entirely finished. In the 1980s a passage over the beginning of the street was built to connect the shopping mall “La Vie” to a clothing store across the street. But that passage was little used and it had been closed to the public soon after it was built. The mall is now being updated and after almost 30 years that ugly passage will finally be removed. That means the street will get more daylight, but it also means it can only be finished when the mall reconstruction is finished first, which is expected in the second half of 2016.
As I have shown you before, cycling infrastructure is not only for people cycling. More groups in society benefit from redesigned streets. With cycle ways of at least 2.5 metres wide for one direction, side walks that are at least 2.4 metres wide and crossings that are no longer than the width of a single travel lane of 3.1 or 3.25 metres, this city centre street has become very safe for the most vulnerable road users and it is good to see (also in the video) that they indeed use the street in high numbers. That it has also become beautiful with those flowerbeds makes this redesign all the more attractive.
Video showing the history and the reconstruction.
Video showing a ride and before and after images.