The summer is quickly coming to an end and the holidays are over. The schools and the academic year for the university have started again, people are back at work and that means the streets are returning to their normal busy state as well. In a lot of cities in The Netherlands that means busy with people cycling.
After the recent posts about bridges, before-and-afters, town and street redesigns, it is again time to look at the people all that is for. So I went to the east entrance of the historic city centre of Utrecht. I positioned myself in front of the city’s theatre, at the east-west corridor leading from the Central Station to the university.
It was around 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday. That means school children under the age of 12 have the afternoon off. Because it is September, the students had just begun riding to and from the university again. I filmed for about 20 minutes how wave after wave of cyclists passed me by to get into the city centre. The people come in groups because they are held up by a traffic light that gives priority to buses, rather than people cycling, and this east-west corridor in the city centre is teeming with buses!
I kept the original sound because it is telling what the city sounds like when private cars are not the dominant form of transport.
Video showing people cycling into the city centre of Utrecht.
As you could see this is very lively street and yet it so quiet and relaxed. But of course it hasn’t always been like that at this particular location. I know this area of the city very well. I went to secondary school here for 4 years, from 1977 to 1981. At that time the street was a dual-lane one-way street that was part of the city centre gyratory. There was no cycling infrastructure (apart from a painted on-street lane, but that doesn’t qualify as real cycling infrastructure in my book) and traffic could only use this street outbound. Pictures that I found in the Utrecht Archive show that the street had been a traditional street until the 1950s when it was made into that one-way gyratory. The 1990s picture shows that by then the street did have separated cycle tracks.
It was only after the separated bus lanes were implemented (in the beginning of the 21st century) that the street got its current layout. The street is now a two-way bus street. Private cars are allowed to use the street, but only outbound. The street has separated cycle tracks on either side. In front of the city theatre the street is much wider and that extra space is all used to make the cycle track a lot wider there. It may be used by traffic that needs to go to the theatre. So during the day that means delivery trucks sometimes drive there and when there is a red-carpet event I expect the limos will use it as well. But that is only occasionally. There is no parking here, so people going to visit the theatre for a play will not use it. For theatre goers there is a parking garage at walking distance.
The corner where I stood was once a busy corner where it was hard to cross as a pedestrian. In the 1950s the city experimented with a novel design for the zebra crossing. A central triangular traffic island was created that had zebra crossings on all three sides. But motor traffic can no longer turn here. To calm traffic in that other street, turning into it has been made impossible. So at the location of the dangerous crossing there now is a rack to park bicycles.
It is clear once again that these streets didn’t become what they are today by accident. Deliberate choices have been made in The Netherlands to make the streets – especially those in the city centres – more for people than for through traffic. It changes the look and feel of the city so much that people from other countries have a hard time to see that their streets could be designed like this as well. That is why I keep showing those old images. The Netherlands is different now, but it hasn’t always been so different. That means change is possible, elsewhere, the same way as it was in this country.