A monumental bicycle roundabout in Arnhem

It was opened 61 years ago and it still qualifies as exceptional cycling infrastructure: the bicycle roundabout in Arnhem at Airborne Square. The Netherlands has several so-called ‘bear pits’; cycle roundabouts at a lower level than the intersection for motor traffic. This was the second one, modelled after the example of Utrecht (which was opened in 1943). One of the other examples can be found in Eindhoven, and a brand new one was recently built in Sint-Michielsgestel.

People cycling in the lower level - the 'Bear pit' of the Arnhem Airborneplein.
People cycling in the lower level – the ‘Bear pit’ – of the Arnhem Airborneplein.

Arnhem was heavily damaged in Word War II. Especially the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 was dramatic for the city. British forces, under command of major John Frost, tried to conquer and hold the strategically important bridge over the river Rhine for days, but the troops to assist them, coming from Nijmegen, couldn’t reach them in time. The Rhine bridge in Arnhem proved a ‘bridge too far’ in the Operation Market garden. The failed operation prolonged the war for the west and north of the Netherlands, killing thousands of civilians in the hunger winter of 1944. Nine months later the war did end though and in September 1945, a monument was unveiled at the north entrance ramps to that bridge. One of the damaged columns from the Palace of Justice (court-house) that had stood on Markt (Market Square) was placed here. The square was later called Airborneplein (Airborne Square) in commemoration of the Battle of Arnhem. The many soldiers who have lost their lives have since been remembered every year and this year the commemorations take place on 18th of September, so later this week on Friday.

The ruins of the former Palace of Justice on Markt. The most right column was reused as a war monument.
The ruins of the former Palace of Justice on Markt in Arnhem. The outer most right column was reused as a war monument. (picture Gelders Archief)
The first memorial on 17th September 1945 with the unveiled column on - what would later be called - Airborneplein.
The first memorial on 17th September 1945 with the unveiled column on – what would later be called – Airborneplein. (picture Gelders Archief)

In the reconstruction of Arnhem after the war a lot of space was allocated to ‘modern traffic’. In a similar way as Rotterdam the city was rebuilt with the car in mind. A further reconstruction of the brand new Airborneplein was deemed a necessity. The Dutch Auto-mobile Club ANWB wrote in their magazine in January 1955: ‘It was decided that motorised traffic should be kept separate from two-wheeled traffic and pedestrians’. This was achieved by keeping the existing level for cycling and pedestrians and by creating an elevated new level for motor traffic. Some of the streets leading to this intersection and also the ramps to the bridge were already on a higher level anyway and that is why this was a practical solution.

The 1947 plans for the roundabout. (picture Gelders Archief)
The 1947 plans for the roundabout. (picture Gelders Archief)
The roundabout under construction in 1954. (picture Gelders Archief)
The roundabout under construction in 1954. (picture Gelders Archief)

This led to a sunken bicycle roundabout with motor traffic driving around it on a higher level. Four tunnels under the raised level for motor traffic give people cycling access to the bicycle roundabout. A similar intersection exists in Utrecht. The ANWB reports in the same article (mentioned above) that the Utrecht example had long had the nickname ‘Berenkuil’, (Bear Pit) and that just weeks after its opening on 17 December 1954, the general public already called the Arnhem roundabout ‘Berenkuil’ as well. It has kept this nickname to this day.

Airborneplein in the 1960s. (picture Gelders Archief)
Airborneplein in the 1960s. This picture shows just how much of a car city Arnhem is (or was at the time at least). (picture Gelders Archief)

The opening ceremony was performed by the Minister of Transport who said this large traffic circle was an experiment. It was the first time such a large intersection was built in the built-up area. The Minister told the radio reporter that he thought that it would be better to build such large infrastructural works outside of the built-up area. A contemporary newspaper article also mentions the entire construction had cost 1.6 million Guilders. (Comparable with 5.5 million Euro now.) Works had started in the Spring of 1954.

Airborneplein today. In the forground the river Rhine and the John Frost brug. The upper left corner still has the original mediaeval street pattern. The rest of the city has been reconstructed entirely after World War II. (Picture Bing Maps)
Airborneplein today. In the foreground the river Rhine and the John Frost brug. The upper left corner still has the original mediaeval street pattern. The rest of the city has been reconstructed entirely after World War II. (Picture Bing Maps)
Airborneplein with the war monument in 2015.
Airborneplein with the war monument in 2015.

After more than sixty years the roundabout is clearly old. But is it still functioning well. Most of the through motor traffic has been diverted out of the city, on motorways around it, but for cycling this is still a major route. The cycle roundabout is still convenient to use, even with the brick surface of the cycle tracks. The entrance tunnels are a bit low, but not too narrow and you can see the other end when you enter, both requirements for modern tunnels. The roundabout itself is huge, but it doesn’t feel like you have to ride a detour when you use it. The war memorial makes it an even more interesting place. All in all the bicycle roundabout of Airborneplein has become a monumental piece of post war infrastructure in my opinion.

Video of the Airborneplein bicycle roundabout in Arnhem

8 thoughts on “A monumental bicycle roundabout in Arnhem

  1. There’s a ‘bear pit’ in the middle of this roundabout in Birmingham… I used to use it daily in the 1970’s to cycle to and from Aston University… sadly it’s an absolute nightmare to get to it as the roads leading to it are so unfriendly for anyone on a bicycle… not even shared use paths as apparently it’s all footpath down there now…


    Opencyclemap shows it all as purely footpaths…


    a more unfriendly place to cycle would be hard to find…

  2. Thank you as always for your informative post, Mark!
    I want to answer on a comment of yours on Youtube, where you said:

    “That is just as absurd as saying that the cycle tracks were built to make way for the car. Cycle tracks make cycling safer. There is a whole nation to prove that and it is right next door to Germany.”

    But it is indeed a open truth that cycleways in Germany were built to make way for the car:
    They were proposed and designed by motor-clubs, built by car-centric-politicians. They were heavily opposed by cycling-clubs in the 20ties, because the so called cycleways were simply o load of crap. Cycleways were made obligatory to use by the nazi government to promote motor traffic, and because cyclist didn’t use that crap at all. And it’s been like this until the 80ties, when some cities started to build slowly infrastructure with cyclists in mind, not cars.

    Saying this does take nothing away from the great dutch infrastructure. It’s pretty simple: Even in the heydays of car traffic the Dutch cared for cyclist, while Germany cared only to get rid of them. Two different stories. Just accept that other countries have a different situation, and will hopefully find their own way to more cycling.
    There’s no fetish called “infrastructure” that is good regardless its desing. It is what you make out of it.

    1. Hi Stefan, the sweeping statement made on YouTube said “separated cycling infrastructure is a thing of the past” this is a ridiculous generalisation. It is not true in the Dutch situation, nor in many other countries (not least the other German neighbour Denmark). I agree that the German type of cycling infrastructure is bad (especially outdated), but that doesn’t make the whole word’s infrastructure bad. With regard to your statement “Just accept that other countries have a different situation” I must say that I cannot do that. That Germany seems to choose to abolish cycling infrastructure rather than improve the bad stuff, is a very worrying situation. It is bad for people who (might want to) cycle in Germany but also for people in other countries with infrastructure problems. These countries may possibly use the German situation as an excuse to also stop building good cycling infrastructure. That’s why I will keep saying that I don’t like what is happening in Germany right now.

      1. Hi Mark, thank you for your reply. I see your point. I totally agree on the “ridiculous generalisation”.
        But you have to admit that in almost all german cities cycling is rising. Cities like Berlin or Munich are doing well (slowly but steady) in constructing some new infrastructure, and (rarely!) also abolishing old infrastructure, and the modal share has risen up to 20% and more in only years, growing still every year.
        I can not predict at all if this way will bring us up to the Netherlands, but I consider it a little narrowminded to call this development “bad” or “worrying” when cycling is growing strongly, only because it’s not on the only true dutch way. Let’s see what the future brings.

  3. It is mildly beautiful that the Dutch people still respect the memory of those that gave their lives trying to free Arnhem, and the Netherlands as a whole, from the Nazis.
    Operation Market Garden was a failure, and many Dutch civilians paid the ultimate price. But still the Dutch commemorate the efforts of the airborne assault… This is a remarkable and touching truth.
    Evidently, the people of the Netherlands have long memories.

    Is it true that there are plans to build a new bridge at Osterbeek and name it after Stanisław Sosabowski?

    1. There are multiple programs in NL to adopt WWII graves. Children that live or go to school near (big) military cemeteries often adopt graves. This means they take care of the graves and the surroundings. A lot of the kids are really curious about the background of the soldiers whose grave they take care of. They even go so far as finding living relatives if they are not known. In the past this meant they could find relatives who knew that their loved one was kia/mia somewhere in (Northern) Europe but never knew where exactly and finally have a opportunity for closure. Those children often keep close contact with those families for the rest of their lives. And the other children get/keep a respect they pass on. And that part of history is kept alive.

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