All about cycling in the Netherlands
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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