All about cycling in the Netherlands
Maastricht never really had a name as a good cycling city. Things have changed though, the city feels it has caught up with other Dutch cities. Cycling has improved with good cycling policies in the last five years. Maastricht is now ready to take things a step further. In cycle race terms the city states it wants to ‘overtake’ and ‘break away’ from the rest of the ‘peloton’. Becoming Cycling City of the Netherlands in 2016 would be the culmination of years of hard work. In Maastricht I did find a city in which it is good to cycle, perhaps even better than expected, but there is also still a lot of work to do.
Cycling City of the Netherlands Competition
The municipalities of Goes, Groningen, Maastricht, Nijmegen and Utrecht are the finalists in the Fietsstad 2016 competition for which the overall theme is “Bikenomics”. The Cyclists’ Union in the Netherlands regularly organises a competition in which municipalities can try to become Cycling City of the Netherlands. The last city to win the title was Zwolle (2014), which followed ´s-Hertogenbosch (2011), Houten (2008), Groningen (2002) and Veenendaal (2000). Before 2011 municipalities were chosen on the basis of the results of a cycling quality investigation by the Cyclists’ Union. From the 2011 election on municipalities have to enter the competition themselves. The 5 finalists were chosen by a jury on the basis of the written motivation, the policies and the figures about mode share, traffic safety and the type of cycling infrastructure in a municipality. On my blog I feature a video portrait of each of the 5 candidate municipalities. I publish these posts every other week, leading up to the announcement of the winner on 19 May 2016.
Maastricht is a very old city. Starting as a Roman settlement people have lived here continuously for at least 2,000 years. Currently about 122,000 people live in Maastricht proper, but 600,000 live in the region. It’s location makes it a very international place. There is a university and of the 40,000 students 12,000 are from abroad. Maastricht is located in the most southern tip of the Netherlands. By train it is a 2 hours journey from Amsterdam, but it takes half an hour less to get to Brussels. Paris is only 3 hours away. Maastricht is right at the border of French speaking Belgium, but it is also very close to Germany. There are a lot of French and German influences in the city and in the past it wasn’t always so clear to which country the city should belong. In 1843 it was finally settled that Maastricht is part of the Netherlands, but the city kept a foreign feel for the Dutch – enhanced by the fact that it is also a bit hillier – and that makes it a well-loved destination for a city trip.
Maastricht was built at the banks of the river Meuse (Maas). From the nearby ‘Mount Saint Peter’ (actually a hill with an elevation of 171 m or 561 ft.) you have a great view of the city in the Meuse valley. The arch of the big cycle bridge over the Meuse is also clearly visible.
That bridge is the largest piece of cycling infrastructure in the city and it gives you a great view over the historic city centre. The bridge deck is wide enough and has clearly separated parts for cycling and walking. It is a missed opportunity that you can only access the bridge via stairs or in an elevator. There would have been space to build access ramps that you could have cycled on. So the bridge is great, but not perfect. This may be a recurring theme when it comes to cycling in this city.
Like most cities Maastricht has a lot of different types of infrastructure from different eras. Fortunately, it also has the most modern types, such as cycle streets, but it has a lot of on-street cycle lanes as well. That is not always a problem (even Zwolle, current Cycling City of the Netherlands has them) especially when the on-street cycle lanes change into protected cycling infrastructure at intersections. That is mostly the case here. There are still some – mostly outdated – older intersections with on-street cycle lanes, and I even saw one more recent example, but it is clear that the most recently built infrastructure in this city is the best. The city has tried to catch up with the rest of the country in the last 5 years. A cycling policy “Meer Fiets” (more cycling) aimed to reduce the number of problem areas for which also the Cyclists’ Union was consulted. The city follows national policies such as giving cycling priority on roundabouts. It is great to see that it even goes a step further. I saw several cycle paths that were explicitly forbidden for mopeds and scooters, even the slow type! Since there is still no legislation and no signs to arrange this under Dutch law, the city just put up signs with words. It is one of the first cities to ban scooters like this.
Traffic lights have detection loops for cycling and they are well ahead of the intersection. That means that quite often lights already turn green before you even reach them. The overall waiting times I encountered on my day in Maastricht were not too long. With the exception of the crossings of the A2 motorway. That motorway has divided Maastricht for a very long time, with 48,000 motor vehicles per day (2006) it is a very busy main north-south route. But it won’t split the city in two for much longer. A 2.4 km double-decker tunnel was built, which is currently being finished. This huge 1 billion euro project drew international attention and even CNN reported about it with a 3 minute video. Traffic is expected to start using the tunnel complex in December 2016. The 4-lane motorway on the surface will then be completely removed. The area will be redesigned for walking and cycling and changed into a green carpet for people. The project also involves the addition of more than 1,100 dwellings and 30,000 square meters of commercial real estate. Most likely a great improvement over the present situation, but these are plans for the next 10 years, that I would like to see developed first.
The historic city centre is already mostly car free and it is the liveliest part of the city. There is a culture of going out in this city and it shows. Bars, restaurants, theatres and shops thrive in the car free centre. Cars are not completely banned. The main square “Vrijthof” even has a parking garage right underneath it (built from 1969 tot 1971). The Maasboulevard at the riverside of the old city is great for a stroll, but it also hides cars driving under it, in a 400 metre long tunnel (2003). In the 1930s a new street for motor traffic was created from the square in front of town hall to the river Meuse. It was effectively the access ramp of a new bridge over the river. In the 2003 Maasboulevard project the entry to the bridge was redesigned. The first part of the bridge was replaced by a forked deck and the bridge was thus connected to the new Maasboulevard. The 1930s street/access ramp became obsolete and a new block of buildings has taken its place. This corrected the 1930s urban design mistake. The square could then also become car free. Almost all streets in the centre that do allow motor traffic are traffic calmed and one-way for cars and two-way for cycling. That makes the bicycle the faster option for many a journey. I already showed you an example of that on my blog before.
All in all cycling in Maastricht is a joy. The policies aimed to catch up have started to show on the streets in the shape of good cycling infrastructure. But five years is not a long time yet to catch up and there still is work to do. I am especially looking forward to see that green carpet being built. 2016 is a bit too early I’m afraid, but maybe in a few years’ time the title Cycling City of the Netherlands could be right for Maastricht.
My video portrait of Maastricht.
The bidbook Maastricht presented is available on the Internet (Dutch only; 8.5Mb PDF)