Utrecht is a rapidly growing city that is convinced the bicycle can and should play a major role in keeping the city liveable, accessible and economically strong. Reason to give the bicycle precedence in the mobility policies of the municipality. The city wants to make cycling even more attractive for the over 100,000 people who already ride to their work, school, university, public transport hubs, shops or their homes every day, but also for those who have not yet discovered the joy of cycling. Even though the transition to a genuine cycling city is still ongoing, Utrecht thinks it has already done so much work, in the past four years especially, that it deserves the title Cycling City of the Netherlands in 2016. I also think it does.
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.
Utrecht has implemented several policies to improve the cycling climate in the city. “Utrecht – we all cycle!” (English summary in PDF) is the name of the action plan to elaborate on the coalition agreement “Utrecht Attractive and Accessible” and the city council’s decree to consider the bicycle the most important means of transport. Especially in the last four years the city has clearly changed for the better when it comes to cycling. The city has improved main routes, built cycle streets, bicycle bridges, bicycle subways and roundabouts. It has also improved bicycle parking facilities. The city has invested large amounts of money in a long list of projects. Between 2011 and 2014 the city spent €40.7 million on building and improving cycleways. A sum of €18.5 million was invested in bridges and underpasses and €46 million in bicycle parking facilities. Smaller projects such as changing traffic signals required another €5.3 million. In just 4 years the city invested a total of over €110.5 million, or about €325 per head of population (apart from the normal maintenance budget). (Action Plan 2015-2020 in PDF)
I have already shown you many Utrecht examples on my blog. Utrecht is my place of birth and although I haven’t actually lived in the city since 1995, it still feels like my hometown. I am aware that I am not really impartial judging the city for the title in this competition. But to level the playing field I visited Utrecht, just like I did the other four finalist cities, to film everything on just one day. As with every other post I wrote, I try to keep this post as factual as possible.
Utrecht is the largest of the five finalists, not surprising, since it is the fourth largest city of the Netherlands. The city proper is home to almost 340,000 people, but nearly half a million live in what is considered the agglomeration (a single built-up area). The even larger city region of Utrecht comprises municipalities with a total of well over 700,000 inhabitants. Like Nijmegen and Maastricht, Utrecht was also founded by the Romans. Traces of the Roman settlement can be found in the historic fortified city that still has many historic buildings. The central location makes Utrecht an import transport hub. The Nazi threat to bomb Utrecht as they did Rotterdam was one of the reasons for the Dutch to surrender in May 1940. It means Utrecht was spared that fate and it suffered relatively little in World War II. Plans for major roads through the narrow streets of the historic city centre were started in the 1950s and 1960s, but never really finished and often reversed. The partially built 1970s ring road in the place of the city moat has been removed again fourty years later and the water came back just last year.
In recent years cycling has increased by 4% every year, even by 6% on routes to the university and the new urban expansion “Leidsche Rijn” (home to 81,000 people in 2015). This means some cycleways are really reaching their limits. During rush hour space is at a premium at some locations. To create more space for cycling, mopeds and scooters (unfortunately only the fast type) have been sent to the roadway, just last March. To create even more room for people, the council has decided it wants to change all 2×2-lane streets in the city to 2×1-lane streets and use the space that becomes available to improve the environment for extra green and walking and cycling. This bold move sets Utrecht apart from the other finalists, but it is not completely surprising with an alderman for traffic who once literally said in one of my videos: “Nothing is too much for cycling!”. With these policies the Utrecht council goes against the will of some provincial council members and Rijkswaterstaat (the national road authority). On the day I published this post members of the Lower House even asked the minister of traffic what possibilities she sees to make Utrecht change its plans. A bit late, examples of all stages of this development can be seen throughout the city already. Some streets have been converted (much to the delight of the residents), other streets are currently under construction (or that is just about to start) and yet others are in the planning phase. As with Groningen and Maastricht, I don’t want to include future plans in my judgement for this year’s title, but this clearly demonstrates that Utrecht does indeed consider cycling and walking the most important means of transport. Another quick solution to the lack of space was the creation of an alternative to the busy cycle route to the university: a marked route through quiet back streets in the city centre. The inconvenient cobble stone surface of this so-called “Herenroute” is the price to pay for having more space.
Improvements to the cycling network, that have been finished already, are very impressive. Red asphalt is popping up all over the city. Even in streets where residents were against it. Notably in Leidseweg residents complained that the red asphalt (as opposed to the reddish-brown brick surface the street had so far) would not be appropriate in their “historic street”. The same residents did want to keep parking their cars in front of their homes. Apparently those parked cars are not an eyesore in a historic environment. The city council rightly decided against the will of these residents and in favour of improving cycling conditions on this main cycle route. The end result is a perfect surface that goes very well with the historic look of the street.
This decision can be seen as an exception to the rule that Utrecht takes public consultation very seriously (or perhaps as proof, depending how you look at it). Another example is the city’s call on people to report traffic lights they thought were not necessary. This resulted in thousands of entries on a website. After careful consideration the signals at many intersections have now been switched off. Some only outside peak hours, some all the time. This measure was also taken to reduce the number of times people cycling have to stop. A further example of public participation is the so-called City Discussion on Cycling that took place in January 2015. About 180 Utrecht residents (and some others like yours truly) discussed ideas about the state of cycling as well as its future in Utrecht. Many ideas ended in the aforementioned policy “Utrecht – we all cycle”. One such example has to do with the many detours which are necessary due to the reconstruction of the Utrecht Station area. This reconstruction has been ongoing for almost 10 years and it will continue until about 2020. It has led to a lot of complaints about the cycling situation in that area. The city did already have regulations for width and surface of detours, but in the City Discussion people also asked the city to regulate the number of times a detour route may be changed. Mainly because the often changing detours led to confusing and dangerous traffic situations.
As bold as the city may be in plans to redesign the streets, stakeholders sometimes think the city still isn’t audacious enough. One example was the reconstruction of Mariaplaats where the initial plan kept a much higher number of car parking spaces than the residents and shop owners in the street thought was acceptable. At their request the city changed the plans and it reduced the number of parking spaces. A similar situation has recently arisen when the city announced its plans for the intersection Maliebaan/Nachtegaalstraat/Burg. Reigerstraat. The city plans a large ‘stretched’ roundabout, but residents want to remove most of the space for cars. Clearly, many Utrecht residents support the council’s idea that the city needs to change, but even more radical than the council dares to.
Creating enough spaces to park your bicycle is a real challenge. Utrecht tried to improve the situation with smart solutions. The dynamic bicycle parking guidance system was a high-tech measure. Marking space on the street for dual use is a very simple one. In a trial, space on a square is supposed to be used by delivery vans in the morning, but bicycles on kick-stands can use the exact same space during the rest of the day as parking space. Utrecht also deploys temporary pop-up parking facilities at very busy locations; free and guarded. That Utrecht is building the world’s largest bicycle parking facility for 12,500 bicycles at its central station may be known around the world by now. It will bring the number of parking spaces around the station to 33,000 by 2020.
Utrecht has expressed an ambition to become one of the best cycling cities of the world and that is already clearly showing in the policies and on the streets. Remaining challenges are taken up with vigour. Compared to the other four candidates Utrecht is really doing exceptionally well in my opinion. Utrecht has one final advantage over some other finalists. Because it hadn’t applied before, Utrecht did not reuse an earlier bid as some other contestants did. That made Utrecht’s bid the only one that really incorporated this year’s ‘Bikenomics’ theme well.
The ultimate decision is up to the jury and it is a tough call this time, as there is no city which is really much better than the rest. Maastricht and Groningen are clearly good, but not good enough. I think outsider Goes, Nijmegen, but especially Utrecht would be eligible to win. I am really looking forward to hear the jury’s verdict on May 19th!
My video portrait of Utrecht, maybe the best finalist to become Cycling City of 2016.