People were drinking champagne on the street and enjoying beautiful singing; not something you see every day. They were celebrating the opening of yet another reconstructed street in Utrecht; their street, with their homes on it. Again, the city of Utrecht has reclaimed a lot of space from motor traffic, to become living space for people.
The current council is delivering on what the former council decided: the car is no longer king in Utrecht. The closer to the city centre, the more people friendly the city has to be. Driving your motor vehicle into the city centre will remain possible when it is absolutely necessary, but it will not be a convenient option. The scarce city space is not to be used for motor traffic passing quickly, but for people living their lives. Something they should be able to do in a safe environment, with low noise levels and a good air quality. To achieve that, former main roads are being redesigned as space for people, where cars are guest. One by one such streets are reopening and sending out the clear signal that motor traffic has to find different routes: wide around the areas where people live.
Utrecht retained most of its city moat. The former defence system with its ramparts was turned into a park in the 19th century. The city walls were taken down and on top of the remains the city built a beautiful park with artificial hills and curved walking paths. A lot of the trees planted at that time are still there for the enjoyment of many. On the city centre side of the moat, the park was largely untouched, but on the outside, over the years, a lot of the space was surrendered to traffic, especially in the second half of the 20th century. That has been drastically reversed now on the Maliesingel and Tolsteegsingel.
In the new design, the main focus is on the cycling infrastructure. The street now has 2-metre-wide one-directional cycle lanes, in red asphalt, to make it an attractive and convenient main cycle route around the historic city centre. To make parking easier, many brand new bicycle parking racks were added. For pedestrians, the sidewalks have been widened, at some places considerably, to have a minimum width of 2 metres. This makes the street also very attractive for walking. The green space of the water front has also been widened. Trees that were very close to the asphalt before, now have much more space again for their roots.
This change comes at the expense of motor traffic. The motor traffic space has been narrowed, from about 5 metres to just 2.5 metres for all traffic in both directions. To make that safely possible, the speed limit has been lowered from 50km/h to 30km/h. If drivers need to pass other vehicles they may use the cycle lanes, but only if they are not used by people cycling. The speed limit will be enforced naturally, because of the brick paving and the narrow lane. A traffic light installation, at the only major junction in the street, has been permanently removed. It had already been switched off in the project to reduce the number of traffic lights. But, you might ask, why didn’t they just build a separated cycle path protected by a line of parked cars? The city didn’t chose to do that, because that would send a completely wrong signal! Namely that this would be a main route for motor traffic. This new design signals exactly the opposite: this is now people’s space, that is only meant to serve as a neighbourhood access street. If you have no business in the area you are not welcome here as a driver of a motor vehicle.
With so much focus on cycling you would expect the Cyclists’ Union to be very content, but that is not the case. When it became clear on Twitter that I was going to publish a post about this street, Ria Glas, representing the Utrecht branch, contacted me to inform that the Cyclists’ Union has big concerns regarding this road design. “The traffic volume on Tolsteegsingel is considerably high and no measures are taken to reduce it. A road design such as this one can handle up to 6,000 motor traffic vehicles per day. In 2015, the number of motor vehicles was 7,000 to 9,000, depending on where you count. Clearly that is too many. The traffic models mention a further growth of 10,000 to 12,000 motor vehicles per day. We can only hope that drivers will indeed change their routes, otherwise we are in big trouble with this design.”
These figures are in sharp contrast with the ones the city provides answering questions raised in the public consultation. From a count in March 2015, the city calculated an average of 6,780 motor vehicles and 4,084 cyclists per weekday. Writing: “We believe that due to the reconstruction this number of motor vehicles will decrease or remain the same, while we anticipate cycling to increase.” With such numbers a cycle street is out of the question. In a cycle street the cycling has to outnumber motor vehicles. In their October news letter the Utrecht branch of the Cyclists’ Union confirms they are worried about the motor traffic volumes, but they also mention that they do like how the street looks now and that they hope the city is right to expect the number of motor vehicles to decrease.
Especially residents responded very positively to the reconstruction plans. In the public consultation report we find the following remarks from a number of people. “As a resident of Tolsteegsingel I have studied the plans with great enthusiasm.” And: “I am very pleased to make a big compliment regarding the integral program and the functional design”. One last example: “We are very pleased with the current design. The proposed new situation does justice to the monumental character of the former city moat. Visiting the park and living on this water way will be much more attractive. Also, the changes will have a – necessary – positive effect on the safety of cycling.”
After three months of reconstruction works the opening took place at 1st October last. When you look at the result of the now finished reconstruction (that had a budget of 2 million euro) you can understand that the residents raised their glasses while enjoying a live performance of Bernstein’s “I feel pretty”! Utrecht’s city scape is rapidly getting a different face, and it truly is pretty!
This video shows a ride in the before and after situation of Tolsteegsingel and Maliesingel respectively.
Update 2017: Success
After the first six months, an investigation reveals that the reconstruction was a success. The number of people cycling increased by 27% and the number of motor vehicles decreased by 30%, Verkeersnet reported on March 24, 2017.
Some before and after figures:
|Number of bicycles per day
|Number of bicycles per day
|Number of cars per day
|Number of cars per day
|Average speed motor traffic
|43 – 44 kph||30 – 35 kph|
|Average speed motor traffic day time||unknown||29.5 – 33.5 kph|
The investigation also reveals that not all motorists slow down sufficiently when other motor traffic approaches them from the opposite direction. About one third of all people cycling report that they feel unsafe when cars overtake them especially when they speed. For that reason, extra signs were posted to inform motorists of the new speed and the fact that they need to give people cycling enough space.