Utrecht has changed part of its former city ring road. The 4-lane road has now become a 2×1 lane street which Utrecht calls a “city boulevard”. Drivers are discouraged to use the former ring road to pass through larger parts of the city. Instead, they should use the motorways, wider around the city, and choose an exit closest to their end-destination. This measure aims to improve the liveability in the city by reducing motor traffic volumes and subsequently pollution and noise levels. It will also give more space to walking and cycling. The space of the former traffic lanes will be used as extra green space.
Roads with multiple lanes no longer serve a purpose in a dense city. In the past, they made it possible to overtake slower vehicles, but nowadays all vehicles are capable to reach the blanket speed limit, (50km/h in Dutch cities) which makes that unnecessary. The many junctions eliminate the advantages of the higher capacity of more than one traffic lane and the weaving from one lane to the other increases the risk of accidents. That is why the Dutch Sustainable Safety policy advises 2×1 lane roads. In its latest traffic policies, the current council of Utrecht has decided to change all existing 2×2 lane roads in the city to 2×1 lane streets. The city tested this in a 4-lane road that was not part of the ring road and the results were very positive. That is why the city has now started to reconstruct the first part of the actual ring road, called ʼt Goylaan.
With the transformation of the city ring road into a so-called “city boulevard”, Utrecht wants to improve the liveability in the city. The city boulevards have more dedicated space for walking and cycling. A wide sidewalk on both sides and a bi-directional cycleway, also on both sides. The centre is reserved for two travel lanes with a type of asphalt that reduces noise levels. A double line of new trees will be planted in the wide median. Between the motor traffic lanes and the cycleways, a strip can be used for either parking, bus stops or turning lanes. The number of crossing points for walking and cycling will be increased. The city boulevard is easier to cross, because of the reduced number of traffic lanes. When I filmed the “after” situation in ʼt Goylaan, the new trees in the median had unfortunately not yet been planted. They were planted in time for the offical opening though.
Some of the intersections had to be changed. But the intersection of ʼt Goylaan and the minor streets Scherpenburglaan and Linschotensingel stayed exactly as it was: a text-book example of the Dutch protected intersection. The intersection with the far busier Constant Erzeijstraat / Hooft Graaflandstraat was transformed from such a protected intersection into a so-called Priority Square. A new type of intersection where roads intersect under a right angle, but with a central part for left turns, that looks almost like a roundabout. Unlike a roundabout, however, traffic on the square does not have priority. One of the intersecting roads is a priority road. Traffic from the other -minor- road has to give the right of way. This also goes for the cycleways around this priority square. The cycleways on the priority road have priority over traffic when crossing the minor road. The cycleways of the minor road crossing the priority road must give the right of way. Also indicated by the the fact that the red asphalt is interrupted. Such priority arrangements are standard in the Netherlands, so road users understand this easily. The only difference is the space in the centre for the left turns. Because there is such a lot of space on the priority square to stack waiting cars, it can function without traffic signals!
The reconstruction of ’t Goylaan took place in the spring of 2016. The city had to take a lot into account with the design of the boulevard. Preserving the existing trees was a given. The city also wanted to use high quality materials. Pavers of the sidewalks and the so-called “exit strips” (where parked cars are next to green space and not sidewalks, minimal paving is done in that green zone) had to match the high-quality street furniture. For the roadway, a type of asphalt that reduces noise levels was used. The cycleways all got red asphalt. All pedestrian crossing designs were checked and approved by a society for people with disabilities. The crossings got tactile pavers for people with visibility problems and lowered kerbs to also make them easy to use by people in wheel chairs and parents pushing baby carriages. With the companies who manage the gas pipes, water works, sewerage, power lines and communication cables – all underground – the location of every new tree was discussed, to prevent future damage by tree roots. This resulted in one projected tree that can not be planted. The number of car parking spaces stayed exactly the same; 28. Which doesn’t mean they all stayed in the same place. Some were relocated to improve sight lines for the new crossings for instance.
Interestingly, the designers also had to be careful with an old pedestrian tunnel that was bricked up in the late 1970s (because it was socially unsafe), but which is still present below ʼt Goylaan. This old tunnel represents an era in which designers had a totally different view on urban design. While they design extra crossings now, in those days, pedestrians and cyclists ‘needed’ to be kept apart from the cars as much as possible. However, the era of designing first and foremost for the flow of motor traffic is over. Not that everybody agrees though. Not even in the Netherlands.
The opposition parties in Utrecht did everything they could to prevent the city boulevard from being built. They feared congestion and used the old rhetoric that a city will die economically when cars cannot enter it freely. The Christian Democratic party, conservatives in the opposition, even mobilised the provincial and national governments to oppose the plans of the Utrecht council. But Utrecht stood by them and rightly so. The plans were executed as intended.
Of course, traffic investigations had been done. Video simulations had been made of the new situation and it all seemed to work just fine. A baseline measure of all types of vehicles passing ʼt Goylaan had taken place right before the reconstruction, the first two weeks of April 2016. Cameras now monitor the road constantly. When the last road works will be finished (expected in December 2016) the city will investigate whether the projections and simulations work out as expected. So far, the city is content with how things work. The first results for cycling are already in. Ria Glas of the local branch of the Cyclists’ Union noticed a decrease in the waiting times in this street. Where the delays used to be 30 to 45 seconds, they have gone down to 13 to 30 seconds. People also cycle faster. This could be concluded from comparing the results of the cycle counting week in September 2015 and 2016.
A safety measure was also taken. Because the former ring road has not been transformed entirely yet, traffic is grouped in platoons at signalised intersections nearby. That means traffic can be too intense at times, on the priority road, making it impossible to enter the priority square from the side streets. There are detection loops and a special signal that can stop traffic on the priority road, well ahead of the priority square. With traffic stopped temporarily, traffic from the side street can then quickly clear the junction and the lights can be switched off again. These special signals only have a yellow and a red light. In the default state, they are not green, but switched off. A green light could confuse traffic users.
Video about the ʼt Goylaan reconstruction
Now the reconstruction has been finished, the opposition parties are still claiming the new road causes congestion, increased pollution because of it, and the whole scheme would generally be bad for the area and its residents. Instead of politicians, it may be best to listen to residents though. As a comment to the negative article, with mostly negative comments as well, one of whom wrote:
“Everything really improved. I live on ʼt Goylaan. If anyone should be “suffering” the consequences of the “extra congestion and stationary traffic that causes more pollution” it would be me and my neighbours. But that is not what we see. The few times it was congested outside peak hours, it was due to road works or accidents elsewhere. Before the reconstruction, the same would happen. Now, on the other hand, traffic mostly flows smoothly and there is less noise and less pollution. Moreover, is it now much easier to cross the roads when you are walking or cycling and everything looks a whole lot better. Some points could be improved, like preventing drivers from entering roads the wrong way. Drivers have to get used to things, but other than that: nothing but praise!”
The official opening of the new ‘t Goylaan was on 7 December 2016.
A ride in the street before and after the reconstruction.