The guided tour season is at its peak right now. With Velo-City 2017 rapidly approaching the first groups are already arriving in the country. The associate professor from Platteville-Wisconsin, whose group I gave a tour last week, is staying for the conference and a group of Australians has just arrived this weekend. I gave them a presentation last Sunday night and I will give them a guided tour in Utrecht this coming Thursday. I saw a few people in this group in different cities in Australia when I was there last March. The group specifically asked me to show them Vredenburg at rush hour. The word has spread that Vredenburg is part of the Netherlands’ busiest cycle route. On an average working day, some 32,000 people pass here on a bicycle. On one single occasion the city counted 37,000! I decided to go there last week, to prepare the tour and to remind myself what that is like when so many people pass in rush hour.
Just six weeks ago, at the end of April, we still had very cold and wet weather. On a Thursday in a school holiday Anders Swanson from Canada also went to Vredenburg and he bravely counted traffic for one entire hour with the CounterPoint App. Even under those conditions he counted almost 4,000 people passing on their bicycles. Anders’ comment: “The hardest traffic count I’ve ever done. Rain, wind, hail… ~4K bikes/hr.”.
When I went last Wednesday, a normal working day outside school holidays and with a temperature of 25 degrees, I think I could have counted a whole lot more people cycling. But I was glad I didn’t have to do that! Instead I was only filming!
This is the main east-west route in Utrecht. It has always seen a lot of cycling. A traffic count from 1925 reveals that almost a century ago 12,000 cyclists per day passed this point. At that time Utrecht was a city of only 140,000 people. There was no cycling infrastructure at all in those days. Protected cycling infrastructure only arrived in 1962, when the city was transforming the city centre streets for the expected increase in motor traffic. At the same time the street got two bus lanes and four motor traffic lanes (two in each direction) and – surprise, surprise – that really made the volume of motor traffic grow. Later in the 1960s bus drivers complained that especially on the shopping Saturdays they couldn’t get in and out of their dedicated bus lanes to get to the bus stops. Traffic wardens had to control the flow of traffic to especially the parking lot on Vredenburg. When an underground parking garage was opened directly under the square in the early 1970s the entrance was moved to a different location and motor traffic was mostly banned from Vredenburg. One lane for motor traffic going east was all that was left here.
Vredenburg is no longer accessible to cars. The East-West corridor (including Potterstraat) was closed to private motor traffic in 1996, after successful experiments of closing the streets on Saturdays had taken place from 1991. “That one car lane was immediately turned into a cycleway” tells me Hugo van der Steenhoven, former director of the Cyclists’ Union, who was alderman for the environment and traffic in Utrecht at the time. This street is now only used by buses, (an incredibly high number of them!) by pedestrians and it is part of the busiest route for cycling of the entire city and country. It is quite incredible to see when you are interested in traffic. Most of the Dutch are not impressed though. They just want to go home quickly after work and cycling is often simply the fastest and most convenient way to get home in Utrecht.
Cycle rush hour on Vredenburg in Utrecht. I added no music this time, to let you hear what rush hour sounds like when the bicycle is the main form of transport.