Utrecht is reconstructing the streets directly around the historic city centre. These streets, alongside the former city wall and moat, were once supposed to become a four lane main road. For that the water would have disappeared. That never happened at this location but the streets did become a main route for motor traffic for decades. Now the streets have been designated as a main cycle route around the city centre. The design of the streets is being changed accordingly. The second stage of this project has just been finished and a third stage is under construction.
Two years ago I showed you the first stage of this project. The streets named Maliesingel and Tolsteegsingel were transformed from a main road with narrow on-street cycle lanes to a cycle street with two metre wide cycle lanes in smooth red asphalt on the outside of the street. The rest of the road space in the centre (2.5 metres wide, or just a bit wider than one car) got a brick surface and is meant for motor traffic in both directions.
The goal of this project is threefold. The city describes it as follows:
- a design that evolves around pedestrians and cycling;
- a design that nudges people to adhere to the desired speeds and thus influences the choice of route and vehicle for a journey;
- a design that fits the grandeur of this historic area and increases the quality of this space for people.
Today’s goals couldn’t be further from the plans the city council had 60 years ago for exactly the same area. At that time the city wanted to “upgrade” it by filling in the waterway and making this a four lane road. Utrecht had hired a German traffic engineer, professor Feuchtinger, who drew up a traffic circulation plan in 1958. Traffic counts had shown the bicycle was by far the most important means of transport in the city at the time and the professor had quietly asked the council if they were really sure they wanted to design for the car and not the bicycle, but that was confirmed. These plans were met with a lot of resistance of many people in the city and the plans were revised several times since 1958, but in the end they were never executed. At least not on the east-side of the city centre. The motorway in the place of the city moat was built on the west-side, but there it is in the process of being completely erased from history. (See my earlier post).
The first part of the current reconstruction was also met with a lot of criticism. People feared there would be too much motor traffic relative to the number of people cycling and that would negatively influence safety and convenience for cycling here. After the city went ahead with the construction the first stage of the project was therefore evaluated. The city wanted to know if it had to possibly adjust the plans for the further stages and it also wanted to learn from this project for future projects.
The evaluation had four main parts:
- Traffic counts and speed measuring
- Observations and advice from traffic safety experts
- Observations of the behaviour of the road users
- Asking the opinion of people cycling
Different consultancies were hired for the different tasks. It would go too far to get into every aspect of the investigations but it is interesting to see what people cycling had to say. Investigators stopped people passing on a bicycle. Of those people 99 were prepared to answer a questionnaire. Of those people 97 were cycling alone, two people were cycling side by side. They generally had a positive opinion of the redesign, 77 of the 99 people rated the street with 7 (out of 10) or higher. The perceived speed of motor traffic and the safety during overtaking are points that deserve further attention.
The overall conclusion of the city was therefore:
We have successfully changed the character of the route from a road with an important traffic function to an area that invites people on foot or on a bicycle to linger. Most important is now the cycle route for through cycle traffic with much more interaction between all road users.
The car drivers and the cyclists need to adjust their behaviour towards each other. There is more room for walking, both on the side-walk and along the waterfront. We observe the following results:
- The reconstruction led to a significant increase in the number of people cycling, a strong decrease in the number of cars and an importantly lower speed. Indications that the area is undergoing a gradual transformation from traffic road to an attractive urban space for people.
- The street design supports the desired behaviour where people look out for other people more.
- The street is objectively safe, although not all road users feel subjectively safe. Some people cycling feel that car drivers do not always overtake safely. The way car speeds are perceived plays an important role here.
- The lowered speed limits have an effect, but the speed of motor traffic is sometimes perceived as too fast. Especially during busier times the new traffic situation requires more attention and an adaptation of the speed from road users.
Following these conclusions the city will try to further nudge car drivers to take a different route and when they do use this street to make them adhere to the lower speed limit better. The findings did not lead to a change of the further parts of the route. This change in behaviour is not easy to accomplish, not even in the Netherlands. Car drivers do not give up their position easily. That this design works here is only because of all the other measures to rearrange the traffic order in the city. This design is not something you can implement when the car is still king.
The second part of Maliesingel was reconstructed from May to November 2018 and the third stage in Wittevrouwensingel is currently under construction. The whole project is expected to be finished in March 2019.
Before and after video with a ride in both directions.
I was a bit late filming the before situation. The reconstruction had already begun.