Going back to the Utrecht Mariaplaats

We’re all witnessing unprecedented events around the world. I find it stunning to see how quickly our “normal” can change! Less than two weeks ago I filmed the evening rush hour on the Mariaplaats in Utrecht. Little did I know then that what was normal that evening is now so completely different.

Evening rush hour on Mariaplaats in Utrecht, early March 2020.
The exact same location was mostly dedicated to parking motor vehicles just five years ago. (Picture Google StreetView)

Like so many countries around the world the Netherlands is in a (semi-)lockdown due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) situation. Restaurants, bars, museums, cinemas and theaters are all closed until at least 6 April. More and more shops are closing too. In a historic address to the nation (the last time that happened was in 1973 during the oil-crisis) the Prime Minister explained the Dutch measures that have this goal: “controlling the spread as much as possible”. To do that social distancing is in place. Mostly voluntarily so far in the Netherlands (which is different from countries such as Italy, Spain and France) but people do work from home as much as possible. This resulted in a decrease of 85% of travellers in public transport, so much that the Dutch railways will drastically reduce the number of trains. Many events have been or will be postponed or cancelled, including the International Cargo Bike Festival and even the celebrations of the Dutch national holiday Kings’ Day. On the other hand scientists, the authorities and the Cyclists’ Union advise people to get out and walk and cycle – at least 1.5 metres away from each other – to stay mentally sane and physically fit.

Not the nicest entry to Utrecht’s historic city centre for people coming from the station until 2015. (Picture Google StreetView)
Today the area looks much friendlier, even in the rain. The only parking that remains is for people with a disability, there are two charging points for electric vehicles and there is a dual purpose area for deliveries and taxis.

Back to the Mariaplaats in Utrecht. I went there to see how the big changes there work out five years on. In a blog post I described how five years ago the place was effectively a parking lot which was only traversed by people on their way from A to B. With all the changes in the station area of Utrecht the city council wanted to make this place a nicer entry to the historic city centre, where people would also want to linger, especially people on foot and by bicycle. When the council proposed to take away some of the car parking spaces the local entrepreneurs stunned the council by demanding all the parking to be removed. That was novel at the time (and to be honest it still is exceptional) but could be explained because the pedestrianised area is so close to this location. The merchants simply saw that business is booming literally around the corner at locations without moving and parked cars. So how do people appreciate the new normal here after five years? The city council developed an appetite for more areas with less access for private motorised traffic. There is talk of removing more car parking spaces and of making more areas car low. Unfortunately, the revenues from the parking spaces are still an important source of income for the city.

The four cars parked on the left all have a permit. That is parking space for people with a disability. The red car in the distance is a shared car and there are also parking spaces to charge electric cars.
When the weather is better the seating around the trees is well-used. This side of the street is the primary walking space. Without the many parked cars that were here until 2015, the area looks much friendlier.

If you look on Twitter how people report about it you find a mix of feelings. Some residents are upset about parking where it isn’t allowed (about both motor vehicles and the many bicycles!), about rubbish piling up where and when it isn’t allowed, illegal deliveries and about noisy customers of partly new bars/restaurants and a supermarket. Visitors seem to like the upgraded space a lot. They are happy with fewer cars in the street, they love the bicycle parking garage, the fact that you can sit on a terrace with a coffee and the paper, as well as on a bench in the summer warmth and some even call it their favorite place in the city.

This is again the before situation. The trees on the left were in between the cars parked in a parking lane. (Picture Google StreetView)
The same trees have grown 5 years later, but they are still in the exact same location. This gives a good idea of how much more space is now dedicated to pedestrians. The parking on the right is deliberately on the sidewalk. That way the space reverts to space for pedestrians and not vehicles when there are no cars parked.

I think it is safe to say that the area has become so beautiful now that irregularities stand out more. A single vehicle parked in a wrong way is now an eyesore while it would have been unnoticed when there were still 68 parking spaces here. I do love this place now and I come here often. This is what the normal evening rush hour looks like. Let’s hope we get back to that normal as soon as possible!

Cycling rush hour on Mariaplaats in Utrecht,
early March 2020.


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