An impression of cycling in Antwerp

Billet en français

Just before the Corona crisis hit Europe and crossing the Belgian border as a tourist became illegal, I spent five days in Antwerp. On one of those days I had time to cycle longer in the city and I was able to film an impression of some of the cycling infrastructure in the second largest city of Belgium.

The cycle path following the river Scheldt was very well used during the morning rush hour on Friday 6 March 2020. This route is an easy way to bypass the narrow streets of the historic city core on this route.

Antwerp is a great city for cycling. It is compact, the infrastructure seems to be improving every year I visit and you can easily get a shared bicycle to get around. On the site Visit Antwerp people are invited to explore the city on a bicycle. The site published nine cycle routes and they have tips about where you can rent a bicycle.

The market square in Antwerp is one of the main tourist destinations. People do cycle on this square but I am not entirely sure that is actually allowed.
Antwerp’s city museum (MAS) is located in this modern building in the former port area.

The city is proud that “thanks to over 500 km of safe and comfortable cycle paths many people cycle on a daily basis. Cycle highways, cycle routes and the numbered junction network contribute to making cycling a quick and easy experience.” The city offers a cycle map but a routeplanner for your PC or smartphone is also available.

The street leading up to the station in the distance used to be designed with much more space for the private car. Now you can walk to the city centre without having to deal with private motor traffic at all.
The underground bicycle parking garage at central station needs an upgrade is the general feeling. Antwerp is looking at the Dutch station bicycle parking garages and feels this one is not good enough. Compared to what most other countries in the world have to offer it isn’t really very bad at all.

It was the third time that I used the shared bicycle system in Antwerp. This completely automated system of the third generation has fixed stations where you can rent and return a bicycle. The first 30 minutes are free and tourists like me can get a day pass or a week pass. I got a week pass for the 5 days I was in the city and used the system every day. According to Wikipedia Velo Antwerp now has almost 300 stations with 4,200 bicycles. The bicycles were originally all shaft driven as you can see on one of the pictures in my 2018 post. But when the system was expanded in January 2019 the new bicycles got an ordinary chain drive. The bicycle system is mainly used by locals. Over two-thirds of the subscribers (67.1%) live in Antwerpen. There are about 60,000 people with an annual subscription which costs 49 euros. The week pass I used costs 10 euros.

This used to be a crossing of a big street with multiple car lanes. For that car traffic a tunnel was built here. That does improve the street level a lot and makes it possible to walk from the station to the pedestrianised shopping area without having to deal with car traffic.

The magnificent Antwerp Central station has an underground bicycle parking garage for 1,000 bicycles that was opened in 2006. This facility is free to use but has a bad name because there are some social safety issues. It is only guarded during the day and many people call it scary and dark. Apparently homeless people spend the night in the garage and it is dirty and smelly. The city now speaks with the railways to see whether improvements could be financed by introducing parking fees for at least part of the garage. Some political parties are against a parking fee, one stated the city cannot fine people who park on the street and then also require a fee for the only parking alternative. The local Cyclists’ Union is also against it. They point to the Dutch bicycle parking garages at stations to learn from and hope the first 24 hours will remain free.

Most people in Antwerp cycle on an upright bicycle. You do see quite a number of people with helmets and hi-vis gear. That maybe because rain gear is often hi-vis and it was raining when I filmed this in the morning rush hour.

It is interesting to see how similar some views of the Belgian Cyclists’ Union are compared to its Dutch counterpart. They agree with the Cycling Advisory Board and want to see a minimal width of at least 2 metres for all new one-way cycle paths, 3 metres for a bi-directional path (even more for the busier routes) and they do not like speed limits on the cycleways but want to leave it up to the people to adjust their speeds according to how busy it is at a location. Their stance on helmets sounds very familiar too:

“A helmet is an individual protection measure that does not address the cause of road safety in any way. To put it bluntly, riding on a strip of paint right next to speeding motor traffic doesn’t get any safer when you wear a helmet. In an accident, the impact may be smaller, but wearing a helmet does not make the situation safer in itself. In other words: this measure creates the impression that one is doing something about road safety while not at all tackling the causes of danger.”

There are also differences, sometimes caused by having different laws and speed limits in the built-up areas. The Belgians have a 30, 50, 70 principle. In which they say that for streets with a speed limit of 30km/h you can mix traffic, at 50km/h you need at least on-street cycle lanes and with 70km/h you need protected (separated) infrastructure. The Dutch handbooks already recommend separation at 50km/h and the speed of 70km/h is no longer an accepted speed in the built-up area in the Netherlands.

The newest traffic signals have a little repeater light on the pole! That is very nice because Belgium also only has lights on the near side and this means you do not have to look high up when you are stopped right at the pole. Unfortunately this new cycle way does not seem to be at least 2 metres wide.

The people in Belgium still need to and do go out on the streets to protest for a better cycling climate. There are also nice and positive actions such as offering live music while you wait for the light to change with which they demand shorter red phases. Red times of up to 3 minutes still exist in Antwerp which is far too long. After waiting more than 30 seconds pedestrians and cyclists get impatient and understandably begin to ignore the lights, which causes dangerous situations avoided with shorter red times.

This recent redesign has a flaw in my opinion. I do not understand why the cycleway and the service street swap places several times. This introduces unnecessary possible conflict at many locations. The cycleway is also bi-directional but for the locations where there is a service street. People cycling “against traffic” then suddenly have to use the service street as a counterflow (hence the sign “no entry for cycling”). This is how the design used to be before the reconstruction, but I think it is a missed opportunity to improve that design. Now this will be there for several decades. The cycleway should have stayed on the outside (left in this picture) of the service street, if it was needed at all. (You can also cycle on the service street after all.)

The city does try to keep cycling safe. In the first four months of 2019 over a thousand car drivers got a fine for misbehaving in cycle streets. Of those fines 99 were for overtaking people cycling, which is illegal in Belgium. The Fietsstraat (Cycle Street ) did make it to the Belgian law book, including the sign to indicate such a street. Even though that sign is identical to the ones often used in the Netherlands, the Dutch have not yet updated their regulations. Neither the Cycle Street, nor that sign, is mentioned in Dutch law (yet).

One of the more recent cycleways in Antwerp. Very nice smooth red asphalt and forgiving flush kerbs (curbs). Only the width doesn’t meet the recommendations of the Cycling Advisory Board (3 metres for a bi-directional path).

It is clear that Antwerp is changing its city scape. Partly because tram lines are being expanded some major roads have been completely redesigned. Sometimes unfortunately by building tunnels rather than by diverting and reducing car traffic, but at least the street level then improves. I mentioned the redesign of the street alongside the river Scheldt in my post from 2018. Now, my video shows that the reconstruction of the main road called Italiëlei is nearing completion. The pedestrianised area is also expanding. Antwerp is constructing a completely car free walking route all the way from the railway station to the river front. Building activities are visible at many locations in the city centre. Antwerp has not completely divided its city centre into compartments like Ghent did in 2017. A challenge for Antwerp is that it has many car parking garages in the centre which need to be reached. The city did introduce a car circulation plan in 2016 to regulate this access better and to get more space for walking at certain locations.

This recently constructed path alongside the river Scheldt does seem to have the minimal width of 3 metres.

With all these measures the city is really changing. As an irregular visitor since the 1970s that is quite noticeable for me. I remember seeing cars as a child in the area that has long been pedestrianised. In the 1980s I even drove a car myself at locations around central station that are now completely car free and in the last decade I saw the main roads being reconstructed. For the locals there may still be many things that need to be changed to further improve the cycling climate, but in general cycling in Antwerp is already very attractive. After the current lockdown I hope and expect that the situation will return quickly to what I saw early March.

My impression of cycling in Antwerp early March 2020.

6 thoughts on “An impression of cycling in Antwerp

  1. Mark, a few comments:
    – Cycling on the main market square is allowed.
    – “Now you can walk from the central station to the city centre without having to deal with private motor traffic at all.” Sorry, but this is simply not true. You will still encounter it at least 4 times.
    Otherwise, good job. You are right to point out the width of the new cycle lanes. the city still uses a meagre 1,75 m as a standard and many bi-directional are just waaaay to narrow.

      1. That will be car free “Antwerp style”. 🙂 It won’t be, trust me. Even the recently finished new square you mention still has a road for cars passing true it. (despite the tunnel underneath it!). I don’t see it happen. Certainly not under the current legislators (and it was their idea!).

  2. Great blog. Impressed by quality of video and editing. Would love to do something like this in New Zealand.

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