Imagine the busiest main thoroughfare in your city closed to all traffic for well over 7 hours, including the evening rush hour; would that lead to chaos? This is exactly what happened on Tuesday 7 July on the Utrecht Vredenburg, where well over 30,000 people pass daily on their bicycles. The closed street is also used by 14 bus lines (or about 2,500 buses per day) and yet, Utrecht didn’t come to a full standstill.
It was only the second time I went to my workplace in Utrecht since mid-March and while at the office I heard the news that around 1 in the afternoon a gas leak had been detected in one of the restaurants on Vredenburg. That street, together with the connecting Smakkelaarsveld near the Utrecht Central Station, is the busiest cycleway in the Netherlands. After work, just before the evening rush hour would start, I decided to have a look.
I had never seen so many emergency vehicles at one place. Police, the Fire Department, a “Mobile Command Unit” and medical teams were all there doing their jobs or standing by in case something would go wrong even more. At some locations you could indeed smell the gas. Apparently gas had escaped into the sandy soil and got trapped there causing a dangerous situation. A number of businesses, homes and even the music theatre at Vredenburg had to be evacuated. It took a long time to find the leak, fix it and then ventilate the buildings and especially the sand pockets under the street and buildings. Fortunately, there was no explosion and a real disaster was thus avoided, but the entire area wide around this leak was cordoned off and traffic – including pedestrians – had to find other routes.
This resident had no clue what was going on and wondered why he saw so many people cycling in Wijk-C.
At first people just ran into the police tape and had to find their own solution. Some walked their bicycles through the pedestrianised streets to get to the station but most people turned into St Jacobsstraat (which featured on my blog before) and then turned into the tiny streets of Wijk-C to get through this neighbourhood to the station. Some may have remembered that this was the detour they had to take when Vredenburg was reconstructed in 2012, as I showed you in a post at the time. After the rush hour had really begun the flow of cyclists was finally directed that way and people no longer had to find out where to go themselves. All of the hundreds of buses also used that same street and that meant that the flow of buses and the flow of people cycling had to cross at locations that weren’t designed for the volumes that were there that afternoon. I saw a few scary near misses but fortunately there were no reported collisions.
The flow of people cycling to the station came out of Wijk-C at the signalised intersection on the bridge called Paardenveldbrug. That bridge is normally used by very little traffic and the crossing road is an important one. That means the signal phasing was not at all designed for the flows of traffic it had to process that day and people had to wait very long to get a green light. (Apparently this intersection is not fully actuated or things would perhaps have been different.) The lights only stayed green for a short while and people then kept going after it turned red. I even saw a police car driver go through a red light almost 10 seconds after it had changed, because only then the stream of people cycling had finally dried up for a moment. This behaviour was perhaps not entirely right, but since so many were doing it, it resulted in very low speeds and nothing really went wrong.
It was interesting to see so many people cycling in streets that are normally very quiet. On Twitter, some residents, unaware of the gas leak, wondered what was going on, but other than that, it never really turned into chaos. People cycling use so little space that they can easily find an alternative route when something goes wrong. Well after the evening rush hour was over, at 8:15 in the evening, the street was finally re-opened. This would have been a completely different story if the 30,000 people passing Vredenburg daily on their bicycles would all have been in a car. It is a very good thing that Utrecht has such a strong cycling culture.
This week’s video showing the results of the closure of the busiest cycleway in the Netherlands.