Reconstruction of a former main street in Utrecht

The city of Utrecht finished yet another reconstructed street. The Voorstraat used to be the main east-west route through the city centre for centuries, but ever since that route was severed for cars in the 1990s, the volume of car traffic decreased and kept decreasing. On the other hand the number of people cycling keeps on growing in Utrecht. The design of this street no longer matched the traffic volumes and that made a redesign necessary.

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The reconstructed Voorstraat looking east. The space for walking has been increased most. There is a new 5 metre wide bi-directional Cycle Street with red asphalt were cars (in one direction) are guest.
In the before situation (picture from 2018) there was a separated counterflow cycle lane and the space for walking was much narrower. Cars got most of the available space although there were almost 5 times fewer motor vehicles than there were people cycling.

Utrecht closed Vredenburg to car traffic in 1996 after it had already been closed in one direction in the 1980s. Slowly but steadily the streets in the city centre are getting more and more car free or at least the volume of car traffic decreases dramatically. The design of the 620 metre long Voorstraat (including the part that is called Wittevrouwenstraat) dated back from 2002. At the time a counterflow cycle track was put in. That cycle track had become too narrow for today’s cycling volumes. On an average day there were about 16,500 people cycling here and the number of cars was around 3,500. The number of buses per day was 132. That means the bicycle to car ratio had become 1 car to almost 5 bicycles. Yet the design was clearly focussing on cars. Further license plate investigation showed that even with those numbers there still was through car traffic in the street, so the car volumes could be even lower with appropriate measures. This is the area of the city where the council decided walking and cycling are the most important types of traffic. Cars come third. It was high time for a redesign.

A detail of the plan for the reconstruction of Voorstraat as a 30km/h cycle street. All the side streets have to give way to the main road because of the “exit-constructions” with kerbs (curbs) and a level change. This solution does not require signs so the street looks less cluttered. (Image from the concept plan by the Municipality of Utrecht)
New cross sections of the wider Voorstraat (left) and the narrower Wittevrouwenstraat (right). You can see that the space for moving vehicles is the smallest part of the design, especially in the Voorstraat where people walking got much more space. (Image from the reconstruction plan by the Municipality of Utrecht)

The Utrecht Voorstraat is a well-known street in the Netherlands. A six part documentary about the rougher edges of the street was broadcast in 2014. Today the street has 526 registered residents and 91 entrepreneurs. With users of the street they were asked what they thought of certain aspects of the street in January 2017. On a scale from 1 to 10 the street scored below satisfactory (6) on every aspect. Below are the rates the respondents gave:

An investigation before the reconstruction showed that people were not at all satisfied with anything in this street in the city centre of Utrecht. (from Gebruikersonderzoek Voorstraat-Wittevrouwenstraat, translated by me)

People were then asked how they would like to re-allocate the space in this narrow street. (The width varies from 9 metres to 18 metres). The fact that so many people want less space for car traffic is remarkable. Even the entrepreneurs think that 71% of their customers come by bicycle and 59% on foot. They think only a small minority (27%) comes by car (more answers were possible, so the total is more than 100%).

The respondents in the investigation (residents, entrepreneurs and users of the street) were clearly in agreement about how the space should be re-allocated. Less space for motor traffic and more space for people. More space for people who stay in the street for a longer time, those walking there or cycling through it and for people needing to park their bicycles. (Data from Gebruikersonderzoek Voorstraat-Wittevrouwenstraat, translated by me.)

With these wishes in mind and also considering what was mentioned on the community meetings, the city made a new design. Which was again discussed and finally approved. The actual reconstruction started in April 2020 and the street was reopened on 19 October. In the new street there is much more space for walking: at least 2.5 metres on one side of the street (but mostly on both sides). The counter cycle track was taken out. There is now only a single road space for cycling in both directions and cars (as guest) in one direction of just 5 metres wide. The speed limit is 30 km/h. The surface consists of red asphalt to make clear that motor traffic is guest here. The street has priority over all side-streets. Not by using the ordinary regulations with traffic signs, but because all side-streets have a so-called ‘exit-construction’. This is a typically Dutch solution where a level change and a kerb (curb) between the surface of the main street and the side streets make clear which has priority over the other. This leads to far fewer traffic signs in the street and therefore less street clutter.

The road works started in April. The street is so narrow that cycling was not permitted during the reconstruction. The signs do not really indicate that (stating ‘cyclists dismount’ and ‘no entry except for cycling’), but that is how it was in reality.
After reopening cycling has more space (especially the people cycling in the opposite direction than motor traffic is allowed to). Car drivers clearly have to get used to their new position. Some were not really behaving like guests yet, with regard to their speed and place on the road. Some clearly drove too far to the left, not expecting people coming from the opposite direction. With the fewer parking spaces and other measures to decrease the through traffic most people driving here will be locals in future and they will (have to) adapt their driving style.

This interesting video shows the before situation compared to the plans for the redesign.

To make a cycle street safer most of the buses were relocated. The street was used by three lines. Two of those lines resulted in 125 buses per day, but only about 100 to 150 passengers boarded or alighted the buses in the one bus stop. That made a relocation without much impact possible. Only one minor bus line, with 7 buses per day, will keep on using the street.

There was clearly much more demand for bicycle parking than the street offered in the before situation. On Thursday evenings (when the shops close at 21:00hrs) almost 6 times more bicycles were parked than there were racks (in Wittevrouwenstraat). (From Facts and Figures Voorstraat/Wittevrouwenstraat Municipality of Utrecht, presented at the first community meeting in January 2017)

The number of car parking spaces decreased considerably. There used to be 40 parking bays of which 6 doubled as loading and unloading bays. In the new situation there are 18 of which still 6 double as delivery bays. There are specific times for the latter to inform when they are for parking and when they are for loading and unloading. The parking is now on the pedestrian space, not the roadway. That may seem strange, but investigations show that the parking bays are only filled for 50% at times (even less when I filmed the rides) and at those times the space is immediately added to the space for walking.

These steel bars with panels were meant to make bicycle parking possible. The Utrecht Dom Tower on them is a nice touch, but how are you going to loop your chain lock through the bar now? This is a beginners design failure that got a lot of ridicule in the city.
The decorative panels were temporarily removed and you can indeed see some locks around the bars now. The city is studying how to change the panels to make it possible to put them back again. (Which really shouldn’t be hard…)

There was not enough bicycle parking in the former situation. The 219 spaces were almost always full and sometimes almost 6 times as many bicycles than there were racks were parked in the street. From now on there are 370 parking spaces for bicycles. The city placed new steel bars to park bicycles against. They had very nice panels with Utrecht’s pride on them: the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, the Dom tower. There was just one little problem. The panels rendered the steel bars useless. In the sense that they made it impossible to loop your lock through the bars. Even in the Netherlands such inconsiderate mistakes are made. Before the street was re-opened all the panels were removed so the bars could at least be used. The panels could return in an altered way.

In the plans a lot of attention was given to adding more green. The row of existing trees (dark green dots) in the Voorstraat (left) will be expanded, missing trees will be placed. (bright green dots -new trees- and yellow dots -relocated trees-). In the Wittevrouwenstraat part (right) smaller trees will be placed in boxes. These can be moved if necessary. (Blue dots). (From the reconstruction plan Municipality of Utrecht)
This circle is for a new tree that will be planted here. This location used to be in the middle of the street before. This part of the street reconstruction is expected to be finished mid-November.

Every other detail in the street is there to make the street more pleasant to be in for people. One example: the height of the kerbs is only 7 centimetres at maximum. This makes it easier to cross the street wherever you like. More trees will be planted to make the street greener as so many people said they would like to see it. Some trees will be planted, while on other locations they need to be placed in boxes. These trees had not yet been planted or placed when I filmed. The entire reconstruction is expected to be finished by mid-November.

My video portrait of the reconstruction of Voorstraat/Wittevrouwenstraat.

A ride in the streets in both directions, before and after the reconstruction.

5 thoughts on “Reconstruction of a former main street in Utrecht

  1. In the old situation a lot of vans parked half on the street and half on the already narrow counterflow cycling path. As the combined space for cyclist and cars has become narrower, it indeed feels wider.
    At one time a very long limosine wanted to bypass a temporary blocking of the street by other cars over this cycling path. He wanted me to step on the footpath which I clearly denied. He moved forward, me too. After some five minutes he had to drive back some tens of meters and move back on car lane. To much amusement of other car drivers.

  2. This is very exciting news! I will ride through it the next time I’m in Utrecht. When I walked along it the first time 5 years ago, it was a rather unpleasant experience. Within a 1-minute period, there was a scooter and car that drove way too fast down the narrow street, both of them honking very aggressively at a group of cyclists who were riding 2-abreast. The contraflow was very narrow and often unpleasant to bike on with all the pedestrians wanting to cross the street. So glad to see the new design.

    This is now the 6th time, where I would see a major piece of infrastructure that was less than average and think to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice if this got an update?” The other 5 times, the said road was reconstructed within a year. The quality and speed to which things are built here never ceases to amaze me. The new tunnel built beneath the railroad here in Goes is worth checking out for anyone who passes by.

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