Utrecht opened a new cycling underpass in the canal route through the city on the rainy morning of 1 December 2020. The underpass replaces the only remaining at-grade intersection in a main cycle route next to a canal. According to the Utrecht chapter of the Fietsersbond (Cyclists’ Union) it remains now possible to cycle from Houten – via Utrecht – alongside the canal all the way to Amsterdam, a journey of almost 40 kilometres, without seeing a single traffic signal.
The opening of the nameless underpass took place at 9 in the morning when two builders moved away the final fences. There was almost no-one to witness it. Just one council member with a companion, an interested resident of Utrecht and myself. Two of these persons were holding a camera, so the moment was at least well-documented.
The idea that an underpass at this location was necessary emerged in 2017, when the city of Utrecht announced that the Nelson Mandela Bridge would be widened to create a separate bus lane for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) road. The Utrecht chapter of the Cyclists’ Union and the Utrecht council member Maarten Koning (Of Democrats 66, a social-liberal political party) realised that adding a priority bus route would make the intersection of the fast cycle route alongside the Merwedekanaal far too dangerous. They both tried to find allies for their plans to reconstruct the intersection by building an underpass alongside the canal. To show how big the problem would be, the Cyclists’ Union went to the intersection and counted all passers-by on a bicycle. Neatly specified by direction. The result was that on that one morning in May 2017 during the busiest hour 1,676 people used the intersection, almost 800 of which would today be able to use the tunnel. This was apparently more than the models of the city calculated. The video that was made that morning shows part of the impressive cycling volume.
The number could be so high because the route alongside the canal is a main cycle route. It had been opened in 2015, I showed this route on my blog in January 2016. What was so clever here, was that the height of all the existing bridges was used to create grade-separated crossings. This was done by opening up the abutments of the bridges. There was only one exception; the original Nelson Mandela Bridge was a drawbridge which only opened when a ship needed to pass. Therefore, it was at ground level and no cycleway could be routed through the bridge’s approach. Because that original Nelson Mandela bridge only had two lanes for motor traffic (one in each direction) that was somewhat acceptable, but in the new situation there are two BRT lanes for buses, two lanes for motor traffic and two bi-directional cycleways on the much wider replaced Nelson Mandela Bridge (still a drawbridge). To cross all those lanes safely is a task too challenging for many people, such as children or the elderly. An intersection at-grade, even signalised, would mean the buses would be delayed by all those people trying to cross here. The result of the count was a good card in the debate. Another trump card was the fact that 10,000 people more will live in the area after it has been reconstructed as a low-car neighbourhood, who all may want to cycle to the city centre via this intersection.
Apparently the city was convinced relatively quickly, because at the end of 2018 the decision was taken to indeed build the underpass. It would have been a different story when the tunnel had to be built ‘on its own’, but in this case the underpass (estimated to cost at least 5 million euros) could become a part of the much larger project of the BRT system in the city. The exact cost for the bridge was classified information. Only the council was informed in a secret financial annex, because: “disclosure of the financial annex may harm the financial interests of the municipality in future tenders and may disproportionately benefit third parties”.
Construction took place from early September 2019 and during most of 2020. I was only in the city every now and then, because I don’t work in Utrecht in the ongoing Corona crisis. Every time I did have to be in Utrecht I made sure I went to have a look as often as possible, to see how construction progressed. You can see the various stages in the video.
About a week ago the underpass looked almost finished, but it was only announced a day before the actual opening that it would indeed be opened on Tuesday 1 December at 9:00 am. The underpass is now open. The route alongside the canal had been closed for over two years (because the whole area will be reconstructed from an industrial site to a residential zone there had already been other works before). The route is now finally open again. There is still some work to do. There will be connections from the canal road to the Nelson Mandela Bridge from either side of the bridge. These connections can only be built after a completely new bridge – parallel to the existing bridge – has been finished. That bridge will be used for logistics between the different parts of Utrecht’s convention centre. With that bridge trucks and vans will not have to cross the BRT road or even use the public roads at all. That bridge has only been finished right over the cycleway so the building does not pose danger to people cycling here. The connections are expected to open in Spring 2021, until then there is a detour on the north-side of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, which means all people wanting to go in any direction possible can from now on use the tunnel to get where they need to go.
Utrecht shows once again that cycling really matters in the fourth largest city in the Netherlands.
My portrait of the new underpass in Utrecht.
A ride through the underpass, first north,
with a before and after comparison, then south.