The eyes of Europe and Australia are on Rotterdam this week. It is -finally- the host city of the Eurovision Song Contest, but there is more to see in Rotterdam. The city has just finished a three year renovation of one of its main city centre streets. Motorists had to give up half of their allocated space to cycling and especially walking. The designers call it the “Revitalization of The Coolsingel”.
The flags of the Eurovision Song Contest fly all over the new Coolsingel. The festival was supposed to take place in May 2020 after the Netherlands won the competition in 2019, but that was not possible due to the Corona outbreak. The pandemic is not over yet, but with all kinds of precaution measures the festival is taking place this week. Last night was the first semi-final. The second will be on Thursday and the grand final will take place this Saturday. 200 million people are expected to see the event. It is a pity that the city is not full of foreign visitors now. I’m sure they would have loved to take a stroll on the new Coolsingel. The street has especially been improved for walking.
The Coolsingel was opened last month, on 10 April, after a three year renovation. Almost everything in the street, from façade to façade, was taken out and redesigned. The project had a design phase of 4 years, prior to the actual 3-year reconstruction. The cost for this enormous project was 58.1 million euros. Only the tram tracks and the metro tube directly under them were untouched. Changing the location of the tram tracks would have made the cost exponentially higher and it was not really necessary. In the reallocation of the available space most space was taken from the car. There had been four travel lanes, two on either side of the tram tracks. The two on the east side of the tracks are now all that remains for motor traffic. They are now used as one lane for each direction. In the space of the former two lanes west of the tram tracks we now find a 4.5 metre wide cycleway. The space of the former one-way cycle tracks (one on either side of the car lanes) was given to pedestrians.
At the start of the reconstruction Rotterdam opened a special website for this project. The city proudly announced that the new Coolsingel was to show the ambition of the council to recreate its heart. ‘City Centre as City Lounge’ is the slogan to express that amibtion. The essence of this particular project was described as follows: “The Coolsingel will be a lively street for a lovely stroll, celebrations, shopping, remembrances and events. A boulevard where you will always feel welcome, whether you come on foot, by bicycle, in public transport or in your car. It will again be the boulevard Rotterdam deserves to have.”
Just last week, on the 14th May, Rotterdam remembered that the city centre was completely destroyed by Nazi bombs 81 years ago, at the start of WWII. When the city was reconstructed after the war the original street pattern was abandoned. The city looked at the US for inspiration about urban design and it built massive streets especially aimed at moving large amounts of cars quickly.
On the occasion of the reopening of the Coolsingel a news reporter remembered what the street was like in the before situation: “A six-lane road [SIC] where you had to manoeuvre between cars and trams as a pedestrian or a cyclist. That was how it was (re)designed during the post WWII reconstruction: as an artery for motor traffic straight through the city centre. Shopping would be done elsewhere, in the new car free shopping street, the Lijnbaan. In the mean time the only buildings in the street that had survived the bombs, city hall and the main post office, became bleaker by the year. Ever dirtier from the exhaust fumes, while the pedestrian space cluttered up with all sorts of cheap food stands.”
The reconstruction started in April 2018 and exactly three years later the street was reopened. During the reconstruction car traffic from south to north was diverted. Walking and cycling remained possible at all times.
Designing company West8 are very pleased with how the reconstruction worked out in reality. They describe their own project as follows: “a spacious pedestrian esplanade and two-way bicycle path are located on the west side of the street. Quality paving, new furniture, upgraded subway entrances, twenty-three bespoke lanterns, and lush greenery create a legible new identity for the Coolsingel. Capitalizing on the quality of the existing greenery and combining it with additional trees and pocket parks positions the new Coolsingel as an attractive meeting place for all times of the day and in all seasons”.
The huge differences between these two descriptions show that the transformation was indeed quite spectacular!
Corona did not only affect the Eurovision Song Contest. This reconstruction also felt some consequences. Some of the natural stone had to be imported from India. Due to the pandemic the factories there weren’t producing and the stones could not be supplied. This means that some of the old grey concrete tiles could not be replaced. About 7,000 to 8,000 square metres of the pedestrian area will still have to be repaved. The good news is that the stones can be delivered soon, but the city will wait until the summer is over before the stones will be laid. The city doesn’t want the outdoor cafés to break up again after they only just reopened. The plan is to finish the project early 2022.
The high-end street furniture has mostly been placed, as well as some ornamented street lights that were especially designed for this street. A total of 77 mature trees were planted to replace some trees that had to be cut for the reconstruction works. The street now has more trees than before, there are 38 more trees than there used to be. Motor traffic has only two travel lanes left. The speed limit went down from 50km/h to an advisory speed of 30km/h and judging from my archive video that speed did indeed decrease a lot. The city expects there will be 10,000 fewer vehicle movements per 24 hours after the reconstruction. The council thinks people will chose different routes or different modes.
Rotterdam is focusing more on cycling for the future. The city expects that the bicycle is by far the most important mode of traffic in 2040 with about 188,000 rides in the city every day. An increase of 70,000 rides.
Perhaps unexpected the new 4.5 metre wide cycle path did also provoke criticism. The designers chose yellow asphalt for its surface. They call the path “golden”. On Twitter people wondered why.
One half jokingly asked whether that would mean the traffic rules would be different too. I was not in favour of abandoning red to signal cycling space either. But now that I have seen the path in person I saw that there was no confusion at all about what was cycleway and what was space for pedestrians. So it is maybe not so bad after all. I do wonder if the designers still think it was a good idea, considering how many tyre marks there already are on the path after just one month…
The reconstruction of the Rotterdam city centre doesn’t stop with this project. The next big reconstruction will be of the adjacent Hofplein, currently designed as a major traffic circle with a fountain in the centre. The spectacular plans became public recently. The space for cars will again be drastically reduced. The freed-up space will become a pocket park and people will be able to get up to the fountain in future. Rotterdam clearly means business when it says it wants to become much less a car city.