Rotterdam takes an important step towards becoming a cycle friendly city

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”.

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The reconstructed Coolsingel in Rotterdam with planted seating areas around existing trees. There is much more space for cycling and especially walking now.

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.

Rotterdam City Hall appears to be at a square now. There are swings in the shape of the word Cool. This is a reference to the name of the street, but of course also to the English meaning of that word. The name in Dutch has no meaning. It is simply the name of a former hamlet, now neighbourhood of Rotterdam. Left, the flags for the Eurovision Song Contest.
A close-up of the flags for the Eurovision Song Contest. The contest takes place this week on three nights. Saturday will be the night of the grand final.

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.

In 2018, the street was under construction. Half of the car lanes were closed. Where the cars were at the time of this picture is now the cycle way.
Last February the project was far from finished at this intersection.
In February 2021 the top layer of the cycleway had not been laid yet, but it was clear how the street was going to look. The concrete blocks on the pedestrian area have since been removed.

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.”

I filmed the Coolsingel in 2011 for a blog post about Rotterdam. It was really a car street at that time!
The Coolsingel in 2011. All that motor traffic made a lot of noise. The difference in sound is dramatic when you compare the before and after video. Cities are not loud, motor traffic is.
The before and after of the Coolsingel. From four lanes for cars to just two lanes. The car lanes on the left-hand side of the tram tracks have now become the cycleway. The space of the two former cycleways at either side of the car lanes has been added to the space for pedestrians. (Picture City of Rotterdam)

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.”

This street is the continuation of the Coolsingel and the design was also applied in this street. In the distance the bridge over the river Maas (Meuse) and left some of the old cranes of the port of Rotterdam.
Some people raised their eye brows after seeing the yellow surface of the cycle ways. The designers preferred this over the traditional red that is normally chosen (but not a legal requirement) for cycleway surfaces in the Netherlands.

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!

The pedestrian area may be paved with expensive natural stone, that does not mean the tactile markings for the visually impaired were forgotten. The kerbs (curbs) were also lowered at the crossings so people in wheel chairs or people pushing a baby carriage can easily cross the cycleway.

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 connections with side streets with a much more traditional design are beautiful!

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.

Unfortunately, there still are some traffic lights in the new street. I had to wait quite a long time sometimes. It seems the car traffic crossing here did get some priority still.

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…

That the space for walking increased a lot is very clear. There is more than enough space for the outdoor cafés and the bigger events that this street is also often used for.

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.

Rotterdam is the proud organiser of the Eurovision Song Contest this week.
My video portrait of the reconstructed Rotterdam Coolsingel.
My ride on the new Coolsingel from North to South and back again.

8 thoughts on “Rotterdam takes an important step towards becoming a cycle friendly city

  1. It’s funny to me. The old Coolsingel was an inspiration for the recently completed Comm Ave project in Boston, which took over 5 years to design and build. Of course Rotterdam has already gone above and beyond already.

    It’ll be another 50 years before they get around to fixing Comm Ave again, alas. Perhaps it will be underwater by then anyway.

  2. There are 3 lanes of traffic remaining, not 2, unfortunately (2 out of the city centre and 1 in, if I remember correctly). Due to that fact they had to introduce pedestrian traffic lights in at least 2 places where earlier were simple pedestrian crossings (near City Hall and Koopgoot). That’s a huge downside in my opinion.

    I live and work in Rotterdam at the moment, but I think I cycled through Coolsingel maybe once or twice since I started to cycle (3 years ago). Why do you need this “cycling autobahn” in the city centre if every 100 meters on your way you have traffic lights? Maybe it would be different if I leaved in the south and used Erasmus bridge to come to the center. Anyway, I think there were much better ways to spend that money, or make this project more radical and really reduce motor traffic 2 lanes, give priority to cyclists and pedestrians, remove traffic lights.

    1. The two new signalised pedestrian crossings also surprised and disappointed me, but there is really only one travel lane per direction for cars. There are sometimes added turning lanes near the intersections, but they also existed in the before situation, in addition to the two travel lanes there used to be before. In the end there really is less space for cars, but there is indeed also still room for a further downgrade with respect to the space and priority treatment private motor traffic gets.

  3. In Germany bidirectional cycleways are considered as dangerous and uncomfortable. For example, how do you reach the town hall on the other side of the street? In my home town, I assume, their would be illegal bicycle traffic on the pedestrian area. How do you solve this problem?

    1. The same as with a car. You park your vehicle where it is allowed and you walk the last few metres. You can park your bicycle at this side of the street and walk to the other side. And if you don’t want to do that, you can also push your bicycle while you walk there.

  4. Mark, Just wanted to send you a quick note to congratulate you for your appearance in the movie “Together We Cycle” that was shown as part of the bicycle film Festival here in New York. Imagine how thrilled I was to see one of my favorite Dutch bicycle bloggers up there on the silver screen. You did a fantastic job and I congratulate you heartily. If you ever get to New York I would very much enjoy showing you around the city on one of our city bikes.

    1. Thank you!! I really appreciate that. It was a lot of work, but they picked the right things for the movie. I haven’t even seen it on a big screen yet myself, only on my computer monitor.
      I may come to New York once we can travel again!

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