Less and less space for cars in the Utrecht city centre

Utrecht has redesigned yet another public space in its city centre to make it much more attractive for walking and cycling. Almost all of the streets on the east side of the canal ring surrounding the historic city centre had been reconstructed in the last five years. One of the last missing links was finished very recently. The so-called ‘Malieblad’ got a lot less space for motor traffic. About 2,000 square metres of asphalt was removed. Much of that asphalt has been replaced by (space for) greenery and paths for walking. More green in a city can help against heat stress and it is better to absorb rainwater. All moving traffic (and that includes cycling) has to use a narrow street in the same style as the rest of the redesigned canal ring streets.

Billet en français

The reconstructed beginning of the Utrecht Maliebaan (called Malieblad) is now a small new park based on a design from 1860. The part with black asphalt where the two people walk is a tour bus parking bay that doubles as walking space when there are no buses. Tour buses may stop here for 15 minutes, only to let people board or alight the bus.
The beginning of the Utrecht Maliebaan in 1772. The bigger building on this engraving is still there today. It is called Maliehuis. It predates the sports track that the Maliebaan was. (Picture Utrechts Archief – I flipped it horizontally because the original is mirrored.)

When Utrecht started to reconstruct the streets around the historic city centre in 2015/2016 there was a lot of criticism. The narrow brick surfaced streets with red asphalt cycleways were seen as too dangerous to cycling by some, including the local branch of the Cyclists’ Union. People thought the motor traffic volume was too high and there was more than enough space for separate cycle ways. According to these people the city should have chosen that solution. But at the time it was already known that the council had a much broader vision about this part of the city. With separate cycle ways drivers would not have felt that the space was actually not designed for them. Now that many of the streets have been redesigned it has become very apparent what the city is really after: drastically reducing the volume of car traffic in the entire area. All the new street designs here clearly signal: this part of the city is mainly for walking and cycling. Through motor traffic has absolutely no place here. The streets are still accessible to motor traffic, but only for drivers with a clear destination in the area.

The street is not officially part of any bus routes, but buses can use it as a detour route, for instance when other streets are under construction. That was apparently the case the day I filmed, because I did catch bus line 8 in the video and that was not at all on its normal route.

The Malieblad in 2016. A sort of roundabout around a bit of grass that nobody could use. The bust of former Utrecht mayor Reiger was placed at this location in 1909.
The Malieblad during the reconstruction in 2020. Cars could use the right hand street part in both directions at the time. This is still how traffic uses the space now.
The new situation which was finished in June 2021.

The design not only corresponds with the earlier reconstructions of Tolsteegsingel/Maliesingel (2016) and Maliesingel (2018) it also refers to the original plans of the “city-wall-to-park” designs from the 19th century. Most of the Utrecht city walls were demolished in the 1830s and turned into a linear park after a design by father and son Zocher. The greenery on the former bastion “Lepelenburg” was designed a few decades later. The city used the design of 1860 as inspiration for the current redesign. Not only because of its appeal. There was another reason:

The Malieblad is a national monument. That means that the design of Zocher needs to be respected. On the other hand the council does consider how that design corresponds with modern views and demands due to the current use of the area which the new design will have to take into account.

An early street plan of Utrecht from 1838 shows the park on the former city walls in development. The former stronghold “Lepelenburg” had not yet been converted into a park.
The Zocher plan for Lepelenburg from circa 1860 has been an inspiration for the current redesign. (Picture Utrechts Archief)
In the 20th century the park paths had become paved streets. Map from the 1970s. The black square on Lepelenburg is the city’s music theatre. This was a temporary wooden structure which was meant to be used for a short while but which was then used for almost 25 years. The new music theatre is at Vredenburg.

In the program requirements the Utrecht council wrote:

The object of the redesign of the Malieblad is twofold:

  1. Improving the alternative main city centre cycle route (Herenroute) which passes the Malieblad (in legibility, logic as well as comfort)
  2. Re-enforcing the goal of the original design of Zocher regarding cultural and historical aspects and the green structure and adding new greenery to the public space.

The reconstruction will improve the attractiveness and accessibility of the healthy city. Every road user can find their routes in logical way. There is no clear dominant road user in the allocation of the public space. One type of road user may not claim an unevenly big part of it. The new space is pleasant for cycling, walking, lingering and the car driver can traverse the area with a reduced speed. For people cycling it is a logic, safe and legible place where the Herenroute and the circular cycle route around the historic centre connect. The function as a roundabout for motor traffic disappears. The original design of the Zocher park is re-introduced and re-enforced. The greenery will change from green that you can only watch from the moving car to the domain of walking and cycling. The new greenery will connect to the Zocher park and Lepelenburg, Maliebaan and Maliesingel.

In the first half of the 20th century a tram line was running here. (Picture circa 1910, Utrechts Archief)
The before situation as it can be seen on Google Streetview.
Rendering from the Program Requirements of the city of Utrecht.

There was a lot of praise for the design according to the public consultation report, but interestingly enough someone also wanted to hear what the council thought about nuisance for the residents that the park activities would cause. This person was clearly more afraid of people walking and children’s voices than roaring motor traffic. Even in the Netherlands some people are completely blind to the danger of car traffic with its toxic fumes and health threatening noise levels. The reconstruction of the Utrecht Malieblad is completely in line with the bigger scheme to make the Utrecht city centre less accessible for through motor traffic. Earlier examples within the canal ring are the Mariaplaats, the Voorstraat and the Domstraat. Now the city moved on to areas just outside that historic city centre. The streets around the canal, such as Tolsteegsingel/Maliesingel and Maliesingel. The Nachtegaalstraat, in the part of the city that first developed in the 19th century, has also just been finished. This street will be the topic of an upcoming post. I showed you the plans of Maliebaan earlier. The public consultation for that project has taken place and a decision has been taken: the street will indeed become a main cycling route. One by one the streets of Utrecht are given back to people at the expense of the inefficient private car. The people in Utrecht keep re-electing the political parties which are doing this, so most residents clearly must be in favour of it.

The area was also very green in the before situation, but all that green is no longer interrupted by lots of asphalt for motor traffic. (Before situation on Google maps)
The final plan for the reconstruction clearly shows how the street is moved further to the right, away from the water. (Picture city of Utrecht.)
My video for this week: how Utrecht removed yet more space for motor traffic.
A ride to compare the before and after situation.

5 thoughts on “Less and less space for cars in the Utrecht city centre

  1. Do you know what the volume of motor traffic is here? Similar designs keep cropping up in Oxford, but sometimes in places with way too many cars.

  2. I got the feeling, the Netherlands don’t hate the car, they distribute the place more fair for all participants. They built city rings to keep the cars mostly out of the centre, the rest will redesign as car reduced streets.

    Here in Germany, the Greens thinking, car reduced is not enough, the complete city centre and the ring should be car completely car free. I wish, they look to the Dutch and copying the whole system, not some aspects, that they want…

  3. Reblogged this on Jornal Bicicleta and commented:
    Vejam só, a cidade holandesa removeu 2 mil metros quadrados de asfalto e transformou em gramados, trilhas de caminhada. Já aqui em São Paulo, a prefeitura prefere fazer ciclovias em cima de gramados e tirar ainda mais a permeabilidade do solo.

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