When does a street no longer require protected cycleways?

It’s hard to keep up with all the recent infrastructural changes in Utrecht. The changes are also increasingly harder to explain to a foreign audience. One of the latest street re-designs involves the removal of protected cycleways from a shopping street in the city centre. And yet, in this particular street, with the types of traffic and the volumes it has, this is largely considered an improvement for cycling. It may seem counter-intuitive to remove separate cycling infrastructure to improve the situation for cycling. But in the Netherlands a new tipping point has been reached at some specific locations where that is the right thing to do.

Billet en français

This project is located just east of the historic city centre of Utrecht. In a part of the city where walking and cycling are considered more important than private cars. The project is linked to the recent reconstructions of Maliesingel part 1 and part 2, the Malieblad which I showed just 2 weeks ago and it is also linked to the upcoming change of Maliebaan. All those redesigns favour people who walk and cycle over people who choose to drive cars.

The redesigned Nachtegaalstraat is clearly first and foremost for people walking and cycling. Drivers of cars may use the street if they really need to, but only as a guest.
When I first filmed in this street in 2012 it was a street where all types of traffic competed for the available space, but it was clear that most space was reserved for moving and especially parked motor traffic

The Utrecht Nachtegaalstraat is just 300 metres long. Its reconstruction is the first part of a double project (together with Burgemeester Reigerstraat) to improve another stretch of the main cycle route from Utrecht Central Station to the University Campus. The Nachtegaalstraat is very old. It was one of the first streets to be built outside the walled city. It was named after a small inn, that was called “De Nachtegaal” (The Nightingale). The inn dated back to the 17th century. It existed until the street was widened by about 10 metres at the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1905 and 1913 the city acquired all buildings on the north side of the street. They were subsequently demolished to widen the street in an attempt to give “modern traffic” more space.

The Nachtegaalstraat in March 1912. The street is almost widened there is just one little building still standing in what had become the middle of the street. That was the small inn that gave the street its name. Picture Utrechts Archief
How the street looks and sounds has changed considerably after the 2021 reconstruction. What stands out is how much wider the street appears to be now. Much like in the previous picture of 1912 which shows the same part of the street in the same direction. The house with the balcony on the left and the house with the small corner tower on the right can also be seen on that picture.

The width of Nachtegaalstraat was thus increased to about 18 metres. Which is the width it still has today. In the first half of the 20th century a tramline ran through this street, but after World War II that was replaced by a bus line. From the 1960s car traffic started growing exponentially in the Netherlands. As in most parts of the Netherlands that led to a dangerous situation for cycling. By the early 1990s the street had got separate cycleways to protect people cycling better. In the safety of those protected cycle paths cycling could really thrive and since this is an important route to the university that led to about 18,000 people using this street for cycling on an average (pre-Corona) working day. In recent years, car traffic has decreased steadily in the Utrecht centre. Thanks to deliberate measures such as creating parking around the centre and making it harder for through traffic to use the city centre streets. That means ‘only’ about 4,000 motor vehicles still used this street on an average working day. These numbers were not reflected in the allocation of the available space. Motor traffic was given most of the space. For walking, particularly, there was only little space in such an important shopping street. The narrow cycleways were not designed for 18,000 bicycles per day. On top of all this the city has designated this area as the part of the city where walking and cycling are the two main modes of transport and that meant something had to be done to the design of the street. In the same way as a number of streets close by, which have changed recently or which will be changed soon.

The development of Nachtegaalstraat in four pictures. This first one is from 1910. The street was being widened at the time and this part was finished. All the buildings on the left side of this picture had been replaced. The original north side of the street had been completely demolished to widen the street by about 10 metres to make way for “modern traffic” which, at the time, was not at all about cars. There is a tram line and some carts, but there are no cars yet. Picture Utrechts Archief.
That changed dramatically over the next decades. By 1968 private motor vehicles were taking over the street. The number of cars would only increase in the years to come. Picture Utrechts Archief.
My own picture from 2012 shows the street as it had become after protected cycleways were added on either side of the street behind a row of parked cars. The street looked narrow and full and it was very loud. In more recent years the roadway was often empty while the cycleways were overcrowded. This had to change.
After the reconstruction in 2021 it is clear that people cycling are now the most important road user in this street. People may and do use the full width of the roadway. Pedestrians have a lot more space to walk now.

The council started the project leading to the reconstruction in December 2016. It involved consulting many different types of stakeholders. First and foremost the residents and the entrepreneurs in the street. According to the council they have more ‘rights’ to the street than people who only use it to drive through it. Other parties were the Cyclists’ Union and also the association of a number of organisations that protect the interests of disabled people. The consultation led to a number of a small adjustments to the initial council’s plans, but the overall idea; to turn the street into a bicycle street where cars are guest was adopted by all stakeholders. The budget for the reconstruction of both Nachtegaalstraat and Burgemeester Reigerstraat was 5.5 million euros.

A detail of the plan for the reconstruction. This is the intersection with Schoolstraat (bottom) and Kerkstraat (top). Since there is indeed a school in Schoolstraat the crossing here had to be safe enough for primary school children. Thanks to the central refuge space they can make the crossing in parts and they only have to deal with traffic coming from one direction at the time. From the reconstruction plan by the city of Utrecht.
This is what the crossing in that plan looks like in reality. School just went out and many parents with children use the crossing in a calm and safe way. It helps that the car traffic is really light in this street, especially outside peak hours.

The Nachtegaalstraat was reconstructed between January and May 2021. The street is almost finished, just some last details have to be addressed. A number of trees in boxes will be placed, it will be made more clear where bicycles cannot be parked and metal pins in the ground will tell where exactly it is allowed to place tables and chairs for outdoor cafés.

The second part of this double project will start in the autumn of 2021: the reconstruction of Burgemeester Reigerstraat.

So what was it that was changed in the Nachtegaalstraat? The city explained this ahead of the actual reconstruction on a website in a number of bullet points. Why don’t I simply translate these points for you.

  • Car, bus and bicycle will share the roadway. The cyclist becomes the main user.
  • Pedestrians get more space by removing obstacles on the side-walk as much as possible and by creating wider side-walks.
  • There will be more bicycle parking spaces. In the Nachtegaalstraat we are going from more than 200 parking racks to more than 300 places.
  • Deliveries will take place during the window times that apply to both streets (07:00 – 16:00). There is more time in the morning for deliveries and less in the afternoon, so that there is more space for (bicycle) traffic during the rush hour.
  • Outdoor cafes, greenery, (bicycle) parking and parking bays for deliveries will be placed on a strip directly next to the roadway, on both sides of the street.
  • There will be twice as many trees and there will be more greenery. We are taking measures to allow rainwater to infiltrate into the ground better (for example thanks to larger tree areas, planting areas, and pavers).
  • There will be better places to cross the street as a pedestrian.
  • The maximum speed will be 30 km/h in both streets, with some raised tables to slow down the speed.
  • There will be fewer parking spaces for cars (a total of 7 places in both streets combined). Parking is available from 4 pm at most delivery bays.
I drew some lines on a map to show the relation to other projects in the area that I wrote about. All the green lines are streets that have been reconstructed in the last 5 years. The yellow lines are streets that are about to be reconstructed and the red line is the problematic east-west corridor that is on the radar of the council for a radical change in the coming years. It may even involve relocating bus lines or building an underground tramline. Links to the projects: Mariaplaats, Oudkerkhof, Domstraat, Voorstraat, Maliesingel part 1, Maliesingel part 2, Malieblad, Maliebaan and Burgemeester Reigerstraat.

What all these changes look like can be seen in my videos. I think the project is a success although it would be good to indeed make it clearer where bicycles cannot be parked. One of the delivery bays in front of a supermarket was occupied by parked bicycles and because of that delivery vehicles were parked in the roadway. That is not how it should be. It would also be good if some enforcement would instruct drivers better. Sometimes they parked their vehicles in the roadway even though a space was available just a couple of metres from where they parked. It will also be good to see more trees and greenery than there was when I filmed. I really liked all the hanging flowers and the overall atmosphere in the redesigned street, because that has completely changed. I am looking forward to see the next part of this project and also how the connecting Maliebaan will change.

This week’s video looks at the reconstruction in the Utrecht Nachtegaalstraat.
A ride on the reconstructed street in both directions.

9 thoughts on “When does a street no longer require protected cycleways?

  1. Thank you Mark for this very detailed Posting! This redesign is not very contradictory in my eyes, but more the result of a necessary evolutionary process to invert urban traffic on the one hand and the prove on the other hand that approaches that mix up different types of traffic or where separation is too weak do not work to establish cycling as dominant form of transportation.

  2. Looking at the video, the only thing left to do is to ban motorscooters and racing bikes.

  3. Makes you wonder, if there are so few cars, why not design it as a bidirectional bikelane with pavements on both sides. With cars forbidden, except when they are licensed to be there: driving at walking pace, with alarm lights flashing. Such a legal status will make the street appear in navigation software as a pedestrian zone inaccessible for cars.

  4. I can always count on you, Mark to post a most excellent blog post.
    Always highly informative, educational, and enjoyable.

    Thank you.

  5. This was such a significant effort, completed in a very reasonable amount of time; very impressive. And, this is such a fantastic idea. Bravo, people of Utrecht!

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