Why is cycling banned in this street in Utrecht? This simple question on Twitter by Jere M. was reason for this blog post. The short answer was given by Jere himself: because there is a parallel cycle street, but he had the feeling there was more to it and I happened to know that he was right; there is more to it. My answer led to a twitter thread, but I have decided to turn that thread into a full blog post with video and this is that post.
For the long answer we need to go back to the early 1950s, when Utrecht was thinking about the future of transportation in the city. Experts were asked to form plans for a transformation of the city, a plan to change the city in such a way that it would be suitable to the expected mass motorisation. The first plan was made by a German traffic engineer, Mr Feuchtinger. In the early 1960s his plan was revised by Mr Kuiper, who was more an urban planner. Their visions would have drastically changed the city. Roads would have been built where there had been fields before, such as the Talmalaan, that street where we find the no-cycling sign today. Talmalaan would have become a four-lane road for motor traffic into the city. A road that you wouldn’t even want to cycle on. The road would have connected to the north part of the inner ring road around Utrecht (Kardinaal de Jongweg). To the south it would have run through an existing part of the city. The route was planned in an area with parallel smaller streets. Removing one block between those parallel streets would give enough open width to continue the road all the way south into the centre. This road was called the Noord-Zuid Doorbraak (North-South Cut Through) because it would have literally cut through the city from North to South. I wrote ‘would have’ and ‘could have’ a lot, because although parts of these plans were executed, the city never implemented all of it.
The first plan of Kuiper was from 1962. It was adopted by the council without even a public vote by individual council members. It was a party decision. The public had no say whatsoever at the time. Of course, the people in Utrecht did notice the plans and many were not at all happy with these council decisions. The public did slowly become better involved, thanks to a new law on urban planning, that became effective in 1965. That new law demanded that the council held public consultations. This gave ordinary people more power and the public debate led to dramatic changes in Utrecht. It is hard to pin point one specific moment that the plans were abandoned, but 1970 is generally seen as a pivotal moment.
By 1970, residents with a more critical mind had organised themselves. A new council had been elected, with much younger council members and with notably more women. The hired architects to give shape to the plans were also of a different generation, with a different view of what a city should be. The architect of the city’s music theatre didn’t want to combine the theatre he designed with the proposed road on Vredenburg. He got the new council on his side. This became known as the ‘Vredenburg issue’. The road was scrapped from the plan. And there were other developments. After the first parts of the city’s renewal plans were built, they turned out to be much more expensive than originally planned. The national government was not willing to fund plans it didn’t support. One minister, Ms Klompé, had stopped most of the road in the former ring canal around the historic city centre by declaring part of the canal a national monument. (Parts were built, but the road has been removed and the canal is now back). In a matter of years, the opinions about Utrecht’s future had turned around completely. In the report “De toekomst van de Nederlandse binnenstad 1960-1978” (The future of the Dutch city centre 1960-1978) from 2016, Tim Verlaan writes:
“How quickly the change in thinking about the future of the city center of Utrecht took place can be seen from two brochures published by the city council, one before the ‘Vredenburg issue’ and one shortly after. The first edition of the brochure “Utrecht: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1969) spoke of the harmonious, programmatic experience of modernity: ‘The city is buzzing with activity. […] in a rigorous way, Utrecht is building its future professionally and effectively.’ In 1972, however, the same office referred to a very different kind of city centre: ‘People make the city what it is. Such a social city is a source of social renewal, offers the opportunity to make many kinds of contacts and is a place where citizens can be wonderfully anonymous among their peers.’ The city as a place where citizens should feel at home and happy.”
In 1977, the Utrecht council voted for yet another urban renewal plan for the city’s future. Many of the planned roads in the earlier plans had simply vanished from this plan, including the Noord-Zuid Doorbraak (North South Cut through). It made the planned 4-lane road on Talmalaan redundant. The road stayed at its temporary two lanes (one in each direction) and only in the 21st century the reserved space for the road was finally reused for new housing. All that time, and to this day, the road remained closed to cycling. When the road looked like a future road for motor traffic that was completely understandable, but now that housing was built directly next to the street it has become a bit odd. Maybe this ban, one of the last remnants of the 1960s Utrecht road plans, should be erased as well. Even though there is that perfect parallel cycle street, why shouldn’t you be allowed to cycle on the Talmalaan in the future?