My present home here in The Netherlands is Groningen, known as the World’s Cycling City. After living and cycling here since just before last Christmas, I’ve made a conscious effort to determine if indeed Groningen deserves this title. I think I’m in a reasonable position to judge, having cycled two thirds of the way around the world, some 37,000 km’s, through 38 countries!
But first, let’s have a bit of background to why Groningen is considered the best, amongst many other great cycling cities, such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Portland, Oregon.
The figures certainly back up it’s claim, as the city has the highest percentage of mode share cycle users in the world, an amazing 60% in the city centre and 50% of all journeys in Groningen are made by bike. With a population of just over 192,000 people owning 75,000 cars, bicycles rule – there are an estimated 300,000.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1960’s cycle paths were removed to make more room for cars and motorways were built to bring traffic right into the centre itself. However in 1972 a new ‘left wing’ government made plans to drastically change the transport policy and make Groningen centre a car free zone.
By 1977 Groningen centre had been divided into four zone quarters, with traffic prevented from travelling from one quarter to another, instead having to use the outer ring road which now encircled the city centre. Buses, cyclists and pedestrians were of course allowed to do so and along with pedestrianising the centre, a comprehensive cycle path network criss-crossed the now car free city. Car parking was moved to the outskirts and park and ride schemes introduced.
Despite shop keepers threatening to leave due to cars not being allowed to park outside their stores, the radical transport policy worked and became a model for other cities to follow.
In truth, you can get around in Groningen (and it’s outskirts) much quicker by bicycle than by car. To traverse the city centre from one side to another would take at least 30 minutes in a car on the ring road, whereas on a bicycle it’s no more than 12 minutes. But it’s not about how quickly you can go by bike, it’s about how safely. Entire families use bicycles as their only mode of transport and it’s not unusual to see very young children sat on the front of their parents bikes. The cycle paths are well maintained and I’ve yet to see any evidence of a ‘pothole’. I for one have never felt so safe cycling in a city and it’s because bicycles are seen as the primary source of transport that the infrastructure exists.
Take roundabouts as an example. As a cyclist of very many years, I’ve learned to be exceptionally wary of them, because they are a major cause of injuries to us cyclists. But here in Groningen cyclists have right of way on the majority of them – the cycle paths encircle the roundabouts and cars must stop and give way. It took a little getting used to, but now I don’t even check to see if a car is approaching and in the (very) unlikely event you have a coming together with a vehicle, the driver is at fault. No fancy lawyer arguments, you are the victim. Always.
Bicycle parking is also taken very seriously here in The Netherlands. There are custom bike parks everywhere, mostly free, like the picture below of the multi-storey bike park just outside the railway station. The neon sign (on the right) informs you of which zones have spaces left!
Or if you want that extra level of protection, their are 24 hour security monitored parks. It’s a dream come true and you begin to understand just how much the cyclist is catered for here.
And if you don’t have your own bicycle, Groningen, like many other cities here in The Netherlands, has a comprehensive bike share scheme where you can hire one and return it to any of the other participating cities.
Bridges are built with cyclists in mind and it’s unlikely you’d have to wait (alongside the cars) to cross one of the many canals when a barge comes along, as they have included pedestrian and cycle friendly bridges alongside to ensure your onward journey. It really is a transport policy designed first and foremost with cyclists in mind.
Most of the canals have cycle paths running alongside them with clear signposts, many being part of the national cycle route network (Landelijke Fietsroutes or LF-Routes) which criss-cross the country. Bike only bridges are a common sight here.
So does Groningen deserve the title of “the worlds cycling city”? Yes, Unequivocally. Nowhere in my travels have I seen such a level of commitment to keeping us cyclists both safe and happy. While I have witnessed wonderful cycling infrastructure in places like Luxembourg (another fantastic cycling country) it doesn’t even come close. I love it here.
However in just a few short weeks I have to return to England to have major surgery. I’ll try keeping a little more up to date with the blog then…