In Groningen, the Netherlands' sixth largest city, the main form of transport is the bicycle. Sixteen years ago, ruinous traffic congestion led city planners to dig up city-centre motorways. Last year they set about creating a car-free city centre. Now Groningen, with a population of 170,000, has the highest level of bicycle usage in the West. 57% of its inhabitants travel by bicycle - compared with four per cent in the UK.
'57% of its inhabitants travel by bicycle - compared with four per cent in the UK'
The economic repercussions of the programme repay some examination. Since 1977, when a six-lane motorway intersection in the city's centre was replaced by greenery, pedestrianisation, cycleways and bus lanes, the city has staged a remarkable recovery. Rents are among the highest in the Netherlands, the outflow of population has been reversed and businesses, once in revolt against car restraint, are clamouring for more of it. As Gerrit van Werven, a senior city planner, puts it, 'This is not an environmental programme, it is an economic programme. We are boosting jobs and business. It has been proved that planning for the bicycle is cheaper than planning for the car.' Proving the point, requests now regularly arrive from shopkeepers in streets where 'cyclisation' is not yet in force to ban car traffic on their roads.
'Businesses, once in revolt against car restraint, are clamouring for more of it'
A vital threshold has been crossed. Through sheer weight of numbers, the bicycle lays down the rules, slowing down traffic, determining the attitudes of drivers. All across the city roads are being narrowed or closed to traffic, cycleways are being constructed and new houses built to which the only direct access is by cycle. Out-of-town shopping centres are banned. The aim is to force cars to take longer detours but to provide a 'fine mesh' network for cycles, giving them easy access to the city centre.
Like the Netherlands nationally, Groningen is backing bicycles because of fears about car growth. Its ten-year bicycle programme is costing £20m, but every commuter car it keeps off the road saves at least £170 a year in hidden costs such as noise, pollution, parking and health.
Cycling in Groningen is viewed as part of an integral urban renewal, planning and transport strategy. Bicycle-friendly devices seen as exceptional in the UK - separate cycle ways, advanced stop lines at traffic lights, and official sanction for cyclists to do right hand turns at red lights - are routine.
New city centre buildings must provide cycle garages. There are tens of thousands of parking spaces for bikes, either in 'guarded' parks - the central railway station has room for over 3000 - or street racks. Under the City Hall a nuclear shelter has been turned into a bike park.
"We don't want a good system for bicycles, we want a perfect system", says Mr. van Werven. "We want a system for bicycles that is like the German autobahns for cars. We don't ride bicycles because we are poor - people here are richer than in England. We ride them because it is fun, it is faster, it is convenient."
Gerrit van Werven, senior city planner, Bestuursdienst, Gemeent Groningen, Grote Markt 1, Groningen, NL-9712-HN, The Netherlands (tel 00 3150 679111; fax 00 3150 673070).
Summarised from articles by David Nicholson-Lord in The Independent (June 12th '93) and Resurgence (No 162). See also the Awards listing, Groningen, the car-free city for bikes.
Following Groningen's vanSummarised from a story by Jay Walljasper, entitled 'Going Places', in Utne Reader (July '93; subscribe or donate to Utne Reader magazine by going to their website at www.utne.com/subscribe/gifts/friends or by calling (01) 800 736 UTNE), another by Adam Nicholson, entitled 'Two-wheel drive sets city on the road to freedom' in the Sunday Telegraph (Aug 8th '93) and another item by Susan d'Arcy in the Sunday Times (Aug 23rd '93).
Groningen undoubtedly leads the way in the 'cyclisation' of Europe's cities, but many others are putting two wheels in motion to follow its example. In Germany and the Netherlands in particular, where car culture and the Green movement have both made significant impacts, many cities are building on their provision for bikes. The UK, where transport policy priorities are still dominated by motor vehicles, rather lags behind Groningen's van.
No other European city can match Groningen's record, where fifty per cent of all trips around the city are on bikes, but in quite a few the ratio is rising to a third or more. Delft and Munster now have 41 per cent, and Freiburg's 27 and Heidelberg's 22 per cent are only the leading examples for what is becoming a trend across the continent.
Uniting these cities is a dual commitment on the part of central and city planners to discourage cars and to encourage bikes. Amsterdam, along with 30 other Dutch cities, for instance, voted to eliminate motor vehicles from their city centres in 1992. The Norwegian cities of Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen levy a toll on all cars entering the town centre.
Matching the disincentives for car drivers are carrots for cyclists, such as Bremen's designation of certain streets as bikes-only zones, or Denmark's provision of cycle lanes on three quarters of its roads.
Such legislative commitments do seem to be the key in getting citizens to kick the car habit. A striking disparity exists, for instance, between the percentage of travel by bike in the Netherlands (27.3) and in the United Kingdom (2.3); a disparity which is matched almost exactly in the respective amount of transport budget these countries allocate to improving cycling facilities.
Reluctance to splash out on such provision might be overcome by the calculations of Costing the Benefits a 1993 report published by the CTC, the British cyclists' association. Here it is argued that if the British cycled as much as the Dutch, heart disease would drop by 15 per cent, a fitter workforce would work better, pollution emissions would be reduced by a fifth, traffic jams would be cut and the space in cities devoted to car parks and clogged gyratory systems could be put to better use.
The same report reckons the cost of the 'motorised society'. Traffic jams cost about £15 billion simply in terms of delayed deliveries and time wasted. New roads, the maintenance of old ones and administration cost £6 billion. Noise pollution, racks up a further £2.1 billion in lost productivity, medical care and depressed property values, and other kinds of pollution waste another £3 billion. Road accidents, in grim addition, soak up another £5 billion.
For the moment such striking statistics have failed to steer British transport policy away from its infatuation with road building as the solution to traffic congestion, and it will be some time yet before London charts on Bicyclist magazine's top five world biking cities. In 1993 this featured Tianjin, Copenhagen, Harare and Seattle. Straight in at Number One, perhaps predictably, was Groningen.