How Groningen’s Bold Moves Built “The World’s Cycling City”

Guest blog by Chris and Melissa Bruntlett

“Cycling is in our DNA. We are proud of it and definitely aim to keep it that way. For young and old, the bicycle is by far the most popular means of transport in this city.” – Groningen Cycling City Strategy

While much of the cycling advocacy world focuses its attention on large urban centres, the thing that excites us most about attending this year’s Velo-city Conference is seeing first-hand how small and mid-sized cities can make biking work too. And it can be argued that one of the best such examples in the world lays just 200 km. north of Arnhem-Nijmegen, in the once-fortressed college town of Groningen; the subject of a post-conference excursion on Saturday, June 17th.

With a population of 200,000, a quarter of whom are students at the two local universities, Groningen has accomplished a feat many emerging cycling cities could only dream of: a mode share that eclipses established powerhouses of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Recent figures indicate a staggering 61% of trips are made on two wheels, in a city that boasts one-and-a-half times more bikes than it does residents.

To understand how Groningen got to where it is today, one must look back 40 years, to a young, idealistic politician who bravely decided to go against conventional wisdom, at a time when other Dutch cities were scrambling to create the ideal conditions for mass motoring. It was in 1977 when Max Van den Berg – then just 24 years old, and the councillor responsible for traffic and urban development – all but banished motor vehicles from the city centre. His Traffic Circulation Plan divided central Groningen into four distinct parts, forbidding automobiles to cross between those quarters. This made the city centre practically impenetrable by car, while walking and cycling became the most convenient and enjoyable ways to get around.

In subsequent decades, local planners have gone from strength to strength, until present day, where they have been forced to address a significant problem many cities would love to have: dealing with the vast number of cyclists during peak hours. “Bicycle congestion” clogs up a number of parts of the city, particularly corridors between the centre and the University of Groningen’s northern campus. 

The various solutions include a series of “smart routes”: direct, convenient cycle paths designed to get students and staff to university in 15 minutes, without having to make a single stop. Groningen is also one of the first cities to attempt to “solve traffic situations with eye contact,” first piloting, then expanding a counterintuitive, but highly effective four-way green light for cyclists at 29 different intersections.

However, with as many as 20,000 cyclists travelling certain corridors on a given day, planners are being forced to “think outside the lane,” and experiment with the notion of handing entire streets – known as fietsstraten (Dutch for “bike streets”) – over to the bicycle as the dominant mode of transportation. Here specific street design features (red pavement, prominent branding, parking reductions, and traffic calming) combine to make it abundantly clear that bikes are the main users of the street, and that drivers – as guests – should adjust their behavior to suit.

To their credit, City of Groningen officials are now looking ahead to even further growth, outlining a number of rather ambitious and innovative projects in a “bicycle first” strategy entitled Groningen Cycling City. These initiatives include traffic lights that contain rain sensors that prioritize bike traffic on soggy days. In addition, within the next decade, they hope to use geothermal energy (from the earth) and wastewater thermal energy (from the sewers) to heat the cycle tracks, keeping them clear of frost and snow, and allowing for safe, year-round, two-wheeled travel.

While Groningen owes much of its success to bold moves made by prior administrations, it clearly takes its title of “The World’s Cycling City” seriously, serving as a large-scale laboratory for treatments and technologies that make biking even more convenient and fun. Don’t miss this great opportunity to examine these groundbreaking, real-life experiments up-close-and-personal, and discuss them in detail with the team that designed and implemented them. Only a few spots remain.

Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are the co-founders of Modacity, a creative agency focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography, and film. Reach them at www.modacitylife.com.

Photo credits: Chris and Melissa Bruntlett

Back to news overview