Groningen is a bicycle commuter’s Utopia. It’s a place where cyclists get short-cuts, not cut off – where bike paths lead to advanced stop lines at traffic lights, and one-way streets are two-way for two wheelers. Since this Netherlands city adopted a new traffic circulation system to solve serious congestion problems 18 years ago, Groningen has experienced an urban renewal that has made economists adjust their bike seats and take notice.
"This is not an environmental program, it’s an economic program," says Gerrit van Werven, senior city planner. "We are boosting jobs and business. It has been proved that planning for bicycles is cheaper than planning for cars."
Planners are quick to point out that the bicycle is only one part of the plan that has made the city more liveable and business more profitable for its 170,000 residents. Before the bike came the town plan, which is considered the foundation of the traffic policy and an essential part of current planning efforts. The new plan adopted in 1993 has the holistic goal of integrating transportation, economic, and public concerns in the city center.
Groningen, the sixth largest city in the Netherlands, is located 200 kilometers from Amsterdam at the "top of Holland." Its surrounding rural areas are not densely populated, and Groningen is considered the northern regional hub for industry, education, and the arts. More than 100,000 people work in the city and half of them commute from outlying areas, creating rush hour traffic challenges. Groningen is also known as "the youngest city of the Netherlands," with a population aged 35 on average. It’s historical center is only one square kilometer in size, but is known as the main shopping center of the north with a dense offering of services and shops.
The new city center plan aims to find "a balance between accessibility and livability" in three ways: 1) using a compact city model, planners will work to limit distances between residential areas and businesses, 2) creating special facilities for environmentally-friendly transportation alternatives like bicycles and public transportation, and 3) integrating traffic and transportation policy measures, economic issues, environmental concerns, planning and public space needs.
More than half of Groningen’s residents bike between home and work, and car parking spaces are scarce in locations easily accessible by bike. New buildings are required to include bike parking and there are many thousands of bike spaces dotting the city, 3,000 at the central train station alone. To reinforce the city center as the main retail core, malls and shopping centers outside the city are banned. Essential purchases can be found at small retail stores in the residential areas. Downtown business owners who complained of lost income before the 1976 plan was implemented have seen an increase in sales, and the majority support the new planning efforts.
The city of the bike rides on a motto of "fast, comfortable, and safe." Bicyclists are privy to special overpasses and short-cuts, guarded bicycle shelters with lockers, and their wheels are protected through an anti-theft campaign. Trains, regional and local busses, and taxis are networked through central commuter stations to make travel easier. Bus drivers carry electronic transmitters, so with a click, traffic lights do their bidding. Cars are discouraged by low speed limits (30 km/hr in residential areas), car-free zones, and limited street parking, which will be eliminated completely under the new city center plan. In their effort to achieve balance, Groningen’s citizens have not made automobiles completely taboo. Their use is put into perspective through programs like "Call-a-Car," a borrowing system which promotes an alternative to car ownership.
Groningen’s planners invite you to visit, claiming the only way to get a really good impression is to come and see for yourself. So grab your bike helmet, and head north, follow the bike reflectors to Biketopia.