Sunday 15 February 2009

How Groningen grew to be the world's number one cycling city

Groningen in the North of the Netherlands, just 30 km north from where we live, has the highest rate of cycling in the world. Nearly 60% of all journeys are made by bicycle in the city. These three slides from a presentation given on the 2008 study tours and previously at the 2006 European conference on Mobility Management by Mr Cor van der Klaauw.

In 1964 the city was small. There were no restrictions on cars being driven through the centre of the city and there were few main cycle routes. The motorist was king at this time. In some locations in the Netherlands in the 1950s and 1960s, cycle paths were removed in order to make more space for cars.

Urban motorway in Groningen. Some
were built before policy changed.
In Groningen, just as in other cities across the world, the 1960s brought planning and building of motorways right into the city itself (west to east and to the south in the next map).

A few of these large roads were built in Groningen. Notably the motorway which leads from the South and also access to the North, West and East.

However, in 1972 a new local government changed the emphasis of planning in Groningen. The centre of the city was to be considered as the "living room" and town planning was integrated with transport policy. The city was to be designed to be compact.

By 1980 the city had grown considerably with a lot of new housing around the outskirts. There was a ring road around the centre of the city, but access to the centre by car had been reduced. Many more high quality cycle routes had been created.

In 2006 the city has grown rather more, and cars pushed out further from the city centre. The city is now split into four segments between which it is impossible to drive without going out to the ring-road and back in again. There are many more cycle routes than before.

I should note that there is nothing stopping you cycling through the centre these days. The last few minutes of one of my videos shows the centre by bike. However, it isn't designated as a main cycling route. It is impossible to drive through, though, as the only way out by car is the way you came in, and many streets are entirely closed to private cars.

Groningen has 84000 homes, 38% of which were built after 1970. 180000 people live in those homes, and they own 71000 cars and 300000 bicycles. There are 0.4 cars and 1.7 bikes per person.

Seventy eight percent of residents now live within 3 km of the city centre. 90% of employees live within 3 km of the city centre. These short distances of course help to make cycling a viable mode of transport for most journeys,  but we should note that Groningen is actually not particularly densely populated by world standards. In fact, Groningen is far less densely populated than many cities in other countries with less cycling.

There are an average of 1.4 bicycle trips per person per day in the city, making up 59% of the total journeys, vs. under 37% by car. The average speed for driving within the city is 9.6 km/h, the average speed for cycling is 14.2 km/h. The cycling figure may seem slow, but note that it refers to whole journey average speed, not peak speed sprinting between lights. It also reflects the wide demographics of the cyclists. Fast Groningen cyclists travel appreciably quicker than this, but drivers can do little to increase their speed.

It isn't only Groningen which has followed such policies. Most, if not all, Dutch cities have done this to an extent. For instance, Assen also has a car free town centre, as does Nijmegen.

In summary, it is quite possible to grow cycling so that it accounts for more journeys than any other mode within a city. However, it does take a helping hand. Groningen's achievement came from policy to exclude cars from the centre of the city (a form of segregation without cycle paths), and to provide high quality and mostly traffic free cycling routes from the outskirts to the centre.

Also bear in mind that Groningen has the lowest average age of any city in the Netherlands and a high population of students (approximately 50000 in a city of 180000 people). This factor of course also boosts the level of cycling. However, due to the design of the city, even students in Groningen tend to cycle more than students anywhere else.

There are quite a few other posts about Groningen, including the huge railway station cycle park, an extraordinary bridge, how congestion on busy cycle-paths is avoided by providing other routes and how despite all this, the city still didn't manage to win the "Cycling City of the Netherlands" competition in 2011.

See this for yourself and have what you are looking at put in context for you and explained by a native English speaker. Book a study tour.

Are these figures accurate?
Note that it is not entirely clear what the 59% figure for cycling actually means. Who was counted ? Only residents or also people who travel from outside the city ? What methodology led to this result ? Clearly some people are excluded as pedestrians do not appear to have been counted when walking could possibly account for anything up to a fifth of total journeys made in the city (as is the case in Amsterdam) then this would reduce the cycling percentage to around 50% and driving to around 30%. We should always be skeptical of figures which are presented in a promotional way as most figures presented all around the world on cycling are not reliable. Exaggeration of cycling modal shares is extremely common around the whole world. The lowest figure we've seen quoted for Groningen comes from the possibly more authoritative Fietsberaad Cycling in the Netherlands publication. This states that the cycling modal share for Groningen is 38%, though they also don't tell us exactly how they came to that figure.

Read more about Groningen
Groningen's cycling infrastructure isn't always good. In fact, it's often quite inferior to the road infrastructure. Groningen hasn't done enough to enhance the experience of cyclists. Read more about it here.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! Do you cover this sort of thing in more detail on your study tours?

David Hembrow said...

Yes, that's exactly what we try to do. We also of course cycle through it all so that participants can see it for themselves. That speaks louder than any presentation can.

Anonymous said...

This could be the future for Springfield if we only had the political will. Downtown is growing again as younger professionals buy and lease loft apartments. MSU is leasing space downtown -- so much so that the area is nearly a second campus. And that means even more students downtown spending money on food and entertainment.

At the last alternative transportation committee meeting we discussed what the future might look like if we encircled the city by extending the Ozarks Greenway system. Then we could concentrate of building cycling infrastructure (of several kinds) from the "bicycle beltway" into downtown.

No one thought it was a bad idea (including a city councilman who attends the meetings). What we lack is, as I've said many times before, political will.

I have to get some people together to come look at the Dutch system.

David Hembrow said...

Andy, I agree that it basically comes down to political will. The one thing that they shouldn't be allowed to get away with is claiming that it's too expensive to build good conditions for cycling. It's cheaper than the alternative - of not building them and continuing to deal with mass motoring.

Savings for employers due to lower sickness are just the tip of the ice-berg.

BTW, I just uploaded a video showing cycling from one side of Groningen to the other. You'll see how conditions for cyclists are just great in the countryside, through the city and in the countryside at the other side.

Anonymous said...

'it basically comes down to political will. '

It sure does. I could weep when I read your blog, I really could, when I compare it with what goes on in the UK ...

I live in the 'cycling demonstration city' of Bristol. So far we've had loads of enthusiastic words about 'vision', plus cautions about 'not expecting everything at once'.

Well fair enough, it's a tough task. Except that I have a horrible feeling that our council doesn't really understand that you can't seriously encourage cycling without seriously discouraging driving. Oh heavens no! We can't do *that*!

Kevin Love said...

Groningen is one of John Pucher's case study cities. See:

Willie B said...

The sad thing is that Groningen planners borrowed a fair bit from the 1963 Buchanan Traffic in Towns report, completed for the UK government. Whitehall cherrypicked from this report, ignoring segmentation and traffic calming (until much later on), while picking up on less desirable stuff which added to the British traffic disease.

worldstreets said...

And then there was in 1968 the magnificent first citizen-activated Woonerf project. A very important part of the education of Groningen. A learning city.

Manouchk said...

I'm looking for the total extnsion extension of the cycle path in Groningen. I'm consedering a parmeter that I called cycle path density to give a raw ideia of the quality of a cycle path network for a given city. The density is simply the total extension of cycle path divided by the area of the city (ideally only the urbanized area should be considered). In Vitória Brasil, we have reach 0,3 km of cycle path by km² in Vitória much less than the 1,82 km by km² of Amsterdam. I'd ike to estimate this density for Groningen!

David Hembrow said...

Emmanuel: I don't have figures for Groningen, but I suspect Assen is about the same. Assen is almost exactly the same size as Groningen (83 km2) and has approximately 200 km of cycle-path, so about 2 km / km2. These are cycle-paths separated from the road and don't include on-road cycle-lanes or roads and streets which don't work as through routes for drivers (the majority of streets).

You could also consider doing this calculation based on population. There is about 3 m of cycle-path for each person who lives in Assen.

Anonymous said...

This bit: "the city is now split into four segments between which it is impossible to drive without going out to the ring-road and back in again" wouldn't be too hard to implement in Oxford...

Unknown said...

What do these diamond road markings on roads with restricted traffic in Groningen city center mean?,6.5695079,3a,75y,151.03h,77.56t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sVFFGmjVdjSHT2mh-msPSfQ!2e0!!7i13312!8i6656?hl=pl

David Hembrow said...

Jan: those diamonds are supposed to show drivers (particularly bus and taxi drivers) how far they should stay behind cyclists. Unfortunately, it's an example of something that doesn't work. We demonstrate this on our study tours. Elsewhere on this blog there's a photo which shows how it doesn't work - drivers bully cyclists off the road.