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.
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.
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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.