Thursday 10 March 2011

Maastunnel Rotterdam

The oldest traffic tunnel in the Netherlands can be found in Rotterdam. It connects the two banks of the River ‘Nieuwe Maas’ (New Meuse). The first talks of creating a tunnel date back as far as 1899. Since Rotterdam has always been an important port (from 1962 to 2004 it was even the busiest port in the world) a bridge on this location would have had to be constructed too tall to allow sea ships passage. After long debates the decision to construct the tunnel was finally taken in 1933.

Maastunnel ventilation building
Maastunnel South Ventilation Tower and SS Rotterdam

The tunnel was built from 1937 to 1942. It consists of a set of pre-fabricated tubes that were sunken into a trench that was dug in the river floor. This technique had never been used in Europe before. Two adjacent tubes are for motorised traffic (2x2 lanes). Right next to those there are two stacked tubes. One for pedestrians, on top of which there is one for cyclists. Motorised traffic reaches the tubes via long access roads. Pedestrians and cyclists enter their tunnel from an entirely different location by escalators. Therefore, as a cyclist you could be unaware there even is a tunnel for motorised traffic.
In yellow: cyclist's access to the tunnel

Construction of the tunnel started in 1937. When World War II reached the Netherlands in May 1940, Rotterdam was heavily bombed. The entire historic city centre was wiped flat. However, the tunnel was spared and it was completed during the Nazi occupation. On the 14th of February 1942 there was a secret opening ceremony without Nazi participation.

Prime example of separate cycle infrastructure
The tunnel is a magnificent and early example of elaborate separate infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians versus motorised traffic. The visible ventilation towers with copper dome roofs are of high architectural quality. With the tunnel they have been a landmark for Rotterdam for almost 70 years now. About 75,000 vehicles and about 4,500 cyclists still use this tunnel daily. In the 1950s a staggering 40,000 cyclists used the four escalators on either side of the tunnel every day. In the morning three were used in the direction of the centre and in the evening it was the other way around. Nowadays there are far less cyclists. Partly due to the decline of cycling in the 1960s and 1970s but also because there are more bridges and tunnels now.

The video shows a ride through the tunnel

The actual bicycle tunnel is 585 meters (640 yards) long and the deepest point of the tunnel is 20 meters (66Ft) below the surface.

After the first bridge in 1878, the Maastunnel was only the second permanent connection across the river. Since the tunnel was built several other bridges and tunnels were constructed. Reducing the importance of this first tunnel. Besides more tunnels for motorised traffic outside the city centre, there are now also a railway tunnel and a metro tunnel. Cyclists wanting to cross the river in the city centre have a choice nowadays between the Maastunnel and two bridges. The 1981 replacement of the original 1878 bridge and the Erasmus bridge aka the Swan from 1996. But they can also use the elaborate regional "waterbus" network. On the waterbus bicycles can be taken for free.

Why this isn't so important as you might think Exceptional infrastructure like this is always interesting to see, but what causes people to cycle in large numbers is the very tight network of everyday, but high quality, cycle routes.


Slow Factory said...

Nice. I suppose most people with cargobikes take the alternative routes?

Mark W. said...

@Green Idea Factory: not shown in the video, but there are also elevators.

amoeba said...

We can only dream of such a facility in the UK. I imagine that the additional costs of a cycle facility like this are pretty insignificant compared with the road tunnel. Especially when the true extent of the benefits to the economy and wider society of encouraging cycling are considered.

Matt Nicholas said...

I have ridden through this (and indeed the Beneluxtunnel and the Erasmusbrug/Willemsbrug) several times now. Always a great experience to use those ancient wooden escalators (never used the lift which I think is attended), and to ride through the strangely still air. It also seems to offer gentler gradients than any of the other crossings.

Perhaps a daft question but I wonder what those raised plastic objects between the escalators are for?

Mark W. said...

Matt: the plastic objects prevent people sliding down there. That would be dangerous. Indeed the gradients in the tunnel are a lot friendlier than those for the bridges.

Margo en Erik said...

@amoeba: In Belgium there are similar tunnels, the additional costs are indeed insignificant: the pedestrian/cycling tunnel serves as emergency tunnel. The ventilation system continously creates a slightly elevated pressure so that flames or toxic gases can not enter the emergency tunnel.

Neil said...

The video answered my question of how people put their bikes on the escalator (I think David might have mentioned something like it before), but I can't really believe it being as easy as the video seemed to show. Are the escalator steps any bigger? Or is it just the technique

And I can't see bikes on escalators being allowed in the UK.

timoohz said...

You could have made this a music video, just by adding "the lovers meet again" scene at the end of the video. Nobody would've known its really a video about bicycle infrastructure. Although the bikes are a clue :)

The escalator looks similar to the ones used in shopping malls etc, or is the "step" exceptionally long or something? There seemed to be no problems to get the front wheel to catch the edge, so the bike goes up all by itself.

The escalator looks very handy. Makes me want to 'invade' some mall with my bike so I can test it.

David Hembrow said...

Neil, Timoohz: I never tried this when I lived in the UK, but quickly adapted to it in NL.

So far as I can tell, on the escalators I've used, the steps are just the same size. It really is just a technique of turning the wheel slightly. Because both wheels are actually on something level (i.e. the step) the bike doesn't try to roll down-hill at all, so all you have to do is hold it upright - much as you would if you were standing still but not on an escalator.

Mark made photos of another bike escalator here.

Slow Factory said...

@Neil: I noticed some time ago that the rules in the Tube in London are the opposite of the smaller but very heavily-used metro in Prague, i.e. in Prague bikes are allowed on escalators but not on lifts (some stations are so deep that they have no public lifts nor stairs, but the rule also applies to shallower platforms and heavy rail train stations.)

That said standard escalators are not ideal for bikes, in particular loaded ones. I once let a bike get away from me on the third longest metro escalator in Prague and it could have killed someone. The longer inter-level moving walkways like the ones at newer shopping centers are better (these are the kind with kind of linking function with the wheels on shopping trolleys).

Matt Nicholas said...

Thanks Mark, seems obvious with hindsight. Also aren't there some steps at the bottom of the escalators leading to a pedestrian tunnel underneath the cycle tunnel?

Carlton Reid said...

@amoeba UK does have such tunnels. Greenwich one is OK but my local one is my fave, the Tyne tunnel, built in 1951, a good 13 years before the first car tunnel was put in.

Story, pix and video:

Anonymous said...

That looks pretty good, Carlton. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

hercule said...

Looks like a much higher quality experience than Glasgow can offer. The Clyde Tunnel has no less than TWO cycle tunnels, one for northbound, the other southbound, each of which shares a pedestrian walkway. You can at least cycle all the way without any need for steps or escalator and reach interesting speeds by the time you reach the middle! When I used it (in the late 1980s) it was largely unused except by loitering youths who left their marks on the walls. There is (or was) a much smaller one under the Forth and Clyde Canal west of Anniesland, but that was a very dark, damp and forbidding place - I think it was later closed up.

Geoffroy_Bing said...

Is the tunnel open 24/24 and 7/7 ?
How many cyclists and pedestrians go through the tunnel per day ?
Thank you

David Hembrow said...

Geoffroy: About 4500 cyclists per day (it's in the article above). So far as I know it's open permanently. Why not ?

Geoffroy_Bing said...

The Croix Rousse Tunnel in Lyon (France) is about to open (end of november). It will be only for bikes, pedestrians and bus, 1,8 km. It might be close in the night but the question remains. I just asked about the Maastunnel in order to avoid mistake in Lyon. If you want further information about this tunnel see the video here ( I would be interested in your reaction !
thanks !

David Hembrow said...

Geoffroy: The video certainly makes it look like a very nice tunnel. However, with that and all other spectacular pieces of infrastructure I have a question: how useful is it ?

Major pieces of infrastructure are always popular with cities and politicians who want to make themselves look good. That's true in the Netherlands as much as anywhere else. However, they are sometimes used as an excuse to hide the lack of provision of the really comprehensive network of high quality routes needed to make cycling part of everyday life for everyone.

There are lots of really spectacular pieces of infrastructure for bikes here in the Netherlands but I avoid writing too often about them on this blog because they already receive far too much prominence.

The Netherlands provides the best example in the world so far as cycling is concerned, but I think it's very important to be selective about what "Dutch" ideas are emulated elsewhere.