Thursday 24 March 2011

Rotterdam remedies a lower cycling rate

Rotterdam in the province of South-Holland, is the second largest city in the Netherlands. It is best known for its important port, the busiest in Europe. The cycling rate, although very high compared to any other country, is low for the Netherlands. About 25% of all trips in Rotterdam is by bicycle. This is much lower than Amsterdam, where that figure hovers around 40% or Groningen where it is almost 60%. This may have to do with the fact that Rotterdam is very different from most other cities in the Netherlands.

Rotterdam sky line

Rotterdam is younger than most larger Dutch cities. It started off as a fishing village when around 1270 a dam was built in the river Rotte. Only after the railways and a waterway to the North sea were finished in 1872 the port could really develop. It soon made Rotterdam a proud and important city. A city that was able to build Europe’s first skyscraper and tallest office building in 1898. But Rotterdam lost its historic heart in World War II, when in May 1940 the Nazis bombed away the entire city centre to make the Dutch surrender.

The Centre of Rotterdam in 1940

When the city was rebuilt from the late 1940s the city planned to do that 'according to the demands of modern fast traffic' and after the example of US cities. This resulted in wide multi-lane city boulevards right through the centre and big high rises, on a scale unknown in any other Dutch city. This is the reason that especially visitors from the US can relate to Rotterdam better than to any other city in the Netherlands.

But the 1940s Rotterdam planners also came up with something entirely new: the main shopping area was created as the world's first pedestrianised street. When it was finished in 1953 it soon served as an example for numerous car-free shopping streets around the world.

Luckily a long standing Dutch tradition was also not forgotten and the new wide streets were built including separate bicycle infrastructure. But just building infrastructure has proven not to be enough.
First and foremost the city wanted to strengthen the regional cycle network. It needed to better connect suburbs where people live to the centres where they need to go to do their shopping, go to school and work and stay for leisure etc. It also wanted to create two longer-distance high quality regional routes to Delft/the Hague and to Dordrecht. These should be completely finished by 2013.

Cycle grid Rotterdam: the routes in red were sub-standard
In recent years the city was not satisfied with the current relatively low rate of cycling. Investigations revealed the following possible reasons:
  • The quality of the cycle network was not up to modern standards.
  • There was a lack of bike parking possibilities with homes.
  • There is lower interest in cycling among the non-Dutch/new-Dutch residents.
  • The city has exceptionally good public transport (metro/tram/bus/train).
To increase the modal share of cycling the city’s cycling policy and action plan for the years 2007-2011 set a number of goals:
  • To make cycling more attractive by making cycle routes safer, faster and of a higher quality.
  • To increase the parking possibilities at both beginning and end of cycle journeys.
  • To target specific groups to get them to cycle more (youth, working people and immigrants).
Concrete measures to make a cycle route faster involve giving cyclists right of way more often, making short cuts, shorten red times at junctions and making the surface of cycle paths smoother.

Video showing cycling in Rotterdam
Apparently a number of the goals of the policy were met. By looking around the city most of the cycle network seems to be up to standards now and the rate of cycling is rising. This results in more and more cyclists visibly riding on good quality infrastructure in the streets of Rotterdam.

Most of the background data came from the ‘
Actieplan Rotterdam fietst’ (Action plan Rotterdam cycles) by the council of Rotterdam on the site of Fietsberaad (in Dutch only).

article on the fast cycle route between Rotterdam and Delft is available in English.


Paul Martin said...

Very interesting post, Mark. The film was excellent. Nicely edited indeed.

If our cities cycling facilities were only half as good as Rotterdam's I'd be very happy!


shuichi said...

Hello. I have read your latest entry. Thank you. I feel like I could have touched Rotterdam a little. You said the rate was low and it might be true but the movie showed a number of cycling people there. I think the landscape of Rotterdam resemble to that of Osaka or Kobe in Japan. Finally, I could not find a mama bicycle which I want to introduce more moms and dads in the world. I could find a wind breaker which I have on my mama bicycle on a bike in the movie.^^

amoeba said...

I echo Paul Martin. Close to cycling heaven, certainly when compared with the UK.

Alicia said...


"First and foremost the city wanted to strengthen the regional cycle network. It needed to better connect suburbs where people live to the centres where they need to go to do their shopping, go to school and work and stay for leisure etc."

Was this done? I had a hard time finding my way around the new developments on the outskirts. First around the airport last spring... And there's a town, Berkel en Rodenrijs, with knooppunten going around the border, rather than conveniently through the city to Rotterdam... And once in Rotterdam there are some missing "Centrum" signs and you have to guess which way to go.

David Hembrow said...

Shuichi: The cycling rate in Rotterdam is low for the Netherlands, but it's still somewhat higher than most cities in the rest of the world - and that includes many cities in other countries which are promoted as being particular "cycling cities".

Alicia: I can't answer your questions about Rotterdam, but I can tell you about the Knooppuntennetwerk. Those routes almost never tell you the direct route to anything, and rarely send you along the smoothest cycle paths best for efficient cycling. For example, the most efficient route for cycling between Assen and Groningen, a "cycling superhighway" which I use for my commute, is omitted from the knooppuntennetwerk. This system of signs is for making recreational journeys. If you want to go somewhere in a hurry, there are other systems of signs, such as the signposts or mushrooms.

Mark W. said...

Hi Alicia, nice to see you here too.

As David already explained the ‘knooppuntennetwerk’ is a system to make recreational tours, they are not necessarily the shortest routes. I agree with you that it can sometimes be hard to find your way around. One of the reasons could be this: signs are put there by local councils and they all have their own priorities so it is different in every municipality. Some show distances, some don’t, some show destinations outside the municipality and some don’t. Also they all make different choices as to which local destinations they show. I think it is best to always be prepared. I use the website of Fietsersbond* to plot routes on unfamiliar territory (and you can choose between direct door-to-door routes and the recreational routes) and I bring a print. As for Rotterdam, I thought the directions were not bad at all there. When I shot the footage for the videos shown in the last couple of weeks it was the first time I ever cycled in Rotterdam too.

* Cycle Route Planner click the green button for recreational routes and the red one for the door to door version.

Daniel Sparing said...

two comments:

Good public transport can really have a negative effect on cycling but this is a non-issue. The main societal goal is to limit private car use, public transport is almost as good as cycling.

Rotterdam is the example that simply encouraging cycling (infra and such as having the Tour de France Grand Départ last year(!)) is not enough: you really need to discourage driving too. Rotterdam is way too car friendly as it is now.
(now of course it is much easier to make a historic city car-free, as then you have the heritage and tourism industry in the same boat.)

David Hembrow said...

Daniel: You may not see public transport affecting cycling as an issue, but I certainly do.

If people sit on buses they don't get the health benefits of cycling, and they still depend on external energy, usually from fossil fuels, to make their journeys.

Society is harmed just as much by this as by mass private motoring.

It is rare that public transport achieves more than slight overall efficiency improvements over driving a car. For instance, campaigners tend to litres per 100 km per passenger figures for full buses with those for single occupancy cars, conveniently forgetting about the nighttime service buses which are mostly empty but have to run to provide a useful service, trips to and from the depot to change drivers, and the indirect routes taken by buses running a service compared vs. direct travel by private vehicle.

Take all this into account and there is little if any advantage left. And in any case, even if the usage was a third, that only stretches a limited resource over a slightly longer period.

However, I do agree about needing to make driving relatively unattractive in order to have an effect. Rotterdam was rebuilt at a similar time, and shares features with Milton Keynes in Britain. Some people make the mistake of thinking that the network of shared use paths in MK indicate that it was built to be cycle friendly. Actually, the "father of the city" was Melvin W Webber who was renowned for " pioneered thinking about cities of the future, adapted for the age of telecommunications and mass automotive mobility". MK has a road network the like of no other in the UK, offering extremely efficient journeys for drivers. The result is a population who are remarkably tied to motor vehicles.

Daniel Sparing said...

If I could freely choose how other people travel I would choose bicycles over public transport any time. But I still do believe that the big step comes from getting out of the car.

Energy inefficiencies like those you mentioned are an issue, and they should be fixed. I do have some ideas/examples, but it is maybe off topic. But apart from energy and health (although public transport users still walk more than drivers), there are considerations like scarce space (car parking is virtually a theft of urban space) and all-age accessibility (kids and the elderly can take a - low floor - bus but maybe can't drive).

I see cycling and "OV" as a natural alliance. To give a Rotterdam example, I took my sister by OV-fiets from Rotterdam Centraal to Kinderdijk recently, and that was quite a distance so she was relieved that we could take the fast ferry back. What I mean is that Rotterdam is big enough that public transport has to help out with too long cycling trips.

Greetings from Assen :) (I am on the train to Groningen..)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hembrow: I certainly view it better to cycle than transit, but I must protest that someone who takes the train derives no benefits. I used to live in Manhattan, where everybody crowds onto the Subway all the time (it runs 24/7 in New York). Massage therapists and salon workers in particular can always tell when someone lives in New York. This is because they walk to and from the subway all the time (and for daily errands). Consider also that the Subway is electric. It makes NYC the most energy efficient city in the US.
That being said, I certainly agree with you: cycling is important, and definitely needs to be encouraged. I just do not understand why cycling and public transportation must fight with each other when they can be engineered to support each other (I can think of various examples of stellar integration of the two, but I don't know of any in the Netherlands- although I am sure there are some).
That's my opinion. To anyone who disagrees, I must say that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions.

David Hembrow said...

Anonymous: Public transport is probably better integrated with cycling in the Netherlands than in any other country. Bus stops in the Netherlands almost always have cycle-parking. Sometimes this is for hundreds of bicycles. Similarly, the railway stations all provide cycle-parking, with cycle-park capacity in the tens of thousands at some railway stations, and of course all public transport hubs are integrated into the comprehensive network of cycle-facilities which covers the entire country.

I agree that there should be no "fight" between cycling and public transport. However, while this should not exist, in practice it often does exist. In all countries that I'm aware of, funding for public transport remains at a vastly higher level than funding for cycling. This is true even here in the Netherlands where cycling is used for approximately seven times as many journeys as public transport.

The problem with this unequal funding is that cycling suffers as a result. For instance, in some places the cycle-path only comes into existence as a result of public transport funding and is compromised as a result. What's more, in many places cyclists are expected to cycle in the same lanes as buses - a ludicrously dangerous position to put cyclists into. I recall a council meeting from when I lived in the UK at which a local Councillor objected to provision of cycling infrastructure because "cyclists compete with the buses".

We as cyclists are not picking a fight, but other people are fighting because they have a commercial interest in promoting public transport and they almost always win - particularly when it comes to funding.

Take a look around yourself in New York. Much political capital has been made of some very small interventions for cyclists but those who cycle still face unpleasant and dangerous conditions on that city's streets and you still have an incredibly small proportion of journeys made by bicycle. This can only be resolved by reallocating not only funding but also political priority to cycling and by giving potential cyclists far better conditions than they have now.