Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The first-of-its-kind path is a lot more eco-friendly than concrete and supposedly just as durable.
A city in the Netherlands is trying out what might be the most Dutch plan yet conceived: a bike path made of recycled wood. The first of its kind in the world, the proposed path near the city of Emmen would be surfaced not with the usual asphalt or tarmac but with paving slabs formed from wood chips packed together with organic resin. To give the path an even daintier carbon footprint, it will be lit with eco-dynamic LED lighting made with bio-composite that lights brightly only when passing riders trigger sensors.
The idea behind the path is to cut the use of conventional, less eco-friendly materials such as concrete and aluminum, which require fossil fuels in the production and are far less easy to recycle. Not only will the wood chips and sawdust used for the new surface be carbon neutral, their creation will require no direct felling of trees; the company leading the experiment, Grontmij, plans to use waste product from sawmills.
The idea of creating permanent infrastructure from a substance that is celebrated for its biodegradability might seem ludicrous. But the path’s engineers insist that the wood and resin surfacing will be very durable, with a working life at least as long as concrete or asphalt. Rudi van Hedel, project manager of bio-based economy at the consultancy Grontmij, explained to Dutch magazine Cobouw that the light weight of the proposed material also makes them far easier to move and re-use:
“The bio-composite materials [we use] are less damaging to the environment to produce. They’re green resources so they contribute to a bio-based economy. Additionally bio-composite materials versatile and removable allowing you to customize a bike path easily to increasingly diverse users.”
The plan sounds promising, but it’s starting small. The first stretch will be just 200 meters (656 feet), a try-out space designed to test the material’s durability and construction over a period of several years. As a micro-project it’s going to cost a little more, the project’s leaders admit. But if it’s successful, it could be rolled out for the same or less as for conventional materials, van Hedel tells CityLab:
“At present, the material costs of the Eco-Dynamic Cycle track are higher than of traditional paths made of asphalt or concrete, but the construction costs are comparable or perhaps slightly cheaper. We expect that as production capacity increases the costs will go down. In the future we hope to use cheaper bio-fibers than the wood fibers we’re currently experimenting with, and ultimately we expect that bio-composite materials will be able to compete with asphalt and concrete.”
On top of this, the path should look great. Its LED lighting will be designed to change intensity and color depending on the time of day, blending more harmoniously into the landscape.
The path will break new ground, but it will be far from the first innovative cycle track the Netherlands has seen over the past few years. In 2014, the country created a path paved with solar panels, as well as this shimmering, luminescent cycle way inspired by van Gogh’s Starry Night. Holland’s bicycle network may be perilously close to full capacity, but at least the country is managing to make a name for itself for a highly unusual national obsession—creating the world’s prettiest, most innovative bike infrastructure.