Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
And how it got that way.
Groningen in the Netherlands is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. This city in the northern part of the country has a population of 190,000, and 50 percent of all trips are made by bicycle – 60 percent in the city center. A citizen of Groningen rides a bicycle about 10 times per week. And as you can see in this envy-inspiring portrait of the city from Streetfilms, the city’s residents do just about everything by bike – including shopping at IKEA, where cargo bikes are available if you don’t have your own.
Is it something in the water or the air? No. The excellent and very safe climate for cyclists in Groningen is the result of very specific policy decisions made a generation ago, which built on the city’s existing advantages -- including a compact street plan that was a legacy of its history as a fortress town.
Back in 1977, a leftist city government divided the central part of Groningen into four quadrants, and instituted a regulation stipulating that you could not travel directly from one of those sectors to another by car. Instead, motorists must use a ring road that circles the city, increasing travel times by a significant percentage. What economists call the “negative externalities” of car travel, including air pollution, noise, and crashes, are quite literally externalized – removed from the heart of the city.
Bicyclists, on the other hand, can ride straight from one quadrant to another. Biking became the fastest, most convenient way to travel, and the most economical as well.
"This is not really an anti-car measure," says David Hembrow, who blogs about Dutch bike culture at A View from the Cycle Path. "What this is, is making the neighborhoods where people live more pleasant, and making cycling into a viable option."
Professor Greg Ashworth of the University of Groningen remembers the outcry when the scheme was enacted. Shopkeepers protested bitterly that they would go out of business if customers couldn’t drive to their doorsteps.
And then the plan went into effect. "Wonder of wonders, the world didn’t collapse," says Ashworth. "The shops didn’t leave the city. The police found, yes, people could learn how to handle this plan. People adapted to it."
Now, the streets of Groningen are a model of effective bicycle infrastructure. Bicycle parking is abundant and ingeniously designed. And while many of the people riding are among the city’s 50,000 resident students, people of all ages are able to use an efficient, cost-effective, and healthy form of transportation in peace and safety.
You get the kind of city that you plan for. In Groningen, that is a city where bikes, and not cars, rule the streets.