How did the small Dutch city of Nijmegen conquer car traffic?

The urban design firm Copenhagenize recently released its biannual ranking of the world’s best bike cities. Copenhagen, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Strasbourg top the list of usual suspects.  

But some cycling capitals are less well known. Take Nijmegen, a mid-sized Dutch city near the German border, where bikes boast an inner-city modal share of 60 percent. Last year, the Cyclists’ Union of the Netherlands voted it the best bike city in the country (and thus probably the universe)—toppling other towns that regularly garner international praise.  

What’s the city’s secret? A new documentary by Streetfilms shot during Velo-City, an international biking conference recently held in Nijmegen, hits on key points.

A downtown built for people—with engineered enforcement

A city walled by bollards! (Streetfilms)

Nijmegen’s center city wasn’t always car-free—cue grainy footage of midcentury sedans cruising past charming steepled rooftops. “The main square used to be a parking lot,” Sjors Van Duren, the program director of Velo-City, tells Clarence Eckerson, the film’s director.

But since the 1970s, the city has replaced the downtown’s auto-centric streets with pedestrian pathways and bike lanes. To fend off vehicles, the core is protected by a network of automated bollards that lower only for transponder-equipped buses and delivery vans at certain times of day.

Once upon a time, the city attempted to regulate these entrances with signs, but that didn’t work, says Paul Van Den Anker, a city policy advisor: “With bollards, it’s simple. You can’t get in if you don’t have permission to get in.”

A regional bike network pulls cyclists in

Nijmegen’s bike-lane build-out may have started downtown, but in the past 15 years, the focus has become regional. High-quality, separated cycle tracks weave across the city and outside of it, drawing commuters from neighboring areas into work and school by bike.

“That really helps the city to keep young families in city borders who didn’t want to live within city center,” says Angela Van Der Kloof, a longtime local. The RijnWaalpad is awesome to behold: that’s an 11-mile, grade-separated superhighway for bikes connecting Nijmegen to neighboring Arnhem without a single stop.

Nijmegan of yore. (Streetfilms)

All ages welcome

It doesn’t take long to spot young and old pedaling Nijmegen’s streets. Cycling as a first resort is instilled from a young age in the Netherlands, says Gerben Siebenga, another local policy advisor. “If you start with children ... then for everyone, it’s normal that you cycle.”

Pro-cyclist policies

Traffic laws in many countries regard cyclists skeptically in the context of a crash—the U.S. included. Not so in Dutch cities, where bike-centered infrastructure extends to the courtroom.

“It is so damn different,” says Renata Falzoni, a Brazilian journalist and bike advocate with a shock of red hair. “If you are involved in a car accident, you are presumed guilty if you are the driver. That’s particularly what I really need in my country.”

The sensory delights of a small, cycling-first city

Nijmegen is no backwater, but with a population of 170,000, it can’t quite match the constant stimulation of a larger cycling mecca. But the engine-free hush has its own appeal. When it’s mostly bikes whizzing past, “you can hear people walk. You can hear people talk. You can hear kids playing,” says Philippe Lerouic Crist, an administrator at the International Transportation Forum. “There’s a lot of noise, but it’s noise we’ve forgotten about.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name Nijmegen. This has been corrected.

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