Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new short film reveals how the Dutch city reengineered itself around the bicycle, with life- and money-saving results.
When you think of the world’s most bike-friendly cities, Amsterdam and Copenhagen probably come to mind first. But another contender has edged into the top tier: Utrecht, the fourth-largest and fastest-growing city in the Netherlands, where average daily bike trips number 125,000.
A new short film from the transit-oriented documentary-makers at Streetfilms reveals how this city of 330,000 turned into a cyclist’s paradise. As in Nijmegen—star of yet another recent Streetfilms project—it’s all about the infrastructure. Specialized roads and parking facilities gives bike riders the upper hand over cars, which make up less than 15 percent of trips into city center. Some 60 percent happen in the saddle.
For example, a new, state-of-the-art bike parking garage beneath the Utrecht Centraal train station is about to double its available spaces to 12,000, after the first 6,000 were absorbed in less than two years. Cyclists can cruise from the street down a ramp and into their spots (just like in a downtown garage for conventional vehicles), and from there, walk onto a rail platform.
Elsewhere downtown, streets once meant for cars have been redesigned to prioritize bikes. A canal that was buried by a highway in the 1970s is now returning to its original form, with greenery, pedestrian pathways, and cycle tracks declaring Utrecht’s modern priorities. “You really have the idea that people are the boss of the city, not the machines,” Lott van Hooijdonk, the city’s vice mayor, says in the film.
The Dafne Schippersbrug, an extraordinary multi-use bridge-path that uses the roof of an elementary school as its foundation, is further evidence of how utterly normalized cycling has become. “These things are pipe dreams in most other parts of the world,” says one unnamed neighbor.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the cities of the Netherlands were nearly as auto-friendly as much any other wealthy European country. But in the 1970s, the rising number of children killed in traffic sparked a wave of activism and protests, which brought attention to the folly of streets designed for cars. Rising gas prices and the environmental movement helped bolster national policies to reorient urban centers towards walking, cycling, and transit.
Today, 98 percent of Utrecht households own at least one bike, according to the film; half own three or more. Nationally, bikes now outnumber people. “All politicians now take cycling seriously,” Mark Wagenbuur, a Dutch bike activist and blogger, told the New York Times in 2017.
What does it cost? According to the Times, the city spends an average of $55 million annually to build and improve bike facilities. Cyclists complain that bike parking is still hard to come by downtown, and some Dutch drivers are frustrated by their relative disadvantage in urban centers. And not all neighborhoods are equally well-served by these amazing bike amenities.
But the costs of building and maintaining Utrecht’s enormous bike-based mobility network—which the city aims to double by 2030, according to Wired—have brought on much-larger windfall of social benefits, according to the local government. The savings from reduced air pollution and healthcare costs are estimated to be worth about $300 million annually.
The savings don’t stop there: The number of cyclists and pedestrians killed in traffic has plummeted in recent years. As Van Hooijdonk told the New York Times: “Cycling is like a piece of magic: It only has advantages.”