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Huez* City Guides


‘Er gaat niets boven Groningen (nothing surpasses Groningen)

The namesake of the Netherlands’ most northerly province, Groningen has been influenced by countless foreign cultures throughout its tumultuous history. Cycling’s cultural invasion has been far more welcome than that of France or Germany’s in the past, and while few places in the Netherlands can be viewed as poor for cyclists, Groningen might just take the biscuit when it comes to having a world leading cycling culture.

Today Groningen’s 197,000 citizens use bikes for 60% of their journeys and the average citizen hops on their bike 10 times a week. Like much of the Netherlands, however, the path to ensuring cycling’s preeminence has been hard fought, and was the result of disgruntled citizens opposing modern transport and a joyfully reactive local government. A far cry from the bike haven that it is today, in the 50’s and 60’s cycling lanes were actually being torn up – with plans in place to build a motorway straight into the heart of the medieval town. From 1977 the people were at their wits end and as public disaffection grew, the appetite for concrete incursions dwindled within the city council. Local policy began, begrudgingly at first, to deploy various strategies intended to make the bicycle the most efficient, pleasant and economical means to get from A to B.

Groningen’s transformation is based on the principle of filtered permeability, in which active transport such as cycling or walking is favoured over motorized vehicles. First the city was split into four quadrants that could not be travelled between by car, with drivers instead having to take a congested and time consuming ring road. Separate bike lines were built along roads that were blocked to cars and specially constructed bike tunnels all slashed journey times in the city (as long as trips were powered by pedals rather than engines). Routes were even designed to encompass Groningen’s most historic and idyllic landmarks, all to improve the day to day lives of the people that lived there. Motorists in modern Groningen’s travel at an average speed of 9.6kmh while bikes cruise at a heady 14.2kmh – unsurprising in a city still formed around an ancient core.

Groningen’s passion for bikes is buoyed up by a 50,000 strong student population, and it’s no secret that Groningen and Hanz university students have powered cycling’s changing fortunes in the city. But it is the uptake by the professionals (and their families) of the city that truly demonstrates the pervasiveness of two wheeled transport. It makes sense as 90% of the working population live with 3km of the centre, but it would be nothing without the foresight of the authorities that enabled it. Groningen’s citizens own 71,000 cars and 300,000 bikes, and are still pushing to give the bike even more priority – reviewing car zoning and choosing to reduce it in 2006 due to the cities outward growth.

Groningen, more than perhaps anywhere else, is an example of a microcosm where cycling’s ascension is almost complete. It is fair to say that being compressed into the small area that made it so important as a fortress has made transforming the city into a cycle haven far easier than in cities like London or New York. But it still serves as an astonishing example of how smaller districts can approach cycling. The city has a larger remit than most councils and is certainly as big as hundreds of British towns and small cities. If every council in London paid enough attention to cycling policy as Groningen has over the last 30 years, well, what a city we’d live in.

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