The Guiding Light that is Groningen

In April 2001 Tim Jones of Wolves on Wheels Cycle Campaign set off for the Netherlands to spend a week cycling from city to city.

Whilst there he took the opportunity to visit the remarkable city of Groningen that boasts 100 000 cycle trips every day and where an average of 57% of the population travels by cycle.

Here he provides an account of his travels and his experience of Dutch cycling infrastructure and also the lessons that can be learned by English authorities, not only developing their cycle networks, but also rejuvenating their urban centres.

First a few facts about the City.

  • Groningen is a medium sized city in the Northeast of the country 200km from Amsterdam.
  • The city has a population of around 170 000 and is an important economic centre.
  • The main sources of employment are electronic engineering, telecommunications, agriculture, services and the university.
  • The university caters for over 30 000 students and the average age of the city is low (33 years).
  • The historic city centre includes many cultural facilities and there is real sense of 'place' that is urban and dynamic.

In the 1980s Groningen's transport policy was aimed at accommodating ever growing rates of motor traffic (average car ownership in the Netherlands is higher than the UK) through more investment in infrastructure.
This in fact led to more and more traffic.
Where one congestion spot was eliminated the traffic problem simply shifted further down to another street.
In 1989, the City planning authority recognised that attempts to accommodate more traffic were futile and leading to a poor quality environment and outward migration of the population from the city.

In 1990 Groningen abandoned all attempts to accommodate more motor vehicles and produced a 'master plan' for the whole of the conurbation. 
This put in place policies to provide greater mobility by public transport and bicycles and to stabilise the growth in motor traffic.
Quality of Life was also an important part of the policy and emphasis was placed on road safety and the introduction of 30 km/h zones in all residential areas.
Priority is now given to promoting journeys on foot, the use of cycles and public transport and motor traffic is restrained apart from goods and service vehicles.

'Intensification Zones' (of office buildings, services and mix use developments) have been developed close to public transport interchanges and are highly penetrable by cycle. The main facilities have been concentrated in the City Centre and there has been an extensive programme of urban renewal with high quality accommodation located in the City. 
A strict parking policy has been implemented and the maximum number of parking spaces is 1 for every 10 employees. The distribution of shopping facilities has been designed so that people can do their daily shopping in neighbourhoods with the City Centre the main centre for shopping. No supermarkets are allowed near motorways or on industrial sites. 
In a nutshell, Groningen has focused on putting the heart back into the city and creating a high quality urban environment with maximum access on foot, by cycle and by public transport. Over the past 10 years the City Council spent over £18 million on developing cycling infrastructure!

Some highlights of the city include:

  • creation of public space, fantastic architecture within the station zone including a museum with a cycle bridge.
  • shuttle services for employees living on the outskirts of the city and in rural areas
  • cycle lockers at rural bus interchanges to allow those in peri- urban areas to bike and ride
  • reclamation of the Grote Markt from a traffic roundabout to the city square and centrepiece with markets and street cafe's
  • division of the city into four sectors (or cells) within the ring road which cannot be crossed by motor traffic (ie it is impossible to get directly from one sector to the other by car and requires use of the ring road)
  • extension of the pedestrian area and a comprehensive programme of tree planting to 'green' the city centre
  • restoration of monuments and new housing on once demolished sites
  • extensive cycle network with direct radial routes into the city centre from the suburbs to the city centre with journey times of 20 minutes
  • maximum accessibility by cycle such as permission for cyclists to travel in the opposite direction of one way streets and permission to turn right (effectively our left) on a red traffic signal when the road is clear and it is safe to do so
  • park and ride sites provided on the outskirts of the city for visitors
  • integration of bike and rail at the central rail station through the provision of guarded bike shelters for nearly 5000(!) bicycles
  • reduction in noise and atmospheric pollution

So what was the reaction of the citizens and retailers of Groningen? 
It is reported that initially these measures were regarded as draconian and there was hostility to the plans, particularly by retailers, who thought their premises would become inaccessible with a subsequent drop in turnover. 
However, over 15 years on and visitors to the city have increased (obviously due to the attraction of a high quality urban environment) there are greater footflows and turnover and shop rents are higher in comparison with other cities.
This has caused more people to move back to the city, increases in retail trade and the creation of a high quality environment entirely dominated by pedestrians and cyclists and not motor traffic!

Judging by the urban renaissance that is sweeping Birmingham there is a real danger that 'the clumsy horse' that is Wolverhampton could be left further behind and banished to the doldrums of banality. 
It is time our city woke up and joined the movement for liveable cities.
More and more traffic simply can't be accommodated without wholesale destruction and a further deterioration to the City's urban fabric and the communities health. 
Quality of Life. 
Cycling is just part of the solution.
Lets put the heart back into our Millennium City.


Allott Transportation, Manchester Video Documentary on Groningen filmed for the Warrington Multi Modal Study

Werven, G van, Groningen, Netherlands in The Bicycle and City Traffic Edited by Hugh McClintock (1992) Published by Belhaven Press, London.

Web links for further reading.

Global Ideas Bank :- Groningen, the car-free city for bikes

Cambridge Cycle Campaign visit report on Gronigen. Even the UK home of 20% of journeys by bike needs inspiration!

Presentation about cycling in Groningen from Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign

wow logo