Utrecht rides a bike: on the way to becoming a “ten-minute city”

Status: 08/07/2022 17:17

When it comes to urban development, the Dutch city of Utrecht relies entirely on bicycles – driving a car should be as unattractive as possible. How is this happening to citizens and the economy?

Author: Niklas Bohlen, ARD Studio Brussels

In the shade of the treetops, cyclists ride along the wide canal that surrounds the historic center of the Dutch city of Utrecht. On a summer day, the area seems idyllic, people are relaxed. Urban planner Marijn Kik is proud that this street now symbolizes a transport strategy that has been carefully thought out over the years.

“Until a few years ago, it was a six-lane expressway for cars,” he explains. “Then we closed it down, turned it into a bicycle street, created a canal and gave people a part of their city.”

The fourth largest city in the Netherlands, with a population of around 360,000, focuses on cycling and major investments in the development of bicycle infrastructure.

According to town planners, the old town in Utrecht should retain its charm – also with as little traffic as possible.

Photo: image alliance / Jochen Tack

The renaissance of the bicycle

The coalition selected in 2010 wants to achieve climate protection goals and transform the city into a sustainable living space. “Utrecht – Everyone Rides a Bike” is the name of one of the many dailies that have significantly increased the percentage of cyclists in the last ten years. Today the city has around 125,000 cyclists – a day.

According to Marijn Kik, 60 percent of all journeys in Utrecht are made by bicycle, in Berlin it is only around 13 percent. A success for which the city is ready to pay a lot: in 2015-2020 alone, it invested around EUR 168 million in the development of bicycle infrastructure and parking spaces, financed by taxes.

Nevertheless, changing the wheel is profitable in the long run. The urbanist emphasizes that the bicycle boom has opened up a whole new market, from selling bicycles to repair shops. The fact that the city center can be reached quickly and easily by bicycle also leads to an increase in retail sales.

In return, business owners accept restrictions. For example, goods can only be delivered in the early hours of the morning – only if the areas in front of the stores are not yet full of bicycles. Service providers such as artisans or couriers are increasingly delivering their cargo bikes to customers to avoid the hassle of looking for a parking space altogether.

Photo: image alliance / Jochen Tack

“Visitors only cars”

Five main cycle routes connect all parts of the city. The “Fietsstraaten” with its blue logo on red asphalt is hard to miss. Traffic lights are friendlier to cyclists, bicycle bridges and underpasses close gaps in the road network, many streets are completely car-free.

“Cars are just visitors on the road along the canal,” says urban planner Kik, describing a narrow lane where cars can travel at a maximum speed of 30 kilometers per hour and bicycles cannot be overtaken. “Well,” he smiles, “driving in Utrecht is not fun.”

This is also a strategy: don’t exclude cars entirely, but make it as difficult for them as possible. Therefore, most cars voluntarily go to the bypass outside the city.

Lots of space for bicycles

In recent years, a very modern bicycle garage has been built under the station square, which is constantly being expanded. It currently has 12,500 bicycle parking spaces on three floors and is the largest in the world. A chip-scanned digital guidance system guides you to the next free parking space. Direct access to the Main Railway Station is primarily intended to encourage commuters to travel by bike and train.

This is what the student Hugo does, who uses the parking lot every day: “I study in Amsterdam but live in Utrecht. In the morning I go to the parking lot, park my bike and take the train to Amsterdam. ‘

The bicycle garage is guarded, open 24 hours a day and free for the first 24 hours. The city has created such guarded bicycle parking spaces in other central locations.

There is a formality before parking: users of the Utrecht car park must check-in properly before they can park their bike for 24 hours free of charge.


A vision of a ten-minute city

Utrecht is a rapidly growing city. In the last ten years alone, the population has grown by 50,000. “We are far from finished, we still have a lot of work to do,” says Kik, outlining the outlook for the coming years.

To do justice to its growing population, the city must set new standards. The new mobility plan sets far-reaching goals until 2040: Utrecht is set to become “a city of ten minutes”. Flats, shops and other facilities would then be located at public transport junctions, so that they could be easily reached on foot or by bicycle. No trip should be longer than ten minutes.

The trip through the three-storey car park is adapted for bicycles – along wide paths.

Photo: image alliance / Jochen Tack

Germany is following in their footsteps

The demand for a well-developed cycling infrastructure is also growing in Germany. According to the Federal Ministry of Transport’s “National Cycling Plan 3.0”, 60 percent of Germans plan to cycle more in the future.

With an amount of around € 155 million, the federal government is therefore funding innovative model projects in the field of cycling until 2026. “Cycling-friendly cities are considered to be particularly friendly cities,” writes the Federal Ministry of Transport in its report.

The people of Utrecht have known about this for a long time. Urban planner Marjin Kik never had a car, a wheel is enough in his city.

Utrecht: A green wave in the cycling paradise

Alexander Göbel, ARD Brussels, 7.8.2022 18:57

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