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Groningen: The World’s Cycling City

It's no secret that just about anywhere you go in the Netherlands is an incredible place to bicycle. And in Groningen, a northern city with a population of 190,000 and a bike mode share of 50 percent, the cycling is as comfortable as in any city on Earth. The sheer number of people riding at any one time will astound you, as will the absence of automobiles in the city center, where cars seem extinct. It is remarkable just how quiet the city is. People go about their business running errands by bike, going to work by bike, and even holding hands by bike.

The story of how they got there is a mix of great transportation policy, location and chance. You'll learn quite a bit of history in the film, but essentially Groningen decided in the 1970s to enact policies to make it easier to walk and bike, and discourage the use of cars in the city center. By pedestrianizing some streets, building cycle tracks everywhere, and creating a unique transportation circulation pattern that prohibits vehicles from cutting through the city, Groningen actually made the bicycle -- in most cases -- the fastest and most preferred choice of transportation.

It does feel like bicycle nirvana. When I first got off the train in Groningen, I couldn't stop smiling at what I saw around me. In an email exchange with my friend Jonathan Maus from Bike Portland, he described it as being "like a fairy tale." This jibed with my first thought to him -- that I had "entered the game Candyland, but for bikes!" In fact, for our teaser I originally titled this Streetfilm "Groningen: The Bicycle World of Your Dreams," before I talked myself out of it. Although there is a magical quality about being there, in reality there is nothing dreamy or childlike about it. With political will and planning, what they have done should - and can be done - everywhere.

In our Streetfilm you'll see the 10,000 (!) bicycle parking spaces at the train station, some of the incredible infrastructure that enables cyclists to make their journeys safer and quicker, and you'll hear from many residents we encountered who go by bike just about everywhere they travel. But as one of my interview subjects, Professor Ashworth, wanted me to point out: the three days I was there were bright and sunny, and the hardy people keep up the bicycling through the cold winters. As with many bicycling cities, there area also big problems with cycle theft, and residents are always yearning for more bicycle parking.

I think most of us would trade some of those problems for a city with 50 percent mode share (and up to 60 percent in the city center!!).

 

 

Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • Upright Biker

    Awesome. Not a very useful comment, I know, but that's what keeps coming to mind. Awesome.

  • http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/ Karen Lynn Allen

    Bicycling paradise. Sigh. Interesting that they cut the city into quadrants and made it impossible for cars to transit directly between each quadrant. Vienna did the same thing except they cut their inner ring into 5 pie wedges with no transit between wedges except via the outside ring road. As in Groningen, this has cut down on motorized traffic remarkably while still allowing people who own cars to get to their houses or to work or to a store if taking a car is necessary. The drop in noise and improvement in air quality in Vienna has been significant, though they are just beginning to see their biking numbers increase (they are at 6% mode share.)

  • Bob Gunderson

    Hell. On. Earth.

  • Sharon Behnke

    Excellent video, as usual.

  • Kevin Love

    I am curious as to what the other 50% non-cycling mode share is. How much is public transit? How much is pedestrian?

    Also, I note that David Hembrow, interviewed in the film, asserted in one of his 2009 articles that the bike mode share was almost 60%. Source:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2009/02/how-groningen-grew-to-be-worlds-number.html

  • Ben Kintisch

    Incredible, beautiful, amazing.

    Maybe next summer?

  • Rabi Abonour

    My eyes literally started to tear up watching this. Absolutely incredible.

  • Andy

    My 11 yr old cycling son & I enjoyed very much watching it twice immediately. He said: I bet most people people are physically fit; very few helmets.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I am not sure of what comprises the other 50% breakdown. In the city center I'd bet there is little car use at all. But in the full county of Groningen you'd probably see a bigger share and not much pedestrian.

    As for the 60%. When putting this together I have researched and seen all sorts of numbers published from 40% to 47% (most common) all the way up to 60%. It seems it depends if you are talking about county as a whole (50%) or the city center (60%). But the numbers I used are confirmed by Cor who is the expert in Groningen and works for the city and county.

    I'll see if I can get him to chime in on the other 50%.

  • http://hembrow.blogspot.com DavidHembrow

    Kevin, if you read the small text at the bottom of the link you posted then you'll see that I'm a little skeptical about the 60% figure, as I am about everyone else's figures for modal share, especially when used in a marketing context. From what I can tell, the 59% / 60% figure refers to how people get to the centre of the city.

    The problem with all these things is that it depends what you measure and how. For instance, where do you draw the boundary of the city, do you include people who's journeys start outside the city and end in the city ? Do you include those who start inside and ride out ? Do you include those who's journeys start and end outside the city but how come through the city as part of their route ?

    The latter point is especially relevant to Groningen regarding cars because before the ludicrous 1960s plans for a city wide network of motorways was canned, some of them were built. As a result, cars pass through one part of the city without stopping.

    There is also, as Clarence points out, the confusion between the mostly rural and sparsely populated province called Groningen and the city called Groningen (capital of the province), though that's not the reason for the doubt about figures for the centre.

    Groningen benefits a lot from having a high student population (50K students out of a total 190K population) and this is also part of the reason why the modal share in the city is higher than average even for the Netherlands. However while the cycling modal share for the whole province is lower than that of the city it's still about 30%.

  • Shinji

    I have a planning document published by the City of Groningen in 2000, "Beleidsnota Fietsverkeer 2000." According to this document, although a little bit old,
    "Van alle verplaatsingen binnen de gemeente Groningen wordt voor circa 40% gebruik gemaakt van de auto en circa 5% van het openbaar vervoer. Do overige 55% betreft langzaam verkeer [(brom)fietsers en voetgangers]. (p.4)

    So, the share of the car is 40% while that of public transportation is only 5%. The city had planned to (re)introduce a tram, which was given up last year because of a financial crisis.

    Anyway, thank you very much for an excellent film about my favorite city Groningen, Clarence.

  • George Hahn

    This is bike porn. What a city! Loved every frame. Beautiful job, Clarence.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    David Hembrow from A View from the Cycle Path has supplied even more detailed information about Groningen here. So as I am sure many of your interests have been raised, check out his article. Great stuff as usual:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/groningen

  • Scott Mizee

    excellent work Clarence! You are a masterful story teller and filmmaker.

  • andrelot

    Vienna is 9 times larger than Groningen, the ability of bikes to substitute for fast urban transportation (subways, trams and overground trains), which Groningen lacks sorely (except for some lame buses or trains that are not useful for city transportation) is obviously lower.

  • http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/ Karen Lynn Allen

    Vienna does have an excellent public transportation! Perhaps the best I've ever experienced. I never had to wait more than 3 minutes for underground metro light rail any time of day, and the light rail trains were all at least ten cars long and highly used by the citizenry. The city of Vienna has for many decades made a huge investment to create this kind of system. However, it's not enough.

    "Vienna embraces the romance and culture of the bicycle"
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/16/vienna-embraces-culture-of-cycling

    "Vienna is in the middle not only of its own "Year of Cycling", but also of an ambitious five-year plan to tempt its citizens out of cars and on to saddles. Faced with ever-growing traffic, as well as unenviable pollution levels and the rising costs of fuel, the city has determined to learn from progressive cycling capitals such as Munich, Malmo, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, which have embraced biking culture.

    "Vienna is one of 60 cities to have signed up to the Charter of Brussels, which commits them to promoting cycling and setting clear targets inroad safety and in achieving a 15% "modal share" – the percentage of trips made by bicycle out of the total number of trips made by city-dwellers. In the UK only Bristol and Edinburgh, which holds its first festival of cycling this weekend, have signed up, but the interest from mainland Europe, including many in the east, is phenomenal.

    "We have now in Vienna about 5% to 6% modal share," says Dvorak. "We aim to double that by 2015. We are working on many infrastructure changes to facilitate urban cycling. The situation in general is that we are a growing population and we have no room any more. We need to create space and stop congestion, air pollution. Look at these terrible floods we are seeing at the moment; it is no longer an option to ignore climate change.

    ". . .For people living in cities, space to park a bike securely can be a major obstacle, which is why Vienna has just completed a pilot project called Bike City – a block of 100 flats for middle-income people, with wide communal hallways and lifts with bike racks outside each front door and bike stores on every floor.

    "Michael Szeiler, an Austrian traffic planning expert, is one of the first residents to have moved in."The rents here are affordable because the builders have saved money by not having car parking – they have built only 50 spaces, rather than one per flat, as is usual. People still have cars," he says, "but people who live here make 25% of all trips by bicycle, as opposed to 6% of other Viennese."

  • http://brooklynspoke.wordpress.com Doug G.

    Your best yet. And that's saying a lot. Great stuff.

  • krstrois

    This was great. I loved it and sent it to friends and family. I have been to Groningen and I think you really captured its peaceful feeling. Since the city is not large, nor a world landmark (though it's lovely), it provides an even better example of what can happen in many places -- because there just aren't those wafts of exceptionalism ("This is not Amsterdam") that tend to bolster dumb objections to making places more livable. I hope I live to see something so wonderful done in even one section of New York.

  • andrelot

    You misread my comment. Vienna has great public transportation and is much bigger than Groningen, thus if offers a very tough competition for bikes.

    In the Netherlands, contrary to some narratives propelled abroad, local public transportation is skimmed off ridership into bikes as much as from short car rides. Therefore, in many Dutch cities outside the three major metros (Amsterdam ,Den Haag, Rotterdam), local urban transportation lacking (if compared to similar sized cities in Germany, Sweden or Switzerland for instance) and therefore more people use bikes because it is faster than the bus.

    After all, all this street redesign to make them very bike-friendly indirectly impacts buses as well, even if you can still have some bus-only roads.

  • SteveVaccaro

    What a great video Clarence. Well done.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Why thank you my friend. And for your support. Without it we cannot do good work like this. Thankfully from the emails and comments I am getting, Groningen is inspiring a lot of folks throughout the U.S. and world to already want to challenge their city government.

    And today we broke two viewership records on Streetfilms!! The one-day site viewership record was broken at 2 pm and still going. The bar is set so high we may never break it again!

  • jamesbeaz

    Did you notice how when that 20-something guy finished talking to you and said 'I have to go', you responded, 'Good bye! Have fun!' Just an interesting observation: even as progressive a transportation planner as yourself sometimes refers to a specific instance of cycling as 'fun' -- yes, I love it too and think it's certainly the most 'fun' way to get around, but I'm sure most people in this town don't see cycling as uniquely 'fun'. Instead, they just see it as something that's a part of their normal, everyday, high-quality lives. Anyway, just an observation I had that you might not have noticed as the person who made the video! Outstanding work -- I love it! I shared this video with my mother, who teaches sixth grade, and was looking for a perfect video to show her students 'sustainable development' whilst teaching a geography unit.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu/ Slow_Factory

    County = Province :-)

  • cereal

    As this film shows, it's much easier to develop non-car oriented transport in a city that was built before cars existed! Walled medieval towns or moderate to small size are particularly suited to this - you simply send the cars around the wall and make the inner city pedestrian and bike accessible. Or for bigger walled cities, you do what Groningen did and allow limited transit for cars, and limit access to the sectors or pie wedges.

    Europe is particularly lucky in that many, if not most cities were built long ago for foot traffic or horse traffic; they are thus dense, compact, and suitable to foot and cycle transport. In the Netherlands, even for towns that were never walled, development is nearly always dense, with hardly any sprawl - even Amsterdam suddenly ends, straight to farmland - there are no US style suburbs of endless acre-sized plots after another.

    Many old cities also have streets so narrow that cars can't access all parts anyway, or at least not easily. Other old cities could follow this model - Chiang Mai in Thailand is a walled city divided by perpendicular main roads, like Groningen has become; in practice, most fast car travel already goes around the ring of the old city anyway to avoid bottlenecks.

    Most cIties in the US and more recent cities in the world are going to have a far harder time of it. Many of the cities were built or extended around streetcar lines and then car travel. There is no way you could do this sort of thing, even in parts of the city, to LA, Indianapolis, Houston, Des Moines, Portland, etc.

  • jamesbeaz

    Why not? London has well over 50 percent mode share for cyclists in many parts of Central London. Yes, all of LA won't become like Groningen, but there's no reason that 'parts' of LA can't become like Groningen, or parts of Houston, Phoenix, etc.

  • http://hembrow.blogspot.com DavidHembrow

    Oh, that excuse. And yes, I've had heard it several times before.

    In the Netherlands there are old cities and there are new cities. They all have high cycling modal shares. The very newest city in the Netherlands, and one of the newest in the world, is how about Almere. This city was constructed on the world's largest artificial island, land reclaimed from the sea during the second half of the last century. The first house was built in 1976. For the Netherlands, Almere has what is called a "low" cycling modal share. However, this actually means that over 30% of journeys under 7.5 km are made by bike so there are lots of cyclists in Almere just as there are lots in every other city in the Netherlands, whether new or old, and in the countryside between cities and towns. If it were in any other country, having nearly 20% of all journeys and over 30% of the shorter journeys by bike would be enough to make Almere a place which was seen as a beacon of cycling. It is only in this country that such figures would be referred to as a "low" cycling modal share.

    Because people come up with these excuses again and again, I've a long list of the told and retold myths about the Netherlands and excuses that people make for why they think they can't have a high cycling modal share because their conditions are different.

  • Matthias

    Great observation--a well-designed cycling infrastructure integrates fun (and exercise) into the daily routine so seamlessly that you don't even think about it.

  • Erik Griswold

    David beat me to the reply but still...

    Bullshit! As Clarence showed in this film, there is also good bicycle infrastructure outside of the "Walled medieval town" (chunks of which were destroyed by Canadian Artillery in the last weeks of WW2, thanks to German stubbornness). But perhaps he needed to include more.

    You can, and I have, cycle on separated infrastructure, all the way to Groningen's Airport Eelde, and beyond. The department of the University of Groningen where Greg Ashworth teaches is located in the RuG Zernike complex which is not only outside the old walls, but outside the Groningen Ring Road, which you pass under using a street built as such:
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Stolzenbach_-_Viaduct_Zonnelaan.jpg

    And what did Groningen look like in the 1960's when the motoring madness was at its height in the Netherlands? Voila:

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-vRIvMpEYEh0/TXOugLxszKI/AAAAAAAAEos/YK0a16UcZkk/s1600/groningen%2Bgrote%2Bmarkt%2B60s.jpg

    A transition was made there because their leaders made a decision to do it. Yours can too.

  • Ira

    That was fantastic !! Infinitely more pleasant than commuting inches away from trucks,busses and cars...The people all seemed so fit, happy, relaxed...
    The air must smell sweet, the quiet from much fewer motor vehicles with less engine noise and honking horns....it should only happen here as well

  • Sprague

    Karen, I also share your admiration of Vienna's great public transit network (and it's very affordable, too - 365 euros gets you a year's pass!) and their improving bicycle network. In many/most central Viennese neighborhoods the bicycle or public transit is considerably faster than driving due to circuitous routes for private motor vehicles, significant difficulty in finding a cheap street parking spot, and congestion. However, for residents of many outer neighborhoods (ie. on the western side of the city) the urban environment remains one that favors cars (but to a lesser extent than in SF or any U.S. city). I know the discussion on this thread is primarily about urban transport, as opposed to inter-city transport, but it's worth pointing out that Austria as a country has been growing their highway network and shrinking their national rail infrastructure over the past twenty years or so. In 1995 I moved from the U.S. to Vienna. Around that time, there were about 500 cars/1000 residents in Austria (and there were about 750 cars/1000 residents in the U.S.). There were still trains connecting Austria's main cities that left every thirty minutes all day. The most recent statistic that I recall hearing is that Austria's automobile ownership rate is now much closer to that of the U.S.'s. Despite the growth in car ownership, mode share for the automobile (as a percentage of trips) has gone down significantly in Vienna over the past twenty years - due to that city's major investment in great public transit (ie. many new subway lines and other upgrades) and bicycle infrastructure, as you pointed out.

  • Clarence

    I have another short with David Hembrow and I bicycling from Assen to Groningen I'll be posting up in less than 2 weeks. It's kind of freeform and not as beautifully edited as this film, but it is a nice window into how the Netherlands take care of cyclists even between cities and towns.

  • Rebecca_A

    I hope you included the fietspad traveling behind the gas station and I hope you pointed out the space for a car to wait between the road and the bike path and the bike path and a driveway. A complaint vehicular cyclists make are those danger zones and they have figured it out in the Netherlands. Can't wait to see the next film.

  • Edward

    Brilliant film. Both inspiring and depressing at the same time.

  • Wait Whut

    Rubbish!

    America's grid-like cities are very easily converted for bicycles, only car-people hate giving up half a lane. That's all there's to it.

    I lived in a suburb of Groningen, 6 miles from the center. It had great cycling paths that went their own way, and merged seamlessly with the main road. Only difference with many US bike projects, is that in the Netherlands they have the separated bike-lane as the defacto standard, built-in the móment the roads undergo major maintenance.

    The Netherlands became véry car-centric in the 50's, 60's and 70's. Whole city blocks, especially those bombed in WW2 got the US-Style grid-setup (Rotterdam) and yet, the Dutch were able to get a good bike-infrastructure going after the 70's, despite the car-centric initial set-up of many cities.

    Going "oh, impossible because : America" is incredibly lazy thinking.

  • Wait Whut

    Heh, yeah.

    People that wear cycling-helmets are, generally, considered doofuses in the Netherlands.

    And yet, there are véry few serious cycling-related head injuries in The Netherlands.
    Scraped knees, yes, blue behind, yeah, that too. But head injuries? Nope.
    But then again, kids learn cycling from a véry young age. And to boot, cyclists in the Netherlands are very seldomly the high-speed pseudo "Tour de France" types. And those that are, are generally seen as a nuicance by the average cyclist.

    It's not some dare-devil speed sport to them, but just a mode of transport.

  • Wait Whut

    Then why comment? Some BDSM need?

  • Andy B from Jersey

    One of your best Streetfilms ever Clarence and the hit count reflects that! Nice work! What I find interesting is that in many locations the motor traffic was so minimal that bike lanes aren't necessary at all which is exactly what we all should be aiming for!

  • Andy

    Great film Clarence. Another great concise and visual piece of work we can learn from here in Leicester (UK). Groningen may not be Leicester and neither are New York, London or Curitiba - However, your films do help to stimulate, ideas, thought and action. 70+ viewings in 24 hours via the Ride Leicester facebook page is a good indicator that people are interested in well presented examples part or all of which may be appropriate for our city. Keep going !!

  • Bom Cabedal

    Admittedly, some of that is due to the general uselessness of public transport in the city.

  • Koji Brimm

    I noticed no helmets in the the film. Just like me in Seaside,CA. YAY!!

  • Landon Acriche

    What an incredible video! This video should serve as an inspiration to the rest of the world on how we can achieve sustainable, efficient transportation!

  • Daniel

    As a resident of Groningen (born and raised) I must say that this is a very well done piece! Good job :)

  • Lydia

    Haha! It's quite weird to see you make this all so special.. But keep in mind, that because there are so much bikes, there are also a lot of bike-thieves! At least twice a year I lose a bike that way. 😉

  • Sieb

    To add to this very nice picture of Groningen: Groningen now has traffic lights that give prio to bicycles when it's rainy!

  • c

    Nous nous sommes permis de diffuser cet excellent témoignage et d'en signaler le contenu pour les francophones. Vous trouverez les détails sur notre blog consacré au val de Loire (En France) http://bougezautrementablois.over-blog.com/2013/10/groningen-au-nord-des-pays-bas-la-capitale-du-v%C3%A9lo.html

  • Cal Registrado

    One day I'll leave there....

  • Shirley

    Clarence, thanks so much for this remarkable document. I was in Groningen over 15 years ago, and the pedestrianization in the town center was a great treat then. It's amazing how much it has advanced since that time in bicycle accommodation and use, definitely lump-in-throat producing! It's like entering never-never land. I'm sharing this with CB2M's Traffic/Transportation Committee both for their pleasure and to educate them in the real possibilities of positive transportation transformation.

  • EcoAdvocate

    Thank you for telling us about this city, great story. This is my new favorite StreetFilm!

  • EcoAdvocate

    Do people lock up their bikes? Register them with the police (hopefully easy, free!)?

  • EcoAdvocate

    name one step you can advocate for to improve the cycling conditions where you are: