© Gemeente Utrecht

A path to wheel urban development

“There are nine million bicycles in Beijing, that’s a fact, it’s a thing we can’t deny,” croons Katie Melua in her album Piece by Piece.

An impressive figure no doubt. However, as it turns out, Melua might have done better to sing about the Netherlands – the only country in the world that has more bicycles than people.

Of course, that’s when finding a parking spot begins to get a little complicated…

In Utrecht, where 60% of all trips to the city centre are made by bike, they came up with a rather straight forward solution:

To build the world’s biggest bicycle park!

“Utrecht is a cycling friendly city,” comments Frans Jan van Rossem, programme manager cycling and walking, for the city of Utrecht.

“The population is 350,000 people and on a daily basis there are 125,000 cyclists passing through downtown Utrecht.”In fact, according to the city’s deputy mayor, Lot van Hooijdonk, “for all the traffic through the city centre, only about 12-15% is by car.”

The Stationpleinstalling

Located under the city’s central station, the stationpleinstalling, the city’s new bicycle park, is so big it has to be divided across three floors – cyclists can actually ride their bike through a one way system within the complex and smart technologies help guide them to free spaces via an app and digital signs.

Inside there is room for more than 12,500 bicycles. What’s more, in a bid to encourage greater use of cycling, storage is free – at least for the first 24 hours, and then it’s only €1.25 per day after that.

“The whole idea,” explains Mark Wagenbuur, a blogger and cycling ambassador, is “to get cars out of the city centre, park at the edge of the city, or go into it and then pay the full price, but don’t go through the city.”

The storage facility also includes 1,000 shared bicycles that are available for hire via your rail card, which makes the connection between the different types of transport all the easier and encourages people to ride their bike during the ‘last mile’ of longer journeys. It also offers a full service, including security and bicycle repairs, employing around 40 staff in total.

Last year, 6,000 journeys were made on shared bicycles from the stationpleinstalling every week, and occupancy rates of the storage facilities is already high – with the current allocation of spaces often being completely full up.

Across the city there are now parking facilities for 32,000 bicycles, yet, inhabitants’ love of two wheels is such that the city realises more needs to be done – and so an expansion plan is already set in motion for 2025!

Cities for people

The humble wheel is often referred to as the best invention of humankind. In urban societies most of us rely on its various forms to get around. We glide on rails, we recount nursery rhymes to our children who are envious of the conductor, we yell at our fellow road users as we are caught in another traffic jam.

City administrations encourage this use of different modes of transport, including walking, yet, increasingly, it is a nineteenth century invention, the humble bicycle, that is taking centre stage in urban mobility.

“I’m really fond of cycling,” says van Hooijdonk, “because it has so many positives. It’s about the noise, it’s about clean air, about climate, but also about how friendly it is in a city. You really have the idea that people are the boss on the street and not machines.”

Utrecht’s Stationpleinstalling was the result of a collaboration between the Municipality of Utrecht, ProRail and Dutch Railways. Together with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, they invested the resources and effort to make the park possible.

In total, the park cost over €30 million – at over €2,400 per parking space, it is still a lot cheaper than car parking facilities!

Moreover, as van Rossem explains, “For every car you can put in 12 bikes for example, so 12 people, and everyone driving a car usually drives it by themselves; they take up a lot of space.”

Healthy urban living for everyone

As more and more people move to urban areas, challenges around congestion, air pollution and meeting climate commitments increase.

By 2040, the population of Utrecht is set to increase by 100,000 people. However, having taken a city level decision to accommodate its expansion within the current city boundaries, the city has also made a very conscious decision about its future development.

According to Chris Bruntlett, marketing manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, “Utrecht in a lot of ways is really emblematic of an entire country that really made a very resolute decision in the 1970s to not build their cities around the automobile.”

The use of bicycles is a clear opportunity to improve air quality and to gain space in a city.

As van Rossem describes, “we’re trying to make more roads suitable for bicycles, so people have a choice. We are rebuilding streets, turning them into 30kmph streets, closing them down, one direction or both directions, so we make room for pedestrians and cyclists.”

However, this is only part of the city’s overarching strategy to move towards ‘healthy urban living for everyone,’ which gives public health priority in all fields of policy making.

The city has also, for instance, created the Netherlands’ first fully low-emission zone by banning old diesel trucks, vans and cars from entering the historical city centre.

‘We Drive Solar’ is a project led by Utrecht entrepreneur Robin Berg. The idea is that cars store and use locally produced solar energy, not inconsiderably reducing emissions. Through bidirectional charging, the cars are actually able to feed their surplus energy back into the local electrical grid when they are standing still, such as overnight. As the first example of this type of smart solar charging in the world, We Drive Solar is a living lab for the development of new technologies. The city is already working with companies such as general Electric, Tesla and Renault and is looking for ways to scale up the project.

And beyond mobility, the ambition of healthy urban living, means working with the knowledge, experience and creativity of the people, companies and institutions of Utrecht (and other cities) in a completely new way.

Clearly the results already speak for themselves.

And, as Katie Melua would say, “that’s a fact, it’s a thing we can’t deny.”

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer