From car city to clean mobility heaven

Rotterdam welcomes visitors peeking out of the central train station with two gifts: light and space.

Before their eyes, a wide sky opens up mirroring the New Meuse river below; all around, broad boulevards run like arteries to the city’s heart.

‘Limitless’ springs to mind. The same openness that once inspired Rotterdam’s overseas commercial fortune is now driving its swift path to clean mobility.

Yet only 30 years ago Rotterdam was your typical car city, with fossil-fuelled vehicles the primary means of transport in the decades following World War II.

As the urban area began to grow, however, so did congestion, traffic and pollution. ‘Enough’ declared city officials in the 1990s; the time had come to wean the city off its car dependence and foster a shift to clean transport.

A view of Rotterdam from the New Meuse river.

Options for success

On a recent Eurocities tour of Rotterdam, the changes looked impressive to visitors’ eyes.

If you would like to have less cars in the city, you need to make sure that public transport is available.
— Kevin van der Linden, Rotterdam’s Mobility Advisor. 

Walking around offered the Eurocities mobility team a sneak preview into the future of clean transport: bikes darting on their way to errands; pedestrian-only shopping areas; private cars outnumbered by trams and shared electric vehicles; tree-lined canals for idyllic strolls; shared electric vehicles neatly parked and ready for hire.

A picture out of a Green Deal dream.

Undoubtedly, the city’s morphological features give Rotterdam a considerable advantage: it’s easier to cycle in the Dutch flatland than in cities with challenging hills and steep climbs.

Cyclists riding in parallel to the tram tracks in Rotterdam.

And clean mobility here doesn’t need to contend with uneven cobblestone streets or compete with ancient architectural treasures: the 1940 German air bombing of Rotterdam wiped out the city centre and robbed it of its historical buildings.

The post-World War II reconstruction filled that void with extensive boulevards and a modern urban plan that today offers enviable space for cycling and walking.

Beyond these structural advantages, it was the municipality that drove Rotterdam’s soft mobility efforts by creating the right conditions that convinced residents to change the way they move around.

A bike passing near an electric charging station in Rotterdam.

“You always need to make sure that the alternative is there. If you would like to have less cars in the city, you need to make sure that public transport is available, otherwise the switch is impossible,” says Kevin van der Linden, Rotterdam’s Mobility Advisor. 

Pushing mobility forward

In spite of its obvious success, however, much remains to be done. Air and noise pollution, for example, still plague Rotterdam and in certain areas air quality doesn’t meet European standards.

We offer everyone the chance to be part of the city and its mobility efforts.
— Kevin van der Linden, Rotterdam’s Mobility Advisor. 

To achieve more ambitious climate objectives, in 2020 the city launched the new ‘Rotterdam Mobility Approach’ (RMA). The goal is to remain accessible while creating more space for healthy and active mobility.

The RMA plan rests on a series of pillars that strengthen previous actions and introduce new strategies.

A green walking path along a canal in Rotterdam.

The city will continue to create more cycling and walking paths to further boost active and healthy mobility.

It will expand public transport services to respond to the population’s growth, increase traffic safety by decreasing speed limits and re-direct car traffic away from the centre.

The RMA plan will also include efforts to broaden the mobility offer by allowing people to choose between parking their car and picking up a bike; cycling and then walking to their destination or parking their bicycle to take public transport.

Creating new green areas and promoting zero-emission logistics are among the dozen other measures listed in the new strategy.

Actively engaging the local population is another key ingredient to success, Van der Linden says: “We offer everyone the chance to be part of the city and its mobility efforts.”

In the past and, much like other municipalities, Rotterdam had to contend with residents resisting change; however efforts often paid off, the Mobility Advisor says.

Cyclists in Rotterdam.

One of (shared transport’s) clear advantages is the amount of space that it frees up.
— Kevin van der Linden, Rotterdam’s Mobility Advisor. 

Van der Linden recounts, for example, how the city banned cars from parking in front of certain stores. “Shop owners didn’t initially agree that previous parking spots were now accommodating plants or bikes. But after a while, they saw that the number of clients to their shops didn’t become any lower because more people could park their bikes in front of them. In some cases, the number of visitors to the shops even increased instead of decreasing,” he explains.

New challenges

Over the next few years, Rotterdam will need to plough on with its soft mobility plans if it is to meet the needs of its rapidly expanding population.

These days everyone seems to want to move here. The city is expected to soon grow from 650,000 to 700,000 people; some 18,000 new homes will be built in 2022 and 50,000 by 2040. The demographic increase will mean more people moving around town.

Add to that the 150,000 commuters who arrive in Rotterdam by train every day.

For Van der Linden, the rise in mobility demand will be one of the major challenges ahead.

The bike parking underneath Rotterdam’s central station.

The impressively large bike parking deep in the belly of the central train station already provides an answer to emerging needs. Located just underneath the rail tracks, the space hosts over 5,000 bikes neatly stored along with two-tier racks that extend as far as the eye can see.

Built in 2013, the structure allows people to cycle to the station, park their bikes and then proceed to their destination by train or public transport.

Convincing residents to give up on their cars when reaching a destination outside of Rotterdam is another issue on top of city officials’ agenda, the Mobility Advisor says: “You may be able to use public transport because you live next to it (in the city), but if you go to visit friends or family in a rural area you might face a challenge to get there without a car.”

By expanding its shared mobility offer, the city is hoping to provide answers to long-distance transfers, van der Linden says. Shared electric bicycles, scooters and cars can be rented anywhere in town and offer an alternative to those in need of a vehicle for longer rides on an occasional basis.

A shared electric scooter in Rotterdam.

Shared transport will also help create extra room in a city that continues to grow, van der Linden explains: “One of (shared transport’s) clear advantages is the amount of space that it frees up. A shared bicycle used by six people on the same day is only taking one space instead of six.”

Rotterdam’s overarching soft mobility strategy further extends to builders of new housing complexes.

“We give developers the opportunity to get a discount on the number of parking spots that will be created if the building in construction is close to public transport,” explains van der Linden. Other incentives include discounts for parking spots that will be dedicated to shared vehicles and bicycles.”

Moving through the river

Water is an essential element in Rotterdam; for centuries it has been holding the key to its fortune.

Ships and containers in Rotterdam.

In the 17th century, with the opening of new sea routes connecting Europe to the Indies, the Dutch city became a major international maritime centre thanks to its privileged location just 30 kilometres from the North Sea.

Three-masted sea giants, propelled by their inflated sails and commercial ambitions, raised anchor here on their way to the East.

Today the Rotterdam port is the largest in Europe and the biggest container harbour of the continent, employing some 180,000 people.

Water taxis and water ferry services shuttle along the New Meuse; the water infrastructure helps speed up connections by providing links between the city and surrounding municipalities.


Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer