I was in Utrecht for a couple of hours before I figured out what the strange noise was. It was silence – city centre at rush hour, and I couldn’t hear the sound of a single car, much less traffic. All around, the buzz and bluster of people heading home from work on a Friday evening, but no motor running, no horn blaring, no exhaust belching out fumes.
And everywhere, everywhere the whirr of bicycles.
Utrecht is a city of some 330,000 people in the centre of the Netherlands. It has a beautiful, compact medieval centre and its fair share of sights to see, but it’s an unprepossessing place and not on many people’s radar. Except for one thing – each year, when the world’s top cities for cycling are listed, Utrecht vies with Copenhagen for the top slot. The bike is king in Utrecht, with more journeys made by bike than any other form of transport, including the car.
IrishCycle.com had invited a group of cycling campaigners and politicians to travel to Utrecht to see how the city has become so successful in promoting cycling as a mode of transport. Our guide was Utrecht native, André Pettinga of Cyclemotions, who had been instrumental in many of those changes. Over the course of the weekend, we covered over 100km in and around the city on our rented bikes, getting a real sense of what makes Utrecht such a special and safe place to travel by bicycle.
In common with many other cities, from the 1950s Utrecht had designed itself around the car, building motorways through and around the old medieval centre. By the mid-nineties, the city was choked in traffic, and council officials decided there had to be a different and better way to allow their people to move around. They looked to the Netherlands’s rich history of cycling and decided to invest heavily in infrastructure that would make the bicycle a safe and enjoyable way to get from A to B.
Some of these projects were amazingly ambitious. A school was rebuilt to accommodate a cycling bridge of the Amsterdam–Rhine Canal – the cycle track is now the roof of the school. The world’s largest bike parking facility, with spaces for 12,500 bikes, was recently opened at Utrecht Central Station and is already fully subscribed. But most of the changes were small, thoughtful and made in consultation with the residents.
Fully segregated bike paths keep cyclist safe on busier roads, and smaller streets are redesigned as fietsstraads, or bike streets, where cars are allowed but treated as guests. These and a many other simple but clever changes make the streets of Utrecht a pleasure to cycle down.
And it’s difficult to overstate the effects. Bikes are everywhere and are used for everything. From ladies in high heels and skirts to families in cargo bikes, from eight-year-olds heading to school to eighty-year-olds with crutches strapped to the carrier, we saw every type of person using their bike to get around.
And despite the numbers of people moving, everything feels very human – people duck and weave with a touch of a brake or the ring of a bell, with a nod and a smile. There’s no aggression, there’s no snarl, it all just flows.
Research shows more tangible benefits as well. The Healthy Urban Living Program has estimated that the health benefits of cycling prevent 6,500 premature deaths per year in the Netherlands with huge savings in health expenditure to boot. Less air pollution and reduced noise levels add greatly to the liveability of the city, and city centre businesses are thriving with increased footfall. In fact, city officials estimate that cycling saves the city just over €250 million per year.
Are there lesson here for us to learn that can be applied in Waterford? When I observed to André that Waterford wasn’t Utrecht, his reply was “30 years ago, neither was Utrecht.”
The transformation was made through brave decisions, clever design and the support of the people of the city. With the development of the North Quays, our city is set to expand dramatically over the coming decade. We need to come to a decision about how we plan for that expansion – do we continue to design for the car and keep our thinking rooted in the 20th Century, or do we look for a better way forward?
Waterford Council’s ‘Transforming Waterford’ document, published just recently, shows an ambitious plan to make large parts of our beautiful city centre more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.
We have seen the sea-change that the Waterford Greenway has brought about since its opening earlier this year, and the council’s plan is to join this world-class amenity to an extension to New Ross through an integrated transport hub in the North Quays.
The possibility exists for Waterford to emulate Utrecht and to become the cycling capital of Ireland. Having seen for myself what that might look like, I hope that’s a vision that can be brought to pass.
Marc Ó Cathasaigh is a teacher in Glór na Mara NS in Tramore, and was the organiser of the #SafeSpaceforCycling event that took place in June of this year. He travelled to Utrecht in August as part of a study tour organised by IrishCycle.com.
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