Utrecht Journal: If You Build It, the Dutch Will Pedal


“What the Danes and the Dutch do now is what people in most cities in the world did for decades,” said Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban design expert and c.e.o. of Copenhagenize Design Company, which releases the biennial index of bike-friendly cities.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands, more than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, and the federal government has been building up its bike infrastructure over the last decade, despite cuts in other sectors.

The yearly investment of roughly 500 million euros, proponents say, pays for itself by reducing health, social and other costs.

The increased infrastructure has led to an increase in people using their bikes daily, and contributes to the reduction of road accidents for cars and bikes.

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The second part of the world’s largest underground bicycle parking garage is being built in Utrecht.

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Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

While promoting biking used to be an issue for more progressive political parties, recent successes have made it one of broad agreement in mainstream politics.

“All politicians now take cycling seriously,” said Mark Wagenbuur, a well-known blogger and bike activist.

In a country where there are more bikes than people — 22.5 million vs. 18 million — daily usage has grown by 11 percent in the last decade, mostly because of the introduction of electric bikes, which lengthens the time many older people can use two-wheel transportation.

Deadly bike accidents have decreased, by 21 percent, over the last two decades, according to state figures. Much of that is attributed to less competition with motor vehicles — the more people ride, the safer it gets.

More important for the nation’s bottom line, the country’s preference for the bicycle could save its economy 19 billion euros each year, according to a recent study done at Utrecht University and published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study suggested that the Netherlands’ vigorous cycling habits prevented 6,500 premature deaths each year.

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Most of the 6,000 spaces in the first part of the world’s largest bike parking garage filled quickly when it opened last month in Utrecht.

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Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

“Biking saves medical costs since biking contributes to people’s overall physical activity levels, and getting sufficient physical activity prevents against many noncommunicable diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and some types of cancers,” wrote Dr. Carlijn Kamphuis, the study’s lead author, wrote in an email exchange.

Frans Jan van Rossem, Utrecht’s head of bicycle programming, put it another way. “Our revenue is healthy people, less traffic and beautiful living,” he said.

Under Mr. van Rossem’s watch, the city has expanded its bike network and has made innovations that have brought the average number of daily bike trips to 125,000. The city estimates these are worth an estimated 250 million euros in socioeconomic benefits that include health care savings, reduced air pollution and increased productivity.

“It didn’t fall from the cold blue sky,” said Ms. van Hooijdonk, the vice mayor, whose yearly city budget includes an average 46 million euros for bike infrastructure projects and improvements.

Not everyone, though, thinks the battle is won. Milieudefensie, a crowd-funded group of environmentalists, took the federal government to court last month over air quality, which it says is far below that called for by the European Union.

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The Dafne Schipper bike bridge over the Amsterdam Rhine River incorporates the roof of a school.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Utrecht, like many other European cities, spent several postwar decades trying to make automobile use easier.

The effort included building a four-lane highway over centuries-old canals, making space for parked cars on its narrow cobblestone streets, and planning for a highway that was to cross the medieval city’s cathedral square.

Decades later, the concept of progress looks quite different.

At Dafne-Schippers, a new elementary school named for the Dutch sprinter, the green roof serves as an access ramp to a 110-meter bicycle and pedestrian bridge that crosses the Amsterdam Rhine canal, a major water thoroughfare. Yet children playing recently during recess hardly seemed to notice the steady stream of cyclists.

A 15-minute bike ride from City Hall (which, like all other newly built buildings has its own biking garage — this one for 1,650 bikes), a small start-up, Springlabs, is trying to perfect a device that tells bikers how hard to pedal to catch the next green light.

“Cities want to innovate, said Jan-Paul de Beer, the company’s director. They want to do new stuff to make the cycling experience even better.”

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A special section in Utrecht’s new underground bike parking garage is for bigger bikes, which usually have children’s seats attached.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

His traffic control system, Flo, is being tested in Utrecht, Eindhoven and soon in Antwerp, Belgium.

Finding bike parking in Utrecht’s medieval downtown can be made easier by a smartphone app or a glance at the large digital street signs that show those garages with empty bike parking spots.

“These old cities weren’t made for cars,” Mr. Wagenbuur said.

Utrecht’s cycling network includes nearly 250 miles of dedicated bike lanes. Large signs alert car drivers that they are merely guests on these roads, and should limit their speed to less than 20 miles per hours.

Besides its sheer size, the Utrecht Central station biking garage boasts several innovations. Cyclists can check in and find their spot while riding their bikes. Sensors on the racks give real-time information, making finding a free spot during rush hour much easier.

The project’s cost, 40 million euro, was paid not just by the municipality, but also by the region and the national train service, which recognizes that increasing the availability of bike parking leads to an increase in riders.

“Cycling is like a piece of magic: it only has advantages,” said Ms. van Hooijdonk, who like the majority of Utrecht’s residents commutes to work by bike.

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