Why Every City Should be a Bike City

By Elias Treumann | June 7, 2022

Photo by Matt Saling on Unsplash

In all honesty, riding a bike in most German cities takes some getting used to. I had to learn early how to adjust riding through heavy car traffic without protective bike-lanes or drivers even remotely concerned for my safety. After a while, I came to accept that cars passing me at 50 km/h at less than an arm’s length will just be a normal thing during my daily commutes. This experience has taught me that we should value and appreciate the Dutch approach of prioritizing cyclists and pedestrians over car traffic.

That is because, after moving here, I became aware that it doesn’t necessarily have to be dangerous to ride your bike. Having lived in Groningen now for about nine months has opened my eyes to how sensible the “radical” idea of constructing a bike-centric instead of a car-centric city is. Groningen has showed me how easy, convenient, and efficient commuting by bike can be. So if there is one thing other countries should copy from the Netherlands, it is definitely the traffic system. Especially Groningen is a prime example of how many positive implications this would have.

Firstly, cycling in Groningen is much safer than in most German cities. To ensure this, the city’s approach is as simple as it is brilliant: Just separate bike- from car traffic! The network of broad, 2-lane bike paths is such an integral part of the city’s mobility concept that cyclists get into dangerous proximity to cars very rarely. Dutch people may take this for granted, but I can’t stress enough how pleasant it is to be able to cycle to university (even with your headphones) without having to worry about ending up on the windshield of a nearly 3-ton SUV.

Another important aspect in this regard is the speed and flow of traffic. In Germany, the general speed limit in cities is 50 km/h. And while 30 km/h zones exist, they are often confined to residential areas and leave cyclists on the main arteries of traffic feeling like small fish among sharks. One approach of cyclists fond of life and bodily health is often to adapt to the sharks in terms of speed to limit the amount of dangerous overtaking maneuvers. On my commutes, I would reach speeds of 40-50 km/h fairly regularly, in part also due to little bumps in the earth that we have in Germany called “hills” (the absence of which is another factor contributing to the easiness of biking here). However, the consequences if accidents do happen at these kinds of speeds are often much more severe than if you happened to fall off your omafiets in slow but steady traffic.

Apart from the highly increased safety for cyclists, Groningen’s approach of placing the bike at the center of urban mobility has a great effect on the quality of life within the city as well. One of the more noticeable features of this is the noise pollution. Since cars and other motor vehicles are the main source of noise in a city, it still is remarkable to me how quiet the city center is in comparison to other similar-sized urban environments. By funneling car traffic around the center, Groningen city-planners have succeeded to remove a lot of the otherwise ever-present hum of cars, trucks, and motorbikes. I am not going to quote up and down any of the countless studies on the negative health effects of constant noise pollution, let me just be very subjective in saying that I much prefer the sounds of conversation, music or bike bells over cars roaring past every few seconds.

In all the praise however, we must keep in mind that Groningen has not always been this way. Up to the 70s, it was just a car-infested city like any other, with Vismarkt being a parking lot stuffed full of cars taking up enormous amounts of space for example. In contrast to most cities in Germany though, this problem was identified in 1972 by the new left-leaning government of the city, who put forward a plan to make the city-center car-free. This was done by dividing the center into four distinct sectors while prohibiting motor vehicles to travel from one sector to another, instead forcing them to take the above-mentioned longer route around the outside. 50 years ago already, this administration laid the foundation for the traffic system in place today.

At the time though, this plan was highly controversial. Many business owners outright threatened to leave the city if cars would not be able to drive up to and park in front of their shops. But the world didn’t collapse, and as far as I know at least, Groningen apparently still hasn’t descended into chaos and anarchy.

The example of Groningen shows that a radical transformation of urban mobility away from the car as the primary mode of transport is entirely realistic and doable, given the political ambition and willingness of the population to give a chance to a new approach to transportation. Cars in urban transport are outdated. I believe that if people in other countries were aware of the common sense employed in the Netherlands in this regard, we could come a long way to make many cities more liveable again. Not only that, the general approach of finding efficient and real-life applicable alternatives to fossil fuel-based mobility will be a hugely important factor in light of the rapidly escalating climate crisis, and Groningen is far ahead of most cities in this regard. So I hope that you all can recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of the traffic system you live in. Future city planners around the world should look to the Netherlands for inspiration and keep in mind that cities should be made suitable for people, not for cars.