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The Future of Carbon-Free Transport: Groningen, Netherlands
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by Warren Karlenzig

The future of carbon-free transport lives strong in Groningen. This Dutch city of 185,000 proves that bicycle transportation can reign supreme: people there make about 150,000 trips by bicycle every day.

Bicycles and pedestrians entirely rule the medieval-era city hub, cruising along on car-free dedicated pathways and short cuts with no traffic signals in some instances. But people also commute on bikes in large numbers from suburban housing spread out around the city to downtown jobs, via a ring-and-spoke network of paths. Overall, 37 percent of area commutes are made on bikes.

Boasting an official town bicycle planner, Groningen has created an infrastructure it refers to "continuous and integral," which includes massive surface and underground bicycle parking facilities, dedicated bike paths, and two-way bike lanes even on one-way auto streets.

Since the early 1980s, 30 city bicycle parking facilities have been developed, including one underground facility at the central train station that sells bikes, repairs bikes and offers valet and secure parking for more than 4,000 bikes. Parking is financed through a low-cost annual membership program that costs $50 a year, while bike valet positions create significant numbers of jobs at the public parking facilities and also at 15 local schools.

Bike parking and paths, however, are only the physical manifestation of the careful cycling cultural nourishment that has been provided by city leaders collaborating with citizens. In 1986 Groningen developed what is believed to be Europe’s first dedicated bike policy document, which focused on a broad spectrum of bike transportation and awareness programs. Educational programs now include teaching the health and economic benefits of cycling.

"We think we can boost the numbers of cyclists even higher," said bicycle planner Cor van der Klaauw on Josh Hart’s Car Free Blog. "We have programs to introduce new immigrants to cycling. Many of them came from places where the car is the ultimate status symbol. We need to show them that in Holland, they can get around very easily by bicycle, status symbols aside."

Groningen's bicycle planning has not occurred in a vacuum, but rather complements an integrated scheme that includes low-priced parking facilities for cars, strong public transport and careful public transit linkages between car parking areas and centers for employment and education. With these amenities, cars use, especially in the city center, was successfully restricted without impacting local business.

Other so-called northern European "cycling cities" may be more known (Amsterdam; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Ghent, Belgium) but none can match Groningen for its complete vision and high rate of daily velocipedic participation.

The Netherlands averages a 26 percent national cycling rate, Denmark scores just under 20 percent and Germany achieves about 10 percent, according to a report published by Dutch research group Fietsberaad (Number 7).

While bicycles in the US currently comprise only 0.4 percent of all commuter trips, some North American cities are actively promoting bicycle transportation--through planning dedicated mapped routes and facilities--as a way of reducing global climate change-causing carbon emissions. San Francisco, for instance, has announced a goal of having bicycle trips make up 10 percent of all city trips by 2010.

What’s behind the high rates in Europe, besides the history of bicycle use and culture? According to Fietsbaraad: "Accepting the cyclist as a 'normal' traffic participant with equal rights in the '50s and '60s has been a crucial factor; (so has) the realization of a motor car infrastructure (that) is not at the expense of the cyclist….”

Warren Karlenzig is Chief Strategy Officer at SustainLane, where he directs the company’s US city rankings, and SustainLane Government, an open-source best practices sustainability knowledgebase for state and local government officials and their constituents. Warren is lead author of the newly released How Green Is Your City? The SustainLane U.S. City Rankings (New Society Publishers). His blog is

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Cycling is the single best way to tackle not only climate change and urban air pollution, but a myriad of other civilizational plagues, such as obesity, social disintegration and neuroses of all kinds.

I read a while ago that an action group in Belgium wants "high speed" bicycle lanes connecting small cities to the capital, Brussels, in a perimeter of 20 kilometres. The effect of such dedicated, straight lanes have been assessed and would tackle many congestion and other traffic related problems. Apparently, a lot of people are even willing to commute to work on a bicycle, pedalling 40 kilometres each day!

Posted by: Gio on 16 Jun 07

Here is an appeal to smart readers of and especially to those who are drawn to this particular essay.

One problem in India is the number of two wheel motorized vehicles - vespas. motorbikes, mopeds etc. along with many more muscle powered bicycles. Any bike path that we may build will be compromised with motorized two wheelers abusing and misusing them especially in rural India. Enforcement is impossible - leave that option alone.

For a few years I have been s thinking through a bicycle path design that will allow muscle powered transport - walking, roller blading, and bicycles but prevent motorised vehicles by design and not by enforcement.

One complication is that in rural india, a bicycle is a livlihood earner where petty vendors transport their basket of wares or pails of liquids (milk etc) so these contraptions are heavy and bulky.

I have considered elevated paths where you need to go up a few steps, slalom path where it is easy for bicycles to zigzag but hard for faster motorized vehicles etc.

I will appreciate creative low cost solutions to this porblem. The goal is to get local communities in building stretches of these pathways themselves by providing them training, incentives, equipment and materials so that they are vested in the infrastructure. This model can work in any third world rural setting.

Funding for such 5 kilometers to 10 kilometers stretches is a relatively minor problem compared to the design and execution.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 16 Jun 07



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