The bicycle has long been central to the Dutch way of life, and now other European cities are following suit. But the move away from cars is also meeting with resistance.
Groningen is a haven for cyclists. Very few cars cruise the streets of the northern Dutch city, home to nearly 240,000 people. Instead, many residents use the extensive network of cycling lanes and highways to reach their destination quickly and calmly.
“Back in the ’70s, the center of Groningen was totally different than today,” said Roeland van der Schaaf, a former alderman for spatial development, remembering the car-filled streets of his youth. “We decided that it had to stop. We chose to make a city traffic plan where our center was divided in four parts, and it was not possible to move from one part to the other with the car, only by foot or by bike.”
Van der Schaaf said Groningen was one of the first cities in Europe to rethink the use of the town center and consider human-centered planning. Today, it’s ranked one of the happiest cities in the world.
“We asked the people: ‘What kind of streets do you want?’ And that’s a different question than, ‘Where do you want to park your car?’,” van der Schaaf told REV, DW’s auto and mobility show. “And a lot of people said: Oh, we like to see a street where children can play, where there are some trees, where it’s nice and easy to meet your neighbor. When you start with that question, the discussion will change.”
Since bikes have been given the right of way in Groningen, accidents are rare, and children often cycle to school alone. Thanks to free bicycle parking and affordable bike rentals, many commuters from the surrounding region have also chosen to take the train into the city and, from there, pedal to their jobs.
Barcelona making space to ‘move differently’
Increasingly, other European cities are taking inspiration from the concept pioneered in Groningen. In Barcelona, for example, the city has closed off certain areas — known as “superblocks” — to through traffic by car. Exceptions have been made for local residents and deliveries.
Intersections that were once dominated by cars have been transformed into revitalized green squares, complete with benches and safe places for children to play. Locals are happy to sit with a book or chat with friends, enjoying the space without the overwhelming noise of traffic.
“The benefits are superior, without the shadow of a doubt,” said a father pushing a stroller through a plaza crowded with playing children near the Sant Antoni Market. “Above all, these people are bringing the city to life. People feel more like they own the street, and the truth is you feel much more alive than before.”
By 2030, the Spanish metropolis wants to transform a total of 500 neighborhoods, and close off every third street to through traffic. This will reduce noise and air pollution, especially carbon dioxide emissions, and improve health and quality of life for the city’s nearly 6 million residents, said Janet Sanz, deputy mayor responsible for ecology, urbanism and mobility.
“What has to happen in our streets is that people get more space to walk, to play, to be or to carry out economic activities,” she said. “But we also need more space for public transport, to ride the bicycle and to move differently.”
Paris cycling plans ‘bringing life’ back to the city
Paris has also introduced plans to support the climate, sustainable transport and improve quality of life, giving over space formerly reserved for car traffic to pedestrians and cyclists. At the same time, it’s doubling the city’s metro network to cover some 450 kilometers (280 miles). With more than 12 million people, the French metropolitan area is one of the most densely populated in Europe.
Where cars once idled in traffic, joggers now crowd the banks of the Seine in an area completely free of vehicular traffic. “Only pedestrians and cyclists can use this space,” said cyclist, Altis Play, speaking with REV. “It’s bringing a lot of life.”
The plans were championed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo who, since taking office in 2014, has overseen the construction of more than 1,000 kilometers of cycling lanes and dropped the general speed limit across the city to 30 kilometers per hour (about 18 miles per hour).
To improve the city’s air quality, diesel-powered cars will be banned from the city starting next year, and from 2030 only electric vehicles will be allowed within city limits.
“The role of bikes in a city like Paris is very crucial. The role of cars is not a factor in the center of cities, in the high-density zone,” said Carlos Moreno, an urban planner and professor at the city’s Sorbonne University, who has advocated for the concept of walkable neighborhoods and the 15-minute livable city.
Critics of cycling plans must be taken ‘seriously’
More and more cities are following the examples set by Groningen, Barcelona and Paris, but many motorists have pushed back. They’re not happy with plans to take away road space to create more room for bikes and pedestrians — especially when the plans are first introduced.
Olga Iban, who runs a Porsche garage in downtown Barcelona, misses the city’s old circulation plan, which she called “practically perfect.”
“You used to be able to drive across Barcelona in 35 minutes maximum,” she said. “Now it takes 1 hour and 45 minutes.”
Nuria Paricio, head of the Barcelona Oberta Tourism Association, is concerned about what the new focus on cyclists will do to local economy. “We are designating superblocks without even carrying out an economic impact report, which we asked for from the start,” she said, adding that Barcelona’s former street layout, a successful plan “studied over the world,” didn’t need to change.
“What we see in all these changes […] is that people resist. We have to take that seriously. They resist, because some people will lose something,” said Marco te Brommelstroet, a professor of urban mobility at the University of Amsterdam.
But because of growing car use, he added, “children have been losing their freedom for decades, but they don’t have a voice.”
Speaking with REV, he likened the current heated discussions to the debates in the Netherlands in the 1970s and ’80s, when cities like Groningen began rethinking their streets. The lessons learned back then have made him optimistic that these plans can work elsewhere.
“We still have to allocate the traffic required for people that really need it. But all the other things that are lost, like the freedom to go through the city with your personal private vehicle as fast as possible, yeah, you will lose that,” he said.
“But for so many others and even yourself, you will win so much as well. We need to [listen to] all these people who currently don’t have a voice — the silent majority that has actually been losing out for decades.”
EU pushes to support cycling ‘revolution’
Frans Timmermans, the EU’s climate policy chief, spoke of the cycling “revolution” in Europe in June 2022 — a development that was, in part, driven by the COVID pandemic. With many people working from home, cities around the world gave some of the empty lanes of traffic over to other forms of transport. And in many places, that move has become permanent.
This past February, the European Parliament voted almost unanimously to double the number of kilometers cycled in Europe by 2030. The European Commission now wants to develop a cycling strategy for the bloc and declare 2024 to be the European Year of Cycling.
Cycling hasn’t just increased in Europe, but all over the world, said Angela Francke, a professor specialized in cycling and local mobility at the University of Kassel, in central Germany. “The e-bike has caught on. Even people who aren’t in the best shape are able to use electric bicycles to travel up hills and over longer distances,” she told DW.
E-bikes have boosted the transition to cycling for many people, and helped to make many urban destinations easier to reach by bike than by car. “Most trips are under 5 kilometers, and the bicycle is the fastest means of transport for these trips,” said Francke.
Francke added that besides being environmentally friendly and keeping people in shape, cycling has another benefit. “Steady biking, moving the pedals up and down, that has a positive mental effect,” she said. “It clears the mind.”