In recent years, U.S. cities have made great strides in creating bike-friendly infrastructure that encourages residents to leave their car at home and travel everywhere by bike, one of the best ways to save energy. But in many areas, transportation policy still focuses on automobiles, which means that adding bike lanes and storage areas becomes an afterthought for city planning officials, rather than something that is integral to the urban lifestyle.
The same cannot be said about Groningen, a city in the Netherlands, where a combination of happenstance and innovative urban planning have produced a thriving bike culture unlike any in the United States. Nearly 50 percent of trips in Groningen are made using bicycles, and in the city's compact center, hardly any cars can be seen. Instead, commuters use their bikes to go to work and run errands.
What led Groningen to become so bike-centric?
The city used to be a fortress town that controlled the flow of traffic into Germany, and it was constructed within the walls of that fortress. This meant that rather than building out and creating sprawl, the city built inward and up, making it denser and more compact. Then, in the 1970's, Groningen was divided into four quadrants, and cars were forbidden from traveling directly from one quadrant to another. Instead, auto traffic was diverted to a circular road around the city, which made such commutes take significantly longer than traveling by bike.
Additionally, the city created numerous bike lanes and parking areas for those bicycles, providing further incentives for residents to travel on two wheels rather than four.
What can American cities learn from Groningen's experience?
One of the main reasons that similar policies aren't enacted in this country is intense political opposition to anything that would limit car traffic. For example, when New York recently implemented its Citi Bikes bicycle sharing program, shopkeepers all over Manhattan and Brooklyn protested that the creation of more bike lanes and the removal of parking spots would scare away customers and cause businesses to lose money. Similar political controversy in other communities has created a situation in which bike advocates are fighting an uphill battle for even the most basic accommodations such as dedicated lanes and parking areas.
But Groningen's urban planners dealt with the same controversy when the quadrant system was first developed, and stuck to their plan anyway. The Atlantic Cities, an urban lifestyle website, points out that the same interest groups, mostly businesses, opposed the policy, claiming that they would lose out on revenue. Some threatened to leave entirely.
"Wonder of wonders, the world didn't collapse," Greg Ashworth, a professor at the University of Groningen, tells the source. "The shops didn't leave the city. The police found, yes, people could learn how to handle this plan. People adapted to it."
What policies would create a better biking experience in U.S. communities?
American urban planners can do more to incentivize denser development and up-zoning, relieving building height limits and parking minimums that contribute to sprawl. Areas such as Los Angeles and Silicon Valley are fairly expansive, so the key is to create localized communities with better bike infrastructure, taller buildings and more toll roads that encourage residents to abandon cars in favor of walking and bicycles.
Unfortunately, European lifestyles are sometimes stigmatized in the U.S. as being less robust and more minimalist, but if Americans want to enjoy cleaner air, green living and healthier lifestyles, there's a lot we can learn from countries like The Netherlands and Denmark that have done a good job of incorporating these features into their urban environments.