Groningen, the northernmost city in the Netherlands, is famous for having the highest percentage of bicycle use in the Western world. An estimated 57 % of the 190,000 residents use bicycles as their main form of daily transportation within the city. 59 % of all journeys within the city are made by bicycle.
For comparison: those figures are around 37 % in Copenhagen and Münster, 15 % in Hannover, 9 % in Hamburg but less than 1 % in most American cities.
You sometimes see variations in these figures, depending on what it counted as what, but the trend is clear: Groningen is always at or near the top of the list, along with other Dutch cities such as Zwolle, Leeuwarden and Leiden.
How did this happen? It helps that Groningen is flat and has a large student population, but the main reason is that for the past forty-five years the city administration has had a consistent policy of encouraging bicycle traffic and creating the infrastructure to make it possible. Cars are largely banned from the city center and there is an extensive network of safe, convenient bicycle routes fanning out in all directions.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Groningen must have been an unpleasant place in the 1950s and 60s. There were no restrictions on cars being driven through the center of the city and there were hardly any cycle routes. In the 1960s they even started building motorways right into the city itself.
The turning point came in 1972, when the old car-loving politicians were voted out of office and a new local government changed the emphasis of planning. The center of the city was designated as the “living room” and town planning was integrated with transport policy. In 1977 a six-lane motorway intersection in the city center was replaced by greenery, pedestrian zones, cycle paths and bus lanes.
Now it is no longer possible to drive a car through the city center, because the only way out by car is the way you came in. Many streets are completely closed to private cars.
New housing developments were purposely built close to the center and equipped with safe, direct and convenient bicycle routes. Reportedly 78% of residents and 90% of employees now live within 3 km of the center, so that cycling is the ideal means of transportation for most journeys.
Brugstraat (Bridge Street) is a main cycling street for those coming into the city from the west. It is a good place to get an impression of the volume of bicycle traffic entering and leaving the city center. Location of Brugstraat on Google Maps.
The Vismarkt (Fish Market) is an enlongated long car-free public square in the center of Groningen. It used by numerous cyclists. Location of Vismarkt on Google Maps
The Nieuwe Ebbingestraat is one of the main bicycle routes coming into Groningen from the north, yet it has no bicycle lanes and is also used (in one direction only) by cars, buses and motorcycles. Nonetheless, cyclists are clearly in the majority.
The reason for this is that the Nieuwe Ebbingestraat is part of a direct route for cyclists into the city center. For cars, it is not a direct route to anywhere except the P-Route, or parking route, which circles the inner city. Along the P-route, digital signs indicate whether or not space is available in the car parks (‘vol’ or ‘vrij’). If a car park is full (‘vol’), motorists are told to follow the parking route on to the next one.
When I was in Groningen I rode on the Nieuwe Ebbingestraat several times and never felt threatened by the few cars that were also using the street. Location of Nieuwe Ebbingestraat on Google Maps.
With so many people riding bicycles, it comes as no surprise that there are numerous bicycle shops in Groningen. The only one I actually went to was this one in the photo, which I naively thought was called “Hoofdingang” because that’s what it says over the door. Later I realized that “Hoofdingang” simply means “main entrance”, similar to the German word “Haupteingang”. (There is another entrance around to the side, which gets you into their repair shop.) What I was looking for was a luggage strap, which I bought there for a very reasonable price.
Here are some more bike shops that I noticed while I was riding around Groningen.
Groningen does not have a local on-street bike-sharing system (and probably doesn’t need one), so I rented a bike from my hotel for 8 Euros per day. I could have rented one for half a Euro less at the station, but it was more convenient to rent from the hotel because I could simply leave it there on my last evening when I was finished riding.
Since I live in a city that has no bicycle parking facilities at the central station (which in the 21st century is a scandalous situation), I am always amazed at the marvelous facilities that other cities have to offer, not only in the Netherlands but also in German cities such as Münster and Freiburg.
According to David Hembrow’s blog, the central railway station in Groningen has parking for around ten thousand bicycles, which works out to one space for every 19 people who live in the city. (And he adds: “You can work out a comparable ratio for your own town.”)
The main bicycle garage is roofed over and has a sign at the entrance showing how many spaces are still available in each of the five sections. When I rode in one afternoon, four of the sections were full, but in section B there were still a few spaces available, so I quickly found one, parked my bike, locked it and noted down the number of the space (B 132 or some such) so I would be able to find my bike again afterwards.
Bike parking here is free. There are several guards on duty, but since they can’t keep an eye on all ten thousand bikes at once you do have to lock your bike when you have parked it. The parking racks are constructed in such a way that it is easy to park your bike, even on the upper level, without much lifting.
In addition to the main parking facility, which was built in 2006, there is an additional bicycle garage called the Fietsflat, which accommodates an additional thousand bikes on two levels.
Even though there are ten thousand free parking racks for bicycles, some people prefer the added security of guarded parking in a bicycle shop. This is possible for a small fee at the Rijwiel bike shop in the station, where they also have bicycles for rent.
On the Museum Island, which forms the main walking and cycling route between the city center and the railway station, there is a drawbridge which is raised occasionally to let a boat or barge pass through. When this happens a warning sounds, lights flash, gates go down and the bridge goes up. This all happens rather quickly, so be careful to get out of the way.
It’s amazing how many pedestrians and cyclists can accumulate in just a few minutes while the drawbridge is raised. Location on Google Maps
By the way, in 2007 a European Union study found Groningen to be the city in Europe that was best liked by its inhabitants.
In 2013 Clarence Eckerson Jr. of Streetfilms came out with an enthusiastic and informative fifteen-minute film called “Groningen: The World’s Cycling City”.
This sculpture near the roundabout at Hereplein shows one of the main duties of parents in Groningen: teaching their offspring how to ride bicycles. Not that the kids seem to have much trouble with this.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
See more cycling posts.