How Can Bicycles Rule a City? Groningen Shows and Tells


163878528The car-development versus bike-development debate has no end in sight. Cycling advocates would mostly call that a good thing. Problem is, American cities continue to bow to suburban and auto interests despite feeble attempts by various complete streets committees to feign transportation equity.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in my own city of Cleveland (where I live car-free), I thought perhaps the old adage “seeing is believing” would help move the conversation along in favor of building cities around pedestrians and cyclists. After all, how can any open-minded American look at these images of car-oriented Detroit and bike-centric Amsterdam and not come to the same conclusion about which city seems more vibrant?

Surprising as it may be, one article showing crystal clear that a people-oriented city is a livelier city has not changed a generation’s worth of God awful urban planning. Still, you have to try and stay positive, grasping onto any sliver of hope that solid bike planning might be coming your way.

That hope rests in Groningen, Netherlands.

The World’s Cycling City

In just under 16 minutes, Streetfilms Director Clarence Eckerson Jr. shows how “The World’s Cycling City” can dispel any myth that taking car parking away for cyclists will hurt businesses and hamper economic activity. To the contrary, incentivizing trips by foot or bike in Groningen seems to have only helped the city flourish over the past 40 years.

Modern Groningen benefits from its historic position as a fortress town. This means the Dutch city avoided the sprawl that has plagued so many other cities, maintaining its compact street plan.

To build on this historic asset, the late 1970s city government enacted plans to split Groningen into four sectors. The kicker was and is that you cannot drive by car from one quadrant to another. Those trips are reserved for bikes and pedestrians, making it more efficient to ditch the car. If you must use a car, you will have to utilize a road that circles the city in order to get from point to point. This has saved the core of Groningen from the negative side effects associated with driving, such as pollution and the need to make space for more parking.

Of course shopkeepers originally protested the measure, insisting they would lose out on their business if customers were unable to park outside.


Truth is developing around pedestrians and cyclists that has complimented Groningen’s historic authenticity and density, giving people a reason to stay in the city and patronize local shops. Yet despite the increased activity to the core of Groningen cycling infrastructure has brought, Eckerson says the city is “amazingly quiet.”

“Even in the places where there are the most cars, the city seems so peaceful and safe,” he recalls during his two-and-a-half day stay. “Everywhere you go, bikes are either accommodated or on shared facilities, and the drivers are very careful and drive with caution.”

Lusting For Groningen

Though cycling advocates are likely lusting for a hint of Groningen in their hometown, Eckerson admits it is unlikely American cities will see a substantial shift in policy. Still, he hopes Groningen’s comprehensive traffic plan will serve as a “clarion call” to cities trying to make their cities more livable and safe for residents who would like to get around without a car.

After all, says Eckerson, Groningen’s plan took many years to enact. Car culture is no common cold that will go away after a few nights sleep. But a few small reforms might help push American cities in the right direction. Eckerson suggests not allowing cars to cut through the city, removing parking, and increasing the gas tax.

However we end up there, modern planners and political leaders just need to follow one simple rule.

“How can we make it more attractive to bike and walk?”

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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