The Netherlands is a country famed for its bicycles, but in the heart of Utrecht, new levels of friendliness have been created for its cycling culture. At its main train station, connections have been made to offer efficient cycling routes so two-wheeled travellers can catch trains much easier, whilst the infrastructure is often designed in favour of its bicycles rather than its cars.

UnSUBURBIA has investigated this cyclist’s paradise, and what has been done to promote this move towards bicycles.

“Planning for people, not cars”

There’s plenty of reasons why Utrecht has to support its cycling movement. 98 per cent of households in the city own at least one bike, with 50 per cent owning three or more, a short video created by Street Film revealed, and the average daily bike trips are around 125,000 in a city with a population of 330,000. And plenty has been, is been and will be done to make the city as cycle-friendly has possible.

Utrecht’s architects have redesigned the city’s major routes, placing an emphasis on two wheels rather than four – one city dweller described the centre as being “commerce, community and cycling”.

Vredenburg, in the centre of the city, has been redeveloped and is now closed off from vehicles and sees more than 33,000 cyclists a day pass over it, whilst Croeselaan, formerly a four-lane road for vehicles, is now an efficient cycling route. Elsewhere, a former canal which was turned into a motorway link during the 1960s is being returned to its natural routes – the road has been ripped up, and pedestrian walkways and cycle routes are to be built instead.

Innovation too has been key to this development. The Dafne Schippersbrug has been effortlessly integrated into the urban fabric to support cyclists, being built to go over the top of a school whilst somehow not looking out of place – it’s a piece of architectural ingenuity.

The road layout has been carefully considered for cyclists. Specialist stones and tarmac have been used for quieter, frictionless travel, whilst red tarmac has been used to instruct other modes of transport that cyclists have the same rights.

On certain routes, signs have been erected to say “cars are guests” with rumble strips being built into the central sections – the thought process is to deter drivers from trying to overtake cyclists, due to the bumpy nature of driving on the raised cobbled section causing the cars to vibrate.

All of this, and the city only spends on average £45 million annually to build and improve bike facilities. In context, the savings from reduced air pollution and healthcare costs are estimated to be worth about £250 million annually.

But there’s still demand for more to be done. Despite the city being awash with cycle parks, there’s a need for more, with people challenging decision makers to scrap car parks in favour of cycle storage. According to reports, 12 bikes can fit in the same space as one car so there is method behind the thinking.

Utrecht is the perfect case study for a cycling culture – having the right facilities and infrastructure to encourage and accommodate a two-wheeled mentality.

A train station with a difference

Located in the heart of the city, Utrecht Central Station has been reinvigorated over the last decade to meet the demand of its cycling culture. Yet it’s the work of Rotterdam-based Ector Hoogstad Architecten which has taken the development to new heights – or rather, new lows.

Underneath the station, new bike storage facilities have been built allowing cyclists to go from street level to the storerooms without any hassle. But this doesn’t just allow for a handful of bicycles, like you might see at a train station in the UK. Here, there’s space for more than 12,500 bicycles across three storage levels underneath Central Station – the first of its kind not only in The Netherlands, but across Europe and the world, overtaking Tokyo’s 9,000-capacity bicycle park.

Ector Hoogstad Architecten has designed the new storage facilities with the end users in mind. Cyclists need fast, easy and efficient access to both the station and the storage, all of which have been considered in the structural blueprint.

Above ground, the surrounding road and street layout have been altered and improved to be more accommodating for cyclists entering the three-storey bicycle park, with pink cycle lanes directing two-wheeled traffic below the station. The lanes hug the edges of the structure so they don’t protrude or look out of place. Entrances both north and south of the station make entering the storage simple from whichever direction you’re coming from.

As you head under, the cycle lanes effortlessly weave amongst the train station’s concrete cylindrical columns, with a gentle slope allowing cyclists to move between the levels at a controlled pace. Lane colour-coordination makes finding the right level and space that extra bit easier too.

Three stairwells in the centre of each level are enclosed with glass walls and skylights acting as lightwells to illuminate the storage and allowing commuters quick access to the main terminal building, platforms and the public square.

The parking spots branch off from the cycle paths and have been designed to make the most of the available space. A ‘bunk-bed’ style storage has been implemented, stacking one bicycle on top of another using innovative racking. Each spot has been given a row and place number, as well as a QR code so commuters needn’t worry about misplacing their bike. It’s the little things like this that just improve the convenience of the station’s bicycle park.

A palette of durable materials including concrete, steel and wood all combine to create a more welcoming atmosphere – it’s the perfect mix of being ergonomically sound yet aesthetically pleasing. The whole development has been designed with its users in mind, from how it’s accessed to the colour and materials used.

Utrecht has taken the basic premise of the multi-storey car park and catered it to meet the demands of the city’s residents. They practice a two-wheeled mentality, so need infrastructure and facilities at key points (such as the train station) to support it.

Could the UK support this type of cycling movement?

Compared to the likes of The Netherlands and Denmark, where cycling is very much at the epicentre of the countries’ transport mentality and infrastructure, the UK is lagging behind its counterparts on the continent.

At a recent Different By Design event hosted by Kirkstall Forge, Klaus Bondam, director of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation, lamented the state of the cycling infrastructure in Leeds, stating that there were “stretches of great infrastructure, but stretches of very poor infrastructure – which is not encouraging for cyclists.” Yet Klaus’s beliefs aren’t just relevant to Leeds – it’s an issue faced by the wider UK.

In his keynote presentation, Klaus highlighted that for a cycling culture to be created in the UK we need public investment, courageous politicians, and visionary planners and designers. He commented that “our cities are 1000 years old, but we’re basically letting the developments of the last 50-70 years define our futures” suggesting we need to think outside the box, moving away from the domination of car-orientated infrastructure to allow for the inclusion of cycle-friendly connections.

But that’s where the issues arise. There is a hesitation from policymakers to commit to placing public investments in cycling infrastructure, whilst attempting to amend our car-centric sins of the past within city centres would cause vast amounts of disruption – would there be a town planner courageous enough to bear the brunt?

For a sustainable future, we must look to Utrecht as a shining of example of what we need to do. With the right public investment and planning, the UK can adopt a cycling mentality and change the blueprint on how we get from A to B.

As Klaus mentioned, mentioned, as developers, architects and human beings, we all must take on the responsibility to push our decision makers forward to bring about a more sustainable future.