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15-minute documentary explores how Dutch city achieved astonishing 50 per cent modal share

The Netherlands is regularly held up as a beacon of how to get it right when it comes to promoting cycling and providing a safe environment for people to ride their bikes in. And nowhere has embraced the bicycle as much as Groningen, where modal share hits more than 50 per cent, as this film from Streetfilms highlights.

Groningen: The World's Cycling City from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Home to nearly 200,000 people, the city, which lies in the northeast of the country close to the German border, has the highest bicycle usage in the world.

Film maker Clarence Erickson Jr of Streetfilms set off to find out the secret, the result being a striking 15-minute documentary featuring contributions from experts, as well as locals talking about cycling around their city.

The bicycle dominates; it’s everywhere – with 10,000 parking spaces for bicycles at the city’s train station alone. After shopping at the local branch of Ikea, you can hire a bakfiets for just €1.50 to get your purchases home; students – there are 50,000 in the city – will also rent one for flat moves.

Among those featured in the film are the Briton, David Hembrow, who chose Groningen as a place to live specifically because of its approach to cycling, and who regularly leads study tours in the area for those wanting to learn how such high levels of bike riding were achieved and to see the infrastructure first-hand.

On his A View From The Cycle Path website, Hembrow outlines, with the help of slides from a presentation given by the City of Groningen’s Cor van der Klauuw – who also appears in the film – just how it is able to achieve such high levels of cycling.

Part of the reason, as the Streetfilms documentary outlines, was a deliberate policy by the left-wing city council in the early 1970s to split the city centre into four zones and make it impossible to move between any two of them by car.

The result is that journey times by bike within the city are much quicker and easier than those by car, which have to be driven out of the centre, around the ring road, then back in, before the driver even considers where to park their vehicle.

The concept is called “filtered permeability” – a principle also applied elsewhere such as in the German city of Freiburg, and the British sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, is among its adherents, encouraging as it does walking and cycling over driving.

The councillors who ran Groningen in the 1970s showed what can be done with vision and political will, the result being a city that is worlds apart from the car-choked centres of those in Britain.

Whether any town or city here would be brave enough to embrace the concept, and its population willing to dispense with their reliance on their cars, is questionable.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.