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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.

12 comments

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sm [383 posts] 2 years ago
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I like that road block idea. Not sure cabbies in London would agree, nless they turned their hand to pedicabs of course!

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sean1 [175 posts] 2 years ago
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Excellent film, all town planners and councillors should watch it.

Also note the complete absence of Helmets & Hi-Viz. In the UK we have developed an attitude that cycling is 'dangerous' and needs protection when the reality is it is no more risky than walking.

I was in Italy recently and saw similar behaviour. Car driving in Italy is a little bit manic, but cars always gave space and time for people on bikes.

Maybe a few towns or cities in the uK can adopt this approach, but car culture is now so deeply embedded it will be hard to change attitudes in the majority of the population.

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jasecd [394 posts] 2 years ago
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"A few thirty kilometre zones and the odd cycle path is not going to lead to a revolution"

Are you listening Boris?

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11speedaddict [75 posts] 2 years ago
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Car Culture is embedded in Italy but as a previous poster said they give space. In this country it is not car culture thats the problem it is the angry bigotted attitude of Brits. This attitude reflects in the driving.
i went to Northern Ireland for a cycling holiday 2 years on the run, around Belfast and Donegal (so city and countryside) and all the drivers were polite -no beeping of horns , giving plenty of space. If I'm not mistaken Northern Ireland is the UK. But the irish laid back mentality even though it is NI seperates them from the angry mainland brit driver. and the same applies to many european places i have ridden.they are more chilled and it shows in their attitude to fellow road users.

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usedtobefaster [172 posts] 2 years ago
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That's it I'm moving out of the UK ....

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usedtobefaster [172 posts] 2 years ago
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Talking of embedded car culture, I was lucky enough to get a day cycling in the Austin, Texas area in February and there I didn't have a single problem with anyone driving too close. Most of the route was on what we'd call dual carriage way and so you'd be cycling on the hard shoulder but you'd still be given room - I had to make a left turn across 3 lanes at one point which I was dreading but the traffic behind waited about 2 or 3 car lengths back and gave me plenty of room.

I expect over in the US of A it's got more to do with the litigation culture and a driver being scared of losing everything if they knock a cyclist or pedestrian over.

What ever the reason it was pleasantly surprising.

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doc_davo [32 posts] 2 years ago
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Has anyone on here been to Groningen? Its an absolute nightmare to drive/walk around, the quality of cycling and the behaviour of cyclist is deplorable, they'll ride 2-3 on a bike, 2 cyclists side by side holding hands, they (I presume!) have the right to ride the wrong way down a one way street - 3 abreast is generally common, very rarely have lights on their bikes and if they are are frequent old style dynamo's with filament lamps, i have spent close to 5 months there and - twice have I come across serious accidents in the city centre where cyclist have been killed or serious injured (but i think they were both the former) and also seen several cyclists run into pedestrians.....

apart from the commendable number of cyclists the only real positive was seeing the number of ladies cycling in short skirts and heels!!!

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Leodis [403 posts] 2 years ago
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Not sure I want the UK to be like Denmark or Holland, my commute is not a couple of miles from one side of town to another. I was in York the other weekend and the amount of poor cycling I saw was a shock to the system, they mostly rode wearing normal clothes with no helmets.

We could though use the best bits of Holland.

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jarredscycling [456 posts] 2 years ago
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Really interesting documentary and a really great way to bring about an everyday bike culture by simply making it more efficient to bike than drive

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jasecd [394 posts] 2 years ago
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@Leodis - Is this supposed to be ironic? If so it was lost on me.

Cycling in normal clothes and helmetless should be an aim - it would mean that regular people (non mamils) are cycling not driving.

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Leviathan [1988 posts] 2 years ago
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Ooh, those meddlesome left wingers, with their utopia ideals. Surely it is my individual right to drive an extra wide Merc 4x4 down your narrow medieval city streets. The Mail will be hearing about this, this, dutchness.

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Matt eaton [742 posts] 2 years ago
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You only really need to watch the first couple of minutes to take away the importany lesson. There's a guy who says that he cycles because its far easier than using any other form of transport and that's it in a nutshell.

We should keep dreaming of we think that we will see this sort of political attitute and intent in the UK anytime soon though.