Groningen is a city in the far north-east of the Netherlands, having about one and a half times the population of Cambridge. And it is well known for having one of the highest rates of cycling anywhere in Europe. So that was where eleven of us went, in the last weekend of September.
Cambridge airport must be one of the easiest anywhere to get to by bike. A fleet of trishaws took us there for a photo-call with the aircraft. Suckling Airways are very enthusiastic about travel by trishaw! After a smooth flight, it took us just ten minutes to get from the steps of the aircraft to the railway ticket office. There are trains every half hour from Amsterdam airport to Groningen (at the other end of the country). The ticket sales staff were very keen to sell us a cheap group ticket, which meant a very reasonable fare. The train was spot on time and had a cycle marked on some of the doors to show where bikes should go.
Groningen is a very lively City on a Friday night – and very quiet on Saturday morning! Nevertheless we were able to hire 11 bikes at 9 am, the cycle hire and multi-storey supervised bike park at the station having been open since 6 am (and due to close again at 1 am). Several thousand bikes are parked at the station, both in racks and in the cycle park, which costs a Guilder a day (about 30p). If you think there are lots of bikes at Cambridge station, think again! Street parking elsewhere was not so good or as plentiful perhaps as Cambridge, but there were smaller covered and supervised parking lots at 16 suburban locations, like supermarkets, as well.
Willem and Flora from the Dutch Cyclists’ Union spent much of Saturday taking us on a guided tour of the City. More than half the journeys in Groningen are done by bike; and the bikes are nearly all the same – large roadsters, most with backpedal brakes, and sturdy enough to carry all sorts of luggage and equipment.
There’s a wide variety of provision for cyclists, but nowhere did we see cycles having to share a path with pedestrians. Generally cycles have their own lane or track, on both sides of the road, and more often than not physically segregated from the cars. Sometimes this is only by a strip of cobbles, but often by a kerb and sometimes a verge and trees. Generally the surface quality was adequate: many were paved with very small tiles which were surprisingly comfortable to ride on.
At traffic lights, a common arrangement was for cyclists to have their own phase – cycles would get a green light for all four directions at once. This is, of course, independent of the phases for cars. It was standard practice for cycles to be allowed to turn right (equivalent to left here) through a red light if joining a cycle lane or track on the new road. Nearly all one way streets had simple exceptions for cycles – without all the fuss we have here of an island with a separate way in, or contraflow lanes – though we did find one of these on a busier road.
But probably the biggest difference was the continuity of the cycle tracks. These always had the same precedence over side roads as the road alongside – and motorists respected it. This was the case even across motorway slip roads. Where the road met traffic signals, there was invariably a signal for bikes too.
In the more spacious areas on the edge of town there were some cycle-only roads (and in fact something similar runs parallel with the railway line including right across the station forecourt). We found a way out of the town to the north entirely away from traffic to ride into the countryside. On the equivalent of ‘B’ roads in the surrounding area, we found traffic calming through villages – large flower pots made of railway sleepers just planted in the road, and none of the pop art road signs to warn you miles in advance like you would find here.
So thanks to Willem and Flora for showing us round. Thanks to Nigel for organisation, and Slim for brandy. And sorry about the early start Paula.
* If that doesn’t mean ‘bikes can turn right on red’ then we were breaking the rules!