Hamilton can't become Groningen and it shouldn't try to be, but it could benefit by considering some of the sensible policy choices that have been employed here.
By David Van Beveren
Published April 22, 2009
Using a bicycle for daily transportation remains an anomaly for most Hamiltonians, barring the hardy few, despite slow movement from the city to develop cycling as a greater component of its Transportation Master Plan.
As Hamilton continues along this process with a Spring 2009 update to its Shifting Gears policy document, it may be helpful to look to other jurisdictions for an idea of where our city could be going on this issue and what we might aspire to.
Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, is a typical Dutch city in that its residents have long relied on bicycles as a primary mode of transportation. What is striking about Groningen, though, is the degree to which cycling infrastructure has been so wholly incorporated into the city's transportation planning.
Indeed, it is considered to be one of the cycling capitals of the world, with 50 percent of trips within the city taken using this mode of transportation.1 Groningers love, and live on, their bikes.
Reasons for the appeal are obvious. Roads feature dedicated lanes for cyclists, surfaced in red asphalt or bordered by separate curbs, and intersections have bike-specific signaling that fully integrates cyclists into the traffic flow. The result is a city-wide network that makes cycling safe and easy and offers a rational alternative to motorized forms of transport.
In most instances, hopping on a bike is simply faster and more practical than traveling through the city by car or bus.
This accessibility is liberating in many ways, for it permits an escape from dependence on the personal automobile or the limitations of public transit service. Proper cycling infrastructure serves to improve mobility for those who can't afford or choose not to use other modes of transport.
Having spent a few months here, I've observed that well-developed infrastructure has the remarkable effect of shrinking the distance traveled by bike. Not having to battle aggressive drivers, navigate dangerous intersections or follow circuitous routes makes journeys far less onerous than they would be in less bike-friendly cities.
It's amazing how easily a moderate distance can be covered, even for those who wouldn't consider themselves to be the cycling kind. After a brief time, anything under 5km is done without a thought.
There's also a fascinating egalitarian quality to cycling that becomes apparent when observing the traffic in Groningen. Everyone is the same on a bike and most everyone can afford one, and the network of cycling lanes brings residents of all types together into shared public space.
Time spent watching the morning commute reveals labourers and office workers, groups of students on their way to school and elderly women out for their daily shopping, all pedaling alongside of each other in measured rhythm.
Needless to say, this generates positive expectations for community and social cohesion. It has obvious benefits for public health, the environment, and urban quality of life, too.
In an era when each of these issues are regarded as critical, it's difficult to believe that a city like Groningen isn't better positioned to avoid or mitigate the effects of such problems because of its progressive policies on transportation.
Hamilton can't become Groningen and it shouldn't try to be, but it could benefit by considering some of the sensible policy choices that have been employed here. It might consider how a similarly comprehensive approach, already articulated in city planning documents2, could be applied.
It's important to note that the cycling infrastructure didn't emerge in Groningen overnight, but rather was the result of long-term implementation along an agreed upon policy path.
In the 1970s, as increased use of the personal automobile began to create congestion problems in the city centre, Groningen council adopted the development of enhanced cycling infrastructure as part of its long-term transportation strategy.3 It committed to administering its subsequent budget resources, annual maintenance and development guidelines along that plan.
The result, 35 years later, is an urban area that offers an enviable degree of mobility and quality of life to its residents. Hamiltonians should assert their interest in enjoying a similar standard of urban living.