Special Report: Cycling

Lessons on Cycling Infrastructure from Holland's Most Progressive City

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.

Faster, More Practical

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.

Cycling is an Equalizer

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.

Lessons for Hamilton

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.

References

  1. OECD (1995). Urban Travel and Sustainable Development. Paris. (back)
  2. See: City of Hamilton (2007). Cycling Network Strategy. (back)
  3. Bloemkolk, Marcel (2001). Groningen: Integrated Town Planning and Traffic Policy. European Academy for the Urban Environment (back)

David Van Beveren is a Hamilton native. He grew up in Ancaster and now lives in Ward 1.

16 Comments

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted April 22, 2009 at 12:08:36

Nice article, David.

45% or so less car trips. Think of how much space that saves. Think of how much space 45% of Hamilton's cars take up and how much potential quality of life they subract.

I have advice for Hamiltonians who are at least reasonably fit. Don't wait for bike utopia. Just ride. If you map your route out in advance and get in a few defensive habits (like going fast and taking a full lane on a main st.), it's usually not very dangerous.

I ride 12 months of the year. With a few essential items of relatively inexpensive equipment, it's not as scary or taxing as people think. Most trips in Hamilton are only slightly longer timewise by bike than they are by car. And you don't have to take yet another car trip and more time out of your day to "do cardio". It's done. And exercising in the winter air boosts immunity and acclimatizes you to the season. Winter is EASIER to deal with physically.

I'll admit I first thought about ditching my car in response to global ecological issues. But a pure cost-benefit is what keeps me going. The financial freedom of not owning a car (or of being a one-car family instead of two) is well worth it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 12:46:43

Great article, and good response LL. I too own one car and due to living where we have chosen to live, there is no need for a second car. My legs, bike and HSR is my 'second car'. Lol.

For those like me who are too chicken to ride on Main St, there is an easy route one block south along Stinson/Delaware/Maplewood. Granted, you have to run every stop sign, but there's never a car in sight. I'm amazed at how often I ride from Locke to Gage via this route and don't get passed by a single car once I hit Stinson. It's like your own road. haha.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 12:51:01

Some more info on the update to Shifting Gears currently underway:

http://www.myhamilton.ca/myhamilton/City...

More info about the city's cycling facilities: http://www.myhamilton.ca/myhamilton/city...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 22, 2009 at 13:22:35

I have just one quibble with your excellent commentary:

If you map your route out in advance and get in a few defensive habits ... it's usually not very dangerous.

Actually, cycling is arguably safer than driving - particularly once you factor in the increase in life expectancy from regular exercise in place of sedentary driving:

http://raisethehammer.org/article/617


Having said that, I just posted a blog entry that expands on the essential role that public infrastructure in significantly growing the proportion of cycling:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/1313

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By Hmmmmmm (anonymous) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 15:16:06

That stuff just wouldn't work in Hamilton. They ain't called the Netherlands ("lowlands") for nothing, Holland is low and flat, no hills like the Escarpment. Oh, and they don't get brutal winters like we get. Also, in Europe everything's closer together because they don't have as much space. Sorry RTH but the real world isn't like "Field of Dreams".

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By zookeeper (registered) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 16:34:40

^ Don't feed the troll.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 16:40:40

Zookeeper, whenever anyone voices an opinion counter to the RTH manifesto you insist on repeating the same little comment. Does debate scare you or threaten you in some way?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 17:19:44

Pretty sure Hmm's comment was snark.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 17:25:43

Hmmm, then please explain Montreal with it's hills/mountains and BRUTAL winters compared to us. Hamilton would be a different place with their type of cycling culture.

Sorry Hmmm, but in the real world excuses don't work.

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By FenceSitter (anonymous) | Posted April 22, 2009 at 19:30:58

>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.

The above comment is a good lesson for all. There is no need for car enthusiasts to be against a cycling strategy. If we can sell it correctly - less cars on road, less congestion and so on.. then we might have a few unsuspecting allies in the challenge of making Hamilton cycle friendly (and still car friendly).

Hamilton proposed a comprehensive Cycling plan way back in 1980, and again (see new post) in 1999. Lets not make the same mistake again. We should all be behind this.

In response to Hmmmm, no we are not the Netherlands. But Hamilton, besides the escarpment is relatively flat. Great for the short journeys the above article talks about. Vancouver is not exactly flat, but cycling thrives there (yes, no harsh winters) and most of it occurs off the main roads.

Jason, I have not looked at the Shifting gears document yet, but you are right about alternates to main/king corridor. Delaware/Stinson is perfect for a cycle route, maybe just make Wentworth two-way to feed the sherman cut traffic directly on to main or king, quicker for cars that way. Check out a map, mountain and downtown are full of long direct streets perfect for cycling, parallel to the main roads.

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By Hmmagain (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 12:36:51

Well, reality is what you make it.

Reading this item and the proposals for planning city cycling suggest some additional ways to make Hamilton cycle-friendly. I like the idea of paving bike lanes, or perhaps in Hamilton, painting the surface of bike lanes in some alternative, bike-identified colour as both a continuous reminder to motorists of the presence of bike lanes and an enhancement to the city streetscape. I see red, green or blue lanes snaking throughout the city. Ditto adding a continuous soft curb between bike and car lanes on roadways.

In fact, as with all planning, we might benefit by thinking beyond the single issue and consider the cityscape as a whole. Hamilton does not have the extensive alley system found in Toronto, running bike lanes through the few that exist might encourage downtown property owners to clean up the backs of their premises to attract business. Similarly, cutting bike routes through city parks, surface parking spaces and other public spaces, along with some creative landscaping, might not only speed the progress of bikers but build traffic to off-street locations and attractions. Think of the waterfront trails.

Whatever is done in this area has costs, of course, but doing things both efficiently and imaginatively contributes to the success of building a service-based economy, which is important as the industrial-based economy declines in this part of the world. That decline is a reality too.

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By digger (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2009 at 15:15:19

Real bike lanes throughout downtown & above the mountain could be like LRT-lite, with a similar effect for street level businesses and culture. Imagine how much more appealing King, Main, or Upper James would be if lined with proper bike lanes and with an LRT line running up the middle.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted April 28, 2009 at 01:44:23

Hamilton is laid out so well for cycling, but the speed/carelessness of drivers, especially on the one-way highways, ruins it for me.

I had enough close calls at 5 a.m. on Steeles Avenue in Toronto to know that I'm not going to attempt it with twice as many lanes of traffic going far faster the whole day along the main routes. Other streets can be great, like Hunter in the mornings to the GO. Perfect.

The coloured lane separation is a great idea. Bike lanes separated by barriers would be even better in my mind than coloured paving stones, though that's a great idea in itself. I gave my feedback to the Shifting Gears plan.. But from what I've seen in the in it, there wasn't much about Main/King (waiting for LRT plans before taking action, I suppose). Maybe if/when the Cannon/Wilson parts are done I'll be more inclined to bike on those.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted April 28, 2009 at 12:43:18

Cycling infrastructure: what an inexpensive way for Hamilton to distinguish itself as a city where a high quality of life is available.

Too much focus is put on attracting capital. Attract the skilled workers with a high quality of life and the capital will follow.

Like I keep arguing: Hamilton has the legacy of pre-WWII planning, unlike other nearby municipalities. Why not leverage that value with innovative transportation projects insead of eviscerating it with sprawl and the suburbanization of downtown?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 28, 2009 at 15:05:05

LL >> Attract the skilled workers with a high quality of life and the capital will follow

How do you explain China then? They are reducing the amount of bikes and increasing their car culture and yet they have large amounts of investment going on. I guess it must be those damn facts again, always getting in the way of a fanciful, left wing theory.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 28, 2009 at 23:34:53

are you familiar with the term 'sweat shop'?

How about 'communist'?

Yea, let's all be like China. Adam Smith would be proud of you.

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