Sixteen years ago ruinous traffic congestion led Groningen to dig up its city-centre motorways in pursuit of an ideal - the 'compact city'. Last year it embarked on the creation of a car-free city centre. Its motives, however, repay examination.
'This is not an environmental programme,' Gerrit van Werven, a senior city planner, said. 'It is an economic programme. We are boosting jobs and business. It has been proved that planning for the bicycle is cheaper than planning for the car.'
Groningen, a city of 170,000, has the highest level of bicycle usage in the West. Fifty-seven per cent of its inhabitants travel by bicycle - compared with four per cent in the UK.
Since September 1977, when a six-lane motorway intersection in the city's historic centre was replaced by greenery, pedestrianisation, cycleways and bus lanes, the city has staged a remarkable recovery. Rents are among the the highest in the Netherlands, the outflow of population has been reversed and businesses, once in revolt against car restraint, are clamouring for more of it.
A vital threshold has also been crossed. Through sheer weight of numbers, the bicycle lays down the rules, slowing down traffic, colouring the attitudes of drivers. According to Mr van Werven, this demonstrates the 'important law . . . (that) the more cycling there is, the safer it becomes.'
A half-hour ride round the city shows roads being narrowed or closed to traffic, cycleways under construction, new housing to which the only direct access is by cycle. All new buildings must provide cycle garages: there are thousands of spaces in bike-parks. Out-of-town shopping centres are banned. The aim is to force cars to take longer detours but to provide a 'fine-mesh' network for bicycles, giving them easy access to the city centre.
'We don't ride bicyles because we are poor - people here are richer than in England. We ride them because it is fun, it is faster, it is convenient,' Mr van Werven said.
Like the Netherlands nationally, Groningen is backing bicycles because of fears about car growth. Its 10-year bicycle investment programe is costing pounds 20m, yet every commuter car it keeps off the road saves at least pounds 170 a year in 'hidden' costs, such as noise, pollution, parking and health.
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