The following is excerpted from “Building the Cycling City,” by Melissa and Chris Brunlett, published by Island Press. In it, the authors elevate examples from five Dutch cities as “blueprints” for creating an accessible urban cycling culture and explore how those examples have inspired other cities around the world.
As the home of Royal Philips Electronics for more than 125 years, the southern Netherlands city of Eindhoven — now the country’s fifth largest, with more than a quarter-million residents — once epitomized the industrial heart of the country. During that period, its design, development, and economic vitality were inextricably linked to the electronics giant — long the city’s largest employer, ever since the lightbulb factory opened its doors during the First World War.
Right after the war ended, recognizing the unprecedented growth a booming Philips would bring, Eindhoven hired nationally renowned architects Pierre Cuypers and Louis Kooken to develop a master plan for the region. Their inspiration — the “Garden City” imagined by British planner Ebenezer Howard — would prove to be a precursor for modernist thought. The five villages surrounding Eindhoven would be annexed and connected by a “ring road” intended solely for automobiles, while residential living would be pushed to suburbs outside of that perimeter. The interior would be for industry and shopping, a geographic separation of the three main functions of daily life: dwelling, business, and commerce.
At First, Appeasing Motorists Instead of Encouraging Cyclists
“From the very beginning, the city was planned and designed for the car,” suggests Bas Braakman, bicycle policy advisor for the City of Eindhoven. “That means the mindset of the inhabitants is still very much car-based. We face a bit more struggle than other cities, like Amsterdam and Utrecht, in making the transition to more sustainable modes of transport.”
The motor vehicle was seen as a status symbol, an expression of luxury, and a way to stimulate economic activity in the central area, recounts Frank Veraart, assistant professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, and co-author of “Cycling Cities: The European Experience.” “They viewed the car as a vehicle of wealth. So if you welcomed cars into your town, drivers would stop and spend their money.” For Eindhoven, this meant building a number of roads through the city center and setting aside vast spaces for customers to park while shopping and dining.
A common sight on Dutch streets: children as young as five, who begin their training in preschool, cycling without adult supervision.
In 1947, even as that status symbol grew in popularity across the region, people on bikes still constituted 71 percent of road users in Eindhoven (with motorists a mere 6 percent). Vertical separation became one of the popular ways to get cyclists out of sight (and out of mind), as was the case of the Woenselse railroad crossing, a major bottleneck for the huge number of Philips employees biking between the factory and Woensel, a blue-collar neighborhood to the north. Often these gates would remain closed for five hours a day, causing massive delays for commuters. A solution wasn’t implemented until 1953, when a tunnel was built to allow passage for cars, which proved equally beneficial to cyclists.
A brand-new train station was built three years later, but even still, decisions surrounding that were made with an eye on making it easier for motor vehicles to move freely throughout the city. “They elevated the railway tracks,” explains Veraart. “That relieved traffic, so it could flow without hindrance. At that time, the whole idea was building the city for cars, rather than bicycles.” This was in spite of the fact that, as late as the 1960s, 80 percent of all Philips employees (from factory workers to corporate executives) cycled to work daily.
Then, in 1961, the City hired German civil engineer Karl Schaechterle, a colleague and successor of M. E. Feuchtinger, the man who had proposed the calamitous demolition of Utrecht’s medieval center five years earlier, to draw up a traffic plan to solve their ever-worsening congestion and road safety problems. His idea, in its most basic form, was to prevent the “slow” traffic from obstructing the “fast” traffic, realized through dedicated bike paths and tunnels built adjacent to and underneath new car-only thoroughfares — wide, seamless boulevards that greatly expanded the capacity of the existing ring road as they radiated from the suburbs into the city center. One of the more interesting experiments in this vertical separation was the Berenkuil (Bear Pit) — a sunken bicycle roundabout built in the early 1970s below the intersection of the perimeter ring road and one of those radial roads.
Eindhoven continued implementing both horizontal and vertical separation into the next decade, completing a 155-kilometer (100-mile) network of cycle paths and eight tunnels and bridges by 1976. Separating these transportation networks, however, was more about appeasing frustrated motorists than encouraging and enabling cyclists. “We were one of the cities in the Netherlands that were the quickest and most serious in doing that,” claims Braakman. “But it was not meant to facilitate cycling at all. It was meant to facilitate car drivers.” That meant the bicycle routes were often indirect and inconvenient, forcing cyclists to take uncomfortable and unnecessary detours, as was the case of the Berenkuil.