The annual Polis conference was hosted by the neighboring cities of Arnhem and Nijmegen in the eastern Netherlands in early December 2020. The conference was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but nevertheless, was a chance for the European, and wider world, to exchange best practices in sustainable mobility, observe the latest trends, and for the host cities to welcome guests from across the continent. Arnhem and Nijmegen used the virtual conference format to effectively stage daily studio interviews from the local region and demonstrate their local credentials in mobility innovation.
Arnhem and Nijmegen are cities of approximately 170,000 residents in the east of the country, a few miles from the border with Germany. They form a region with a population of 725,000.
As an industry commentator, who had already visited other parts of the Netherlands, the conference was expected to be a chance to delve much more deeply into the Dutch social and mobility practices that have made the country a world leader in the adoption of cycling as a means of delivering a sustainable mobility system.
While this conference wasn’t an opportunity to personally experience some of these mobility behaviors, much can still be explained about the approach to cycling in the Netherlands.
As in most of the Netherlands, the micromobility revolution is being led by personal cycling, which has continued to develop rapidly. Over a quarter of modal trips are by bicycle in the country. The figures are substantially higher in many of the larger cities. The modal share for cycling is typically much higher than for “classic” public transport — buses, trains, trams, etc. However, good quality and comprehensive public transport is nevertheless considered a key element in the sustainable transport mix and part of the suite of measures to reduce private car traffic and support choice of other modes. Thus, investment has been and continues to be substantial in public transport as well as cycling infrastructure. Cycling is also a key mode of access to public transport (rail) stations.
Furthermore, the nature of interurban travel amongst the numerous small cities near each other in the country, as evidenced in the Arnhem/ Nijmegen region, makes good public transport essential. The regional city structure also encourages the need for intercity regional cycling infrastructure.
Cycling in The Netherlands
The development of cycling culture in the country has not been a pre-ordained outcome, but is as a result of a multi-decade focus on challenging assumptions on principally car-based urban planning, as well as on developing thorough and comprehensive infrastructure for cycling in towns and cities across the country.
The role of high quality and ubiquitous cycling infrastructure should not be underestimated as this has also created the space for a wide selection of people to see cycling as a safe mode of transport. If anything, the density of cyclists may be at times intimidating to the uninitiated.
Cycling infrastructure is usually dedicated and separate from the infrastructure for cars as well as pedestrians. Innovative shared spaces have also been deployed that place walking and cycling as priority roadway users versus cars and freight movement. In these spaces speed is reduced to favor the sustainable modes.
These planning actions are creating a supportive feedback loop of more cyclists, more people feeling that it is a popular, safe, and efficient means of travel, more support for public investment in infrastructure, and thus more encouragement to consider and continue to take up cycling across a wide demographic of the population. All of this supports livable urban spaces and an accessible, clean, and green transport system.
Even in a relatively flat country with urban areas in close proximity, the rise of e-bikes is further broadening the popularity of cycling by providing support for longer distance trips and travel by those who would be dissuaded by the regular physical demands of cycling.
Cycling and MaaS Solutions
The Netherlands has a robust national focus on data-led Mobility-as-a-Service solutions, which integrate mobility across transport options. In terms of cycling, this will mean shared cycling and other shared micromobility solutions can be encouraged to work with the other forms of classic public transport and shared cars, where relevant. MaaS will also support integration across the regional transport systems in the country.
However, several challenges remain in delivering this agenda in the Netherlands:
- Dealing with on-street and parking capacity for bicycles. This is becoming a serious challenge in Dutch cities. In particular, parked bicycles are congesting pedestrian pavement space as well as damaging the public realm at the major rail stations which act as intermodal mobility hubs. One of the solutions is the development of very large-scale bicycle parking garages — sometimes underground — at major stations such as in Rotterdam and Utrecht.
- Managing the pedestrian, bicycle, and bus/ tram flows, as well as car traffic, around the major rail stations in a way that supports safety and creates a pleasant public realm. During the Polis conference the planned redesign of the station forecourt at Nijmegen station, which will deliver increased spatial separation for the modes, was outlined.
- Considering the role of shared micromobility in cities where personal cycling is so widespread. The shared micromobility user cases can be expected to be altered from other European cities where classic public transport remains the primary focus for sustainable mobility.
- Continuing to build the core role of public transport in supporting mobility — locally in cities and between cities. This includes a focus on not only considering but delivering MaaS type solutions to make intermodal travel easier.
- The movement of freight is a major issue in the Netherlands — via water, rail, and road to/ from the North Sea ports as well as Schiphol (Amsterdam) airport onward into the rest of continental Europe. These large freight movements have necessitated an extensive and highly used motorway network across the country, an extensive canal system, and very busy railway corridors. Public policy is encouraging the use of the canals and railways to transport freight, but pending increased electrification of these modes, air quality is being degraded by transport traffic, particularly in cities. This is an issue for Nijmegen/Arnhem which sit on branches of the heavily trafficked Rhine (Waal) River.
The 2020 Polis conference was a chance to discuss the future of sustainable mobility in cities across Europe and around the world including personal cycling, shared micromobility, and robust local and interregional public transport.
A key lesson from the Dutch experience in popularizing cycling as a mode of sustainable transport for an ever increasing proportion of the population is quality, comprehensive, safe, and widespread cycling infrastructure that makes this mode a realistic travel option and can support the wider growth of personal and shared micromobility.
The annual Polis conference will return in late 2021 with Gothenburg, Sweden as host. It is hoped that this conference will return to an in-person experience and attendees will be able to experience the various mobility innovations underway in Sweden’s second largest city.