Limiting Cars, Privileging Bicycles: A History of the Traffic Circulation Plan in Groningen, Netherlands

This three-part series is about the history of the Traffic Circulation Plan (TCP) in Groningen, Netherlands.  Part two is here, and part three is here. The content was originally an assignment for History & Theory of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a master’s candidate in the College of Urban Planning and Policy.  I’d like to thank Lennart Nout and Chris Brundlett at Modacity for their input and resource-sharing.  I’d also like to thank Vincent Ziols who also contributed to the paper.

  Image courtesy of    The Guardian

Image courtesy of The Guardian

The northern Dutch city of Groningen stands as a model of how policy intervention and implementation can incubate a society centered on bicycling. Highlighted among the other major cities of the bike-centric country of the Netherlands, Groningen boasts that sixty-one percent of all trips made by their population (200,000) are with a bicycle. This high rate is largely due to the efforts of political and municipal interventions on the city’s built environment for over forty years.  The city’s latest efforts to enhance and expand the bicycle network include heated paths, smart traffic lights, and a new train station parking structure that holds over 15,000 bicycles. Such developments reinforce the primacy of the bicycle within the city’s culture, and place the bicycle as an integral element of the city’s identity.

  Image courtesy of Hellemeier and Soltaneihha, 2010

Image courtesy of Hellemeier and Soltaneihha, 2010

Groningen’s bicycle-forward strategy and culture has evolved from a central point in 1977 when the city implemented the Traffic Circulation Plan (‘TCP’), a car-limited traffic plan developed by Max Van Den Berg. In the course of one night the city changed routes of inner city roads, blocked access to the city center for cars, and created a network of streets that gave pedestrians and cyclists free and safe access. This plan to mitigate automobile traffic away from the compact urban core of Groningen has grown and developed to the entire metropolitan region. The principles of the TCP have had an immense impact on the transportation equity of the area’s population, which has led to better multimodal access, healthier lifestyles and a more sustainable way of life. 

  Image courtesy of    Modacity

Image courtesy of Modacity

  Vismarkt, 1968.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Vismarkt, 1968.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Groningen’s bicycle-oriented transportation efforts began in the mid-1960s as part of a larger municipal response towards the proliferation of the automobile. Like many European cities, Groningen experienced considerable transportation challenges brought on by the influx of automobile users–congestion, air pollution, parking, and high vehicle speeds–and municipal administrators considered a revision of the traffic policy to either accommodate or limit the automobile. 

  Central City, 1970.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Central City, 1970.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Citizens were reportedly divided on the issue; while some believed that an automobile-friendly city would tailor to regional consumers, others maintained that the mode choices of local residents (namely, walking and bicycling) should take precedence. It is this latter sentiment that was embraced by the Partij van de Arbeid (hereby referred to as ‘PvdA’), the prevailing political party throughout Groningen’s traffic policy reforms in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the late 1960’s the leadership of the PvdA was characterized by young academics who championed civic engagement and participation, particularly within the fields of urban land use and transportation planning. Among those leaders was Max Van Den Berg.

  PvDA party members, with Van Den Berg at center.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003

PvDA party members, with Van Den Berg at center.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003

 In 1970 Van Den Berg was elected by the PvDA party as their political executive of urban planning. Van Den Berg believed a city should be vibrant, lively, and largely absent of the automobile. He wanted to restore city neighborhoods, which he believed were adversely affected by the automobile, and give priority to pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation. Van Den Berg saw Groningen to be a perfect place for his plan, as the city was relatively small, compact, and had the political support of the PvdA and the city residents. 

By the early 1970s, Van Den Berg began developing the TCP with helpful insight from the principles outlined in the 1972 Objective City Center Groningen Plan report. The latter plan’s focus was on the city center having a ‘good function’ of activity, where a large number of people could visit and use the right-of-way of city streets. This plan also recognized the utility of car travel as a way for people to visit Groningen, but called on drastic limits to most disruptions to the built environment. Development plans such as the widening of traffic lanes and extensive parking facilities would be kept at a minimum, so as to keep city streets safe from the ‘space-consuming’ effect of cars.

  Zuiderdiep.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Zuiderdiep.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

The PvdA continued to gain power as its traffic plans took shape. During the 1974 municipal elections, the party published the 1974-1978 Municipal Programme which provided the initial framework for the TCP. An excerpt from the Programme underscores the car-limited objectives of the PvdA’s plans: 

“Keeping out through traffic in the inner city and residential neighborhoods must be continued…Public transport and bicycles will acquire a clearly privileged position.  It must be examined which measures…can contribute to a safer and more livable environment for residents.  We will implement subsequently with the help of residents.” 

Despite these claims, there is little evidence to show that public participation in general, or citizen-informed traffic plans in particular, actually occurred. The PvdA remained the largest political party after the 1974 elections, and used their political capital expeditiously on plans included in the Municipal Programme, not least the TCP. The environment was highly politicized and polarized; plan-making was neither a neutral endeavor conducted solely within the municipal administration, nor was it a collaborative endeavor among the other political parties.  

The creation of the TCP happened behind closed doors. Although the administration may have helped shape the plan, members from other parties and the general public did not contribute to the plan. The completed TCP was published in May 1975, just one day before a scheduled public meeting. Not surprisingly, attendees criticized the insufficient timeframe for providing public comments, to which the Mayor responded, “The minister [Van Den Berg] has put us on the spot concerning the available time. We must submit the scheme quickly; otherwise the subsidies come in danger.” The requisite national funding for the TCP was actually put on hold from 1975-1977.  

  Selwerd neighborhood protests, courtesy of Tsubohara 2007.

Selwerd neighborhood protests, courtesy of Tsubohara 2007.

During that time frustrations grew from a poor municipal response to traffic congestion particularly in neighborhoods adjacent to the central city. Public outcry evolved into petition and protest. In October 1975 a group of mothers and PvdA district members from the Selwerd neighborhood blocked a major intersection from vehicle traffic while they collected support signatures for safer streets. This event was certainly not lost on the PvdA and Van Den Berg, who recently completed the TDP months earlier. The first phase of the TCP was not adopted by the city council until September 1977.

Check back this Wednesday, July 11th for part two!