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What would we do without cars?

What would we do without cars?

Dutch cities continue to grow and provide room for ever-increasing business activity, but the space available is limited. How can we keep the city accessible and easy to cross?


Henk Meurs

Just like elsewhere in the world, the urbanisation of the Netherlands continues to increase. Between 2009 and 2014, the Dutch population grew by almost 350,000 residents, three quarters of whom were accounted for by the thirty cities of 100,000 or more residents. The quality of life in Dutch cities has been substantially improved in the last few decades and the city is providing space for more and more social and economic activities. The result is that ever-increasing demands are placed upon the infrastructure in and around the urban centre. How can we keep the city accessible, easy to cross and enjoyable?

In search of alternatives “In the past there were queues of horse-drawn coaches on the way to the city,” says Henk Meurs, professor by special appointment of Spatial Development and Mobility at the Nijmegen School of Management. “Cars have taken their place and their numbers are increasing. The more people come to live in the city, the more vehicles – particularly cars – there are driving around and standing still. In addition, the growing number of places of employment in the centre lead to more motorised traffic to, from and within the city. But the limit has been reached; there is no more space for all those vehicles. Neither for driving nor for parking.”

More asphalt is not the solution. The city doesn’t have enough room for that. “We will have to make better use of the existing facilities, discourage car use and commit ourselves to attractive alternatives.”

Fast and clean transport There are plenty of alternatives available. Hence an increasing number of cities are constructing public transport axes: rapid connections between two or more locations with only a few stops. “Users may have to walk or cycle a little further to get on board, but they arrive at their destination much faster than they would using the city bus that stops 20 times.”

There is also a lot of attention focused on bicycles. “Just look at the implementation of rapid cycle routes straight across the city with a minimum of traffic lights or other delays. To complement this, a great deal of investment in free bicycle parking and charging points for electric bikes is taking place.” The electric bike has become a familiar sight in the city landscape and can become a replacement for part of the motorised transport, as can the e-scooter that can easily travel an even greater distance. That’s why some municipalities are providing subsidies for employers and individuals to buy them.

Still going by car The car won’t disappear from the city without a struggle, but national and local government can deploy tried and tested methods to discourage their use. “Transform the centre into a pedestrianised area, minimise the number of parking spaces, only allow local traffic, lower the speed limit in the centre so that it is faster to go by bike and introduce paid parking covering a wide area. At the same time you have to provide fast and safe cycle and public transport connections, free cycle parking space with charging points and attractive pedestrian routes.” (Read more here about how the City of Utrecht has implemented this.) Even for those who really can’t do without their car, there are smart, sustainable alternatives. “For people who travel 8,000 kilometres or less per year, making use of a shared car is cheaper. In addition, an increasing number of affordable electric cars are coming on to the market. The city can stimulate this sustainable car driving by allocating more locations where people can collect and return a shared car and by installing more charging points.”

Travelling together by bus Additionally, Meurs can also see the benefits of combining public transport and subsidised transport to school, work or day care activities for particular groups, some of whom could easily travel by public transport. If we facilitate this, the regular routes can be better used and the costs of expensive subsidised transport can be reduced. Flexible transport also has potential. In simple terms: for small groups of travellers, you can make use of taxis and for larger groups, buses.”

What travellers also need, is clear information. Which is faster? The bus, the train or bike? Where can I find a shared car and how much will my trip cost? What is the cost per hour of the car park in the city? “That information isn’t available in one place at the moment. A good app where you can easily compare all the alternatives would be very helpful.”

A little more effort is needed The issue of traffic and accessibility is not just the responsibility of national or local government. “Something that you can already see happening in Germany and is starting to happen here is that companies are contributing to transport facilities. For example, IKEA pays part of the cost of the bus stop right outside their entrance. Large employers, schools and hospitals could also facilitate and stimulate alternative transport in this way.”

Many employers are already chipping in by allowing their employees to work from home, all or some of the time, or to travel at different times. A cycle-to-work scheme can encourage people to use alternative means of transport. Educational institutions can take the rush hour into account with their timetables. “There is so much that can be done. It just needs a little more effort here and there.”

Education and research “In the new Master’s programme for Spatial Planning for the 2016-2017 academic year, we will be paying a great deal of attention to future urban issues”, says Meurs. He himself will be responsible for ‘Urban mobility’. “What is the best way to organise mobility in the city of the future? A complex yet vital question that we will be addressing in great detail in both our teaching and our research. The latter will be covered in part during the SCRIPTS programme: Smart Cities Responsive Intelligent Public Transport Systems. This is a collaboration between Radboud University, TU Eindhoven, TU Delft and the University of Applied Sciences Arnhem-Nijmegen (HAN), during which we will study the public transport of the future that will be far more hybrid and demand-driven than it is at present.” /JvdB

Radboud profile page of Henk Meurs
Henk Meurs on LinkedIn
SCRIPTS research programme website
Radboud page of the Master’s Programme in Spatial Planning