Innovative cycling policy of the city of Zwolle
08 September 2020 - Published by Matteo Candelari
Inspirational interview carried out by our BITS project partner Baron with Geert Janssen and Syb Tjepkema from the city of Zwolle
- When did you – as the city of Zwolle – start to actively pursue an innovative cycling policy and implement appropriate cycling measures? What was your motivation?
Syb: Most people cycled before and after the Second World War, but then there was a shift to using cars in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s Zwolle was one of the first cities to make the shift back from cars to bikes. In general, the innovation in the 1970s was bicycle friendly city planning, such as the neighborhood Zwolle-Zuid, which is designed in a way that people can be faster by bicycle than by car to go to the city center. So spacial planning is our first secret, which was innovative at that time.
We also introduced other innovative measures, such as the waiting time predictor. We were the first that introduced LED lights at traffic lights that show the waiting time. We were also one of the first that introduced a rain detector that gives cyclists more green light when it is raining. This technology is now part of every traffic light in Zwolle. Moreover, we were one of the first cities that introduced bike streets, where you have shared space for bikes and cars, but the street is designed for bikes. Cars cannot pass bikes in those streets. The last innovative implementation before BITS, was our roundabout, which is focusing on giving right of way to cyclist on a major car route. Therefore we changed the crossing design. In general, we had quite a few innovative measures in city planning and some in the field of ITS.
Regarding the motivation, I think in the 1970s there was the beginning of environmentally friendly consciousness. Global warming was starting to be an important topic. So, there was the notion that something has to change. Moreover, there has always been a cycling friendly atmosphere in Zwolle and in the Netherlands. Today combining cycling with other topics such as the economy and health is a big topic.
- What measures have you implemented in order to increase the share of bicycle traffic? How successful were these measures? Was there any resistance?
Syb: It is always difficult to measure how successful you are, especially when you design a cycling friendly neighborhood from scratch, as you cannot measure how it would be if we had not designed it that way. For example, in Zwolle-Zuid about 60 percent of the inhabitants travel daily to the city center by bike. In other areas, which are further away to the city center, the bike share is about 40 percent. So, you see a difference between a neighborhood that is well connected to the city center and a neighborhood which is less connected. But we did not conduct a lot of research about how successful we are. We introduced many measures and we see a steady growth in cycling. But we are not very good in measuring the effect of a single measure. We need to improve in that area. We hope that the BITS project helps us being more conscious about the goals we want to achieve and to see what the effects of a certain measure are. We also hope to get a clearer view on how much money we spend on a certain measure and how much money we get back from it.
In general, we do not have any resistance against bike measures. Politically there is no difference between the parties regarding to cycling. They are all pro bike. It is part of our DNA that cycling is something good. However, 15 years ago there was quite a resistance to change from car to bike in the city center. In the old city center, there were still emotions connected to the car, especially by the shop owners. They were also afraid that people would spend less money in their shops. At that time, it was still possible to get to the city center by car. There were big parking spots. About 10 years ago there was a shift from cars to bikes, as it became clearer that changing would be good for the economy and touristically increase the attractiveness of the city. The fear of the shop owner also proved ungrounded. We did research on shopping behaviour, which showed that cyclists spend more money than car drivers in the city center. Car drivers indeed spend more per visit, but cyclists come more often. If you look that the total amount spent per week or month, cyclist spend more. To handle resistance, it is important to combine cycling with the economy.
Geert: The only recent resistant we had was about the new design for a roundabout. The design was quite controversial. The road safety organisation was critical about the roundabout as they were afraid the new design could cause accidents. However, we could redesign the roundabout and we could see more incidents, but the number of fatalities and injuries decreased dramatically. That the number of incidents increased is based on the nature of this specific roundabout, as it is a busy car and bike route. That is why there are a lot of conflicts. Elderly and people with children find it more dangerous in their perception. So objectively it is safer, but subjectively it seems more dangerous. This is why people are more careful and drive very safe. It was quite a change compared to before, but we are very happy to have the new design. One essential part of our bike strategy is the implementation of roundabouts. Whenever it is possible, we decide to make a roundabout instead of a traffic light, because traffic lights are not always the best solution for cyclists, and they can cause quite a lot of accidents. Especially in the city center we try to use roundabouts. So this was a very important topic for us.
- You are part of the European project BITS. How did you hear about the project and what motivated the city of Zwolle to participate?
Syb: Zwolle was one of the initiative partners of the project. The province of Overijssel had the ambition to do a project on European level, so we had to find a goal for the project. About 20 years ago, I worked at Mobycon, a consultancy for mobility in the Netherlands. At that time, I talked about improving cycling with Ronald Jorna, who still works at Mobycon and is now the project manager of the BITS project. He worked in logistics, where data is quite important. My focus was more on cycling. Ronald came up with the idea of using data and ITS in cycling. We thought it would be a great idea combing these two topics. But it was too early, and nobody really believed in this approach. When Overijssel wanted to do a European project, we revisited this idea. The time seemed right for ITS and cycling. I am very proud that this old idea of Ronald and me is now implemented.
As the city of Zwolle, we always had a focus on spacial planning and infrastructure. In the BITS project, we see the opportunity to explore the possibilities of ITS and data, in order to develop our bike policy further and being more integral.
- As an implementation partner, you will introduce ITS solutions as part of the BITS project to further improve cycling. Which implementations have you already carried out and which are planned? What do you expect form the various ITS solutions?
Geert: We implement six pilots in Zwolle. The first one is a cycling path in an ecozone with needs-oriented lights. So, the lights only get on if a cyclist is using the path in the night. At the moment we are thinking about how to evaluate if these lights are profitable for the ecozone. The second one is Sniffer Bikes, which is a sensor for cyclists that measures the air quality (e.g. CO2, NOx, small air particulates). Sniffer Bikes also measure the route a cyclist takes from point A to point B. The measuring starts after 200m for reasons of data protections. Currently, ten cyclists use this sensor in a first pilot. We are looking now for including more cyclist (circa 250) to get more data to analyse. We want to find out if we can use the data for our cycling policy. Also, we would like to show cyclist if a route is unhealthy and show them alternatives. For the future, the sensors might be advanced and measure also the quality of the road.
With the other implementations, we are getting started now. The third pilot is an interactive system with traffic lights. The traffic lights are connected with an app for bike couriers to get green light. The project is almost ready to implement. We hope that this will motivate more companies to use bikes instead of cars or trucks to transport freight.
The fourth project is about road safety. We want to use a camera system at four different crossings. At every crossing we implement a different solution for road safety. With the camera system, you can compare the solutions afterwards and evaluate what the best solutions is. For example, one solution uses LEDs as bike scout for car driver, to that they see a bike is coming and slow down. We want to test several innovative solutions. The project is in the planning phase.
The fifth pilot will be about nudging. But there are only first ideas. We are thinking about an app that offers different incentives e.g. discounts for cyclists, such as discounts at shops, health incentives, donations for social or other goals. The aim is to increase the use of bicycles. The last project will be about parking information for cyclist, so that free spots to park the bike can easily be found. This is also good in times of Corona, as people can avoid already crowded parking areas. That is why, we plan to introduce this earlier than originally planned. Also, the organisation of the shops and businesses in the city center wants to know how busy the area is and where people are. That is why we want to implement a solution that can do both: showing free parking spots and where and how many people are walking. We are in the tender process at the moment.
- What potential do you see in data collection by sensors and which approaches do you pursue in this area (e.g. sniffer bike, meetfiets)? What is the added value in your opinion? And how can the data collected in the way be used in the planning of transport infrastructure? How are citizens involved in the project?
Syb: We work together with our smart city department, which implemented a kind of data hub. We want to make a dashboard, where you can see all kinds of data from walking, cycling and car traffic. We want to use this as a tool for policy evaluation. We also carry out a qualitative evaluation every two years. We ask 10.000 people in the city how they value their city and their mobility.
Our citizen science approach, e.g. Sniffer Bikes, started with climate change. People had their own measuring devices at their house which measured temperature, air quality and other data. The data was then provided to us. People can also indicate flooding on a special “wet feet app” which we then us to take measures. People were also encouraged to develop their own tools, e.g. a measuring device for water levels in the ground was developed by a group of citizens. It would be nice if happens for cycling as well, so we want to expand our citizen science approach. A bike-sharing entrepreneur for example also started with sniffer bikes on his own behalf. He was not part of the BITS project, but now we are working together, and he is making a kind of next generation of measuring devices. There are many companies in Zwolle that are devoted to cycling and they come up with their own innovations too. Moreover, people can indicate dangerous object, like poles on the cycling infrastructure. We want to bring all these data together in the data hub.
Geert: The citizens are also involved in projects like Sniffer Bikes. Citizens like to cycle but also to have data about what is happening in their neighborhood. Some participants go extra trips to the city center to see what is happening there. People like to help us and to help themselves to see what the air quality is. Every participant can see their own data as a map on a website. The citizen and we as the city of Zwolle can see the collective results.
- In your opinion, which of the measures for an innovative cycling policy would also be suitable for German municipalities and how could they be transferred? What would you recommend to German municipalities that want to promote cycling?
Syb: Next week I take part in a webinar from the Dutch Cycling Embassy for German cities. We will also address this aspect as it was a question from a German city. At the moment health, the environment and climate change are the big topics. Currently Corona is also an important topic for cycling, as people do not want to use public transport. You always must look at the higher goals. The question is, what kind of city do you want to be?
In the Netherlands, a big goal is the growth of the cities and the growth of the inner cities especially. So, we want to build more within the existing city instead of the land surrounding the city. You have to look at the reasons why Germans cities want to grow. What kind of city they want to be? I am sure that every city has its own reasons why it wants to develop. If you know that, you can look at cycling and think about what cycling can do to reach that goal. This can be an economic goal, an environmental goal, or a health goal. I think in any case it is possible to translate different goals to cycling.
We always use a ladder to illustrate the steps you need to take to implement cycling measures. You start with spacial planning and thinking about walking and cycling. Then you think about public transport. At the end of the ladder you think about building new roads and parking. Going through this ladder is important, because the reason so many people cycle in Zwolle has to do with spacial planning and clever design of neighborhoods. It is a mix between the kind of city you are, your challenges for the future and your goals that determine reasonable cycling measures. Of course, you also have short-term and long-term measures. Currently temporary measures are quite common because of Corona. I heard that in Germany quite a few cities have pilots with more space for cyclists on the streets. That can also be a very nice tool. Right now, it is important to measure the effects of all these temporary measures. If you have the data of the benefits like air quality, energy consumption and health, you have information to go to politician and demand to make these measures permanently and not only temporarily.