An(other) Utrecht Bike Commute: Utrecht Centraal to Vleuten

Last time I rolled around Utrecht, I looked at how one might travel from the Kanaleneiland neighborhood to De Uithof and the Utrecht University Medical Center area. On that trip, it became apparent that making that a journey by bike would likely be faster than transit and for a motivated or e-bike rider, just about as fast as driving. That should make it obvious as to why Utrecht scores high on the list of bike-friendly cities: there is no penalty for riding.

This time around, I’m going to take a look at another possible and common trip option in The Netherlands: from the rail station to home. Around 40% of the users of the Dutch railways get to or from the train station by bike, which has resulted in the world-famous bike parking garages. But the excellent bike infrastructure extends well beyond the station, which provides great mobility to the entire region.

Utrecht is growing and one place where that is occurring is the new area under development called Leidsche Rijn. Located around four miles to the west of the historic city, it already has three train stations, with one being the western endpoint of the Route 28 BRT line. But, although the trip detailed here is almost unnecessary, the excellent bike infrastructure means that it is a time-competitive and comfortable option for people. Furthermore, the city is investing lots of money into improvements that will make this trip even better [Dutch], including a new bridge over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, to encourage people to bike for this journey.

jaarbeurspleinsign
The sign outside the Jaarbeursplein garage provides information about the experiment and a map.

00:00 – Jaarbeursplein (Fietsenstalling)
The journey begins inside the Utrecht Centraal station, which is undergoing a massive reconstruction project known as CU2030. Part of that includes one of the latest Dutch bike innovations: Jaarbeursplein. A 4200 spot parking garage is nothing extraordinary by Dutch standards  and indeed, Utrecht is in the process of building another on the other side of the station that will have triple the capacity. The experimental part of Jaarbeursplein is not the hardscape but the support. It’s the first to have an attendant 24/7 and is also connected to the fiets P-Route, which shows bicyclists real-time information on how many spaces are available at several different bike garages around the city.

After exiting the garage, we’re in the actual Jaarbeursplein. Out front is a taxi stand, some bus stops (now removed), a passenger drop off, as well as the light rail line to IJsselstein/Nieuwegein. Not only does the line transport residents to and from the city, it also provides access to the Westraven park & ride lot that provides visitors a place to park while they visit the city center. A fee of €5 provides a daily parking pass AND free ticket to ride into the city via public transit for up to five people.

1:25 – Westplein

The road in Jaarbeursplein is also named Jaarbeursplein and is mostly for accessing the buildings around the square. People can also use it for dropping passengers off, but dead-ends for motorists by Westplein. However, it does continue straight through for bicyclists, I just never actually needed to go that exact route, so I didn’t have video of that small segment, hence the fade.

The point where the video fades in is the filtered permeability that makes this a through route for bicyclists, but not motorists. Going right at that point would lead to a underpass of the station and to the city center. However, the path to the outer neighborhoods is straight ahead.

Here, the bikeway crosses over Westplein, which includes the Fietsenstalling Westplein Zuid facility in its central median. (It should be noted that the tramway used to go this direction and connect on the other side of the station, something which can still be seen on Google Maps. The median is where the tracks were.) As it is a bit of a walk away from the trains, this parking is more for the community and visitors than commuters. It’s also part of the P-Route system.

After crossing Westplein, I turn left onto a bidirectional bikeway that parallels Westplein, which is nominally the Overlandroute. I never actually measured it, but it looked (and felt) to be around the same width as the bikeway on Beneluxlaan, which was nearly 12 feet wide. A few hundred feet along, we arrive at stoplight at the intersection of what is really a whole bunch of streets; the whole area is a mess. The street to the right enters into a residential area, so traffic volumes aren’t extremely high. Additionally, bicyclists at this location looking to turn right into that street can do so without stopping at the light.

2:15 – Overlandroute/Leidseweg

After the light and crossing Damstraat, the bikeway continues as a bidirectional facility that goes straight ahead while the road curves away. Due to the proximity to so many uses, there is definitely probability for pedestrians, so a sidewalk is provided next to the bikeway. However, the bikeway itself is only about 75 meters long. It merely forms a connection, not the main route.

The bikeway ends into Leidseweg, which is directly parallel one of the canals. Although not officially signed as a fietsstraat, my experience with it at several different times led to noticing at least a 2-3:1 ratio of bikes to motorists using it. No doubt, this is partly because Leidseweg is part of a 30 KPH zone and is one-way for motorists. For bikes, that means that those heading out of the city are going contraflow. However, that’s not at all a problem since it’s a residential area and traffic is kept even lower with the one-way street network.

Additionally, the entire street is paved in bricks, which certainly is able to keep unnecessary motorists away, but definitely impacts ride quality for bicyclists too. Streets like Leidseweg are what make the balloon tires found on so many Dutch bikes a desirable feature. Although the canal side of the street is a bit smoother, it’s still brick and isn’t the best ride around. Coming from the smooth connecting path, it’s definitely a bit jarring.

About two thirds of the way down Leidseweg is the first of several intersections and bridges along the route. The intersecting streets are Koningsbergerstraat/Jan Pieterszoon Coenstraat. Generally, there is no priority in a 30 KPH zone, but since Leidseweg is the main bikeway, it has priority here and in a bit of a rarity on Dutch streets, cross traffic has a stop sign. Also, the Jan Pieterszoon Coenstraat bridge is one-way only for motorists, so they can only turn left onto Leidseweg. One can continue past this intersection almost without realizing that it’s there.

A couple hundred more feet is the Abel Tasmanstraat/Muntkade intersection. While the previous one is a little offset, the one with Abel Tasmanstraat and Muntkade is better described as adjacent T-intersections. Additionally, both roads allow two-way traffic, as does the bridge. As a result, this intersection is definitely busier. However, Leidseweg still has priority through here too.

4:30 – Muntbrug/Leidseweg

Immediately past Muntkade is the Muntbrug [note: currently undergoing renovations] which spans the Merwedekanaal. The bridge, which is closed to motor vehicles, is almost certainly a big part of what keeps the level of motor traffic on Leidseweg down.

Just over the bridge, the route intersects with the Kanaalweg Fietsroute. That bikeway runs north-south through the entire city of Utrecht, sometimes as a bidirectional separated bikeway, sometimes as a fietsstraat. It contains only one level crossing of a major street throughout the entire journey. Anyone who lived along it could use this route to get between the train station or even city center while passing through no more than five traffic signals the entire way and likely never facing a stop sign either. That creates a pleasant, non-stop cycling experience.

After the intersection, Leidseweg continues and is once again a 30 KPH zone. It’s two-way for about a hundred feet, then reverts back to the one-way configuration (as well as the brick pavers). This is also a residential area and the profile and usage is similar to the other side of the canal, with parking on one side, motor vehicles allowed one-way, and bidirectional for bicyclists. At the intersection with Bartoklaan/Mozartlaan, Leidseweg again has priority,

IMG_1523
Signage on Leidseweg warns motorists to watch for bikes while turning.

though this street (one street, two names) doesn’t have stop signs. Additionally, the direction of the one-way reverses at the intersection and is thus in the direction of travel away from the city. (The change in direction also means that the smoother brick pavers are gone too.)
The final segment of Leidseweg is again two-way for motor traffic. However, the opposing one-way streets keep motor traffic volumes low which makes routes pleasant for biking while still maintaining the ability for motor vehicles to access them.

6:50 – Kennedylaan

After nearly a mile, we arrive at another traffic signal at the intersection of Pijperlaan. The light is only red for about 15 seconds before we’re again on our way. Here, Leidseweg ends for motor vehicles, but bicyclists can continue straight ahead on a short connector that makes this the continuous route for bicyclists. The bikeway passes some buildings, then crosses Kennedylaan with priority. The intersection includes prolific markings to that effect as well as a raised table and a mirror. Adjacent Kennedylaan, the route is a bidirectional separated bikeway parallel to the roadway that branches off after about 600 feet to connect with the bridge over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal and rejoin the road that branched away after Damstraat. While parallel to Kennedylaan, the bikeway is nearly 12 feet wide. That expands to 13 feet on the path up to the Meernbrug, where the bikeway rejoins the route for motor traffic that was crossed at Westplein.

9:05 -Meernbrug

The Meernbrug [Dutch] carries Dominee Martin Luther Kinglaan over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal. That road provides a rather straight shot into the city center directly from the A2 motorway. The bridge also has a path hanging off the side that is admittedly, not the most enticing of facilities. It’s open to the wind and cold and some parts need surface maintenance. However, it does provide a connection across the canal and a supplementary connection [Dutch] is in the works, due to open soon. The path that leads away from Meernbrug on the other side of the canal, Dominee Abernathylaan, is of top quality. I never measured it, but it appears and feels to be at least 12 feet wide and includes a sidewalk. It curves around, following the contours created by the freeway ramps, then splits. Going the intended route means following the fork to the right and going back down.

11:15 – Rijksstraatweg

Turning left onto (what quickly becomes) Rijksstraatweg, I passed under several structures. The first is a bridge that carries the bikeway that continues straight, the next two are the twin Leidsche Rijn tunnels [Dutch] that carry the A2 motorway past Utrecht. Similar to other newer tunnels around the country, the underside of the bridge/tunnels includes an art installation of colored lights to help maintain social safety. The route under the tunnels is closed to motor traffic, which makes this end of Rijksstraatweg to be virtually car-free.

After exiting from under the tunnel bridges, there’s a small bridge that connects to the bikeway that parallels the A2/Stadsbaan Leidsche Rijn into Leidsche Rijn it. The same exact destination can be reached via that route as well, though with a few more turns. Once in the open, Rijksstraatweg also becomes a fietsstraat as motor vehicles are allowed to drive here to access the homes along this segment. But since the Leidsche Rijn tunnels still block access, there is no reason for motorists to continue farther than the homes. The result is that bike heavily outnumber cars, making the road is a de facto bikeway, which is the intent of a fietsstraat.

12:50 – Zandweg

Not far down the road, the fietsstraat moves to the other side of the canal. The street it continues on, Zandweg, forms the bulk of a fietsstraat that stretches all the way to the city limits of Utrecht. At six kilometers long, it’s the longest in the country (and probably the world). Motorists can drive on the entire length of Zandweg, but there are segments of opposing one-way which mean that Zandweg can never be used as a through route or effective shortcut to anywhere. (In case anyone has ever wondered whether Dutch brick streets are just stamped concrete, observe the piles of brick beside the sidewalk beginning about 18:30.)

Design features such as a low bridge, raised table intersections, and speed humps keep speeds down throughout the length. Following established fietsstraat tradition, it also is assigned priority over most intersecting streets, even in instances where it appears to possibly not be the best idea. There is one crossing at Europaweg where the bikeway yields, but there are generally breaks in traffic that allow someone to cross, which is what happens as I approach.

The majority of use along Zandweg is residential, though there are also some businesses interspersed throughout. Thus, although there are motor vehicles present, bikes still outnumber cars along the route as most through motor traffic uses Rijksstraatweg on the other side of the canal. Along the way, there are around three times as many bridges to allow non-motorized users to cross the canal as there are for motor vehicles. Those all help to make it a viable route for bikes, but not so much for cars.

22:55 – Busbaan Vleuterweide/Utrechtse Heuvelrug

At length, I arrived at one of several entrances to the Vleuterweide [Dutch] community of the Leidsche Rijn development. This particular entrance one is solely for buses and non-motorized users. The bikeway and busway form the only direct route through the center of the development to the Vleuten station on the other side and allows for those two modes to have transit times across that are perhaps too swift [Dutch]. All other motorists seeking to cross must go around the perimeter on what forms a rough ring  road.

buildyourdreamhouse
There are still signs in Leidsche Rijn inviting people to “build their dream home”. Image Google Streetview, translated/edited by author.

About two blocks down, I arrived at fifth stoplight of the entire journey. It turned soon, though perhaps not as quickly as it could’ve given the lack of conflicting traffic. Going ahead, I continued on what I now realize is a road for construction access only–the communities are very much still under construction. Nevertheless, it caused no real problems as there was no traffic anyway. The official path to the left side was not particularly appealing either, being another 30 KPH zone paved in brick. The short stretch on the construction road inadvertently avoided that segment.

The construction road leads to a staple of Dutch bikeway planning: a short segment of separated bikeway through an intersection. This is the intersection of the busway and the ring road as well as a road that provides access to motor vehicles the the inner part of the community, including all the shops as well as the denser development. However, as stated before, it does not provide a direct path through for motorists. They must take the long way around. However, the roads are used as bike infrastructure and the bike route alternates between 30 KPH zones and bidirectional separated bikeways through this area, depending on the situation. The route is continuous, though not necessarily with priority at every junction, as can be seen in the video.

29:35 – Stroomrugbaan

This is the location of the ring road on the other side of the main Vleuterweide development. This particular intersection has proven to be quite problematic, with several serious collisions, including one death, having occurred in its short time of existence. As a result, changes are in the works [Dutch], including an integration of the busway into the adjoining roadway between Stroomrugbaan and the Vleuten station entrance.

After passing through the ninth and final stoplight of the six mile trip, a left and quick right bring me to Inktzwamsingel. This road is another 30 KPH zone, being only intended to serve as an access to the homes there. With no connection to the busway or intersection, there is no motor traffic there that doesn’t belong. The road curves around the building and at the next corner, there is a temporary sidewalk that leads directly to the Vleuten train station. Even though the construction and final form aren’t even finished, a route is provided so that people do not feel the “need” to drive and thus develop that habit.

31:10 – Vleuten Station

The end of the journey is the end of the line. At the Vleuten station, there is a park & ride lot for people who drive to the trains or buses, but it can only be reached from the Vleuterweide side. Though there isn’t a full-fledged bike parking facility like Jaarbeursplein, there are hundreds of bike racks, both covered and uncovered, available for those who bike to the station and were generally pretty well used.

32:30 – Professor Titus Brandsmalaan (Vleuten)

After passing the station, I took one of the underpasses of the railway into the village of Vleuten itself. Vleuten used to be its own municipality, but merged with others over the years until finally getting absorbed into Utrecht in 2001. The underpass I take is only open to nonmotorized users. After the underpass, I turn onto Professor Titus Brandsmalaan that parallels the railway through the southern side of the village. As can be seen, there are quite a few cars parked, not sure if those are all for Vleuten residents or also includes people who have driven in to access the train and parked there. At John F. Kennedylaan, there’s another underpass of the railway that is open to motor vehicles, but only buses are allowed to continue through in its entirety. Private vehicles can only drop people off at the station. The final underpass as the video ends is at Odenveltlaan, and it also is only open to nonmotorized users.

In other words, all three underpasses directly between Vleuten and Vleuterweide are closed to private motor traffic. Someone wishing to drive to the shops or activities in Vleuterweide is directed onto roads that skirt around the development that are nearly a mile apart. The result is that journey times for bike, driving, and to some extent, bus are all about equal. There is little

In total, the entire trip took about 28 minutes worth of moving time between the two stations, about eight minutes faster than projected by Google Maps. This compares to a ten minute trip on transit (though the bus takes nearly the same amount of time as biking) or 15-20 minutes driving. I was also not going particularly fast, especially toward the end. For someone going faster, it should be possible to shave another four to six minutes off the time.

Also, since people don’t live at the train station, the ride to their home would almost certainly end earlier, perhaps in one of the homes off of Kennedylaan, Zandweg, or near the entrance of Vleuterweide. That would bring the bike trip to a little over 20 minutes, which is again almost as fast as driving. When combined with the overall pleasant trip experience, there is little to gain by driving. That’s what we should be aspiring to in our cities as well: a comfortable biking experience that is competitive with driving for people of all ages and abilities.

Update: Some minor editing and notes about infrastructural changes that have happened in the eight months between shooting the video and this blog post.

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