Monday 7 August 2017 18.15 BST
In any other country, the opening of what will become the world’s largest bicycle parking garage – with space for 6,000 cycles initially, and another 6,500 by the end of next year – would be heralded as a great success. The 17,100 sq metre space under Utrecht’s central station will soon knock the current title-holder, under Kasai underground station in Tokyo, off its perch.
Yet such is the intensity of the Dutch love affair with the bike, authorities in the Netherlands are being accused of complacency, rather than praised for their foresight. The 12,500 places at Utrecht station are all very well, critics say, but with 43% of journeys under 7.5km (4.6 miles) being taken by cycle in Utrecht – creeping up from 40% five years ago – they simply aren’t enough, said Martijn van Es, spokesman for the Dutch cycling organisation Fietsersbond.
“To quote John Lennon, ‘Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans’,” said Van Es. “By the time the politicians have made their decisions, and by the time things are built, there are more people cycling.
“It goes up every year in Netherlands. I look at a lot of cities in the Netherlands and they are just talking about building the infrastructure, but at the same time the figures are still rising. I am from Utrecht. They have been talking about updating the city since 1989. The infrastructure hasn’t changed enough. And there are a lot more cyclists today than there were, [and much of the infrastructure] was built in the 1980s.”
Elsewhere in the Netherlands, a bike park for 8,500 cycles is due to open in The Hague next spring. A similar facility has been built at the central station in Delft with space for 5,000 bikes. And Amsterdam has announced plans to excavate a 7,000-space bicycle park under its waterfront.
The Dutch drive to push the car out of city centres began in the early 1970s, partly in response to the number of road deaths climbing to 3,300 – including 400 children. The success of the campaign is clear: the average Dutch person now cycles around 1,000km annually.
There are now 22.5m bicycles in the Netherlands – more than the 17.1 million people who live there. More than a quarter of the country cycles to work. Riders complain of congestion on the cycling lanes due to the sheer number of bikes, and the recent influx of electric bikes has made things even more crowded.
The boom in cycling is most stark in urban areas. Since 2005, the number of bicycles has increased by almost 11%; in Rotterdam, cycling has increased by 20% in the last 10 years; The Hague reported 10% more cyclists in 2010 than 2006. Utrecht is the busiest of them all: 40% of those who arrive at the Netherlands’ biggest rail hub do so on two wheels.
Tatjana Stenfert, project manager at Utrecht station’s square, says the new garage, which had a soft opening on Monday before it fully opens later this month, will help make lives easier. It will be free to cyclists for the first 24 hours, and cost €1.25 (£1.13) a day thereafter.
“In Utrecht there are a lot of people coming to the station on bicycle and it was a mess, bikes being left everywhere, so this was needed,” Stenfert said. But she can’t fault Fietsersbond’s analysis. “We will have 12,500 places by the end of 2018. But then we will have to do some research and find more places for the bikes. It never stops. I look around and everyone is trying hard to find spaces – trying hard and fast.”