Results from the expert meeting on sustainable mobility

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11 jun Results from the expert meeting on sustainable mobility

On 3rd of June, UGL hosted an interesting mix of practitioners, researchers and students (local and international) on the topic of Sustainable Mobility in the Raadszaal of the City Hall of Groningen. The theme of the day was to discuss innovations in sustainable mobility that Groningen has achieved in the past decades.

The theme was shortly introduced by Wendy Tan (RUG) followed by a critical and historical overview of Groningen’s innovations by Hans Vissers (Mobility advisor, City of Groningen). Dr. Arnim Wiek from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability then gave a reflection of the lessons he and his team has gathered from Groningen and the rest of the Netherlands during their field trip. The floor was then open to all participants for a series of discussions on the theme of the day: sustainable mobility.

Sustainable mobility?
The understanding of sustainable mobility in the group can be split into two camps. Some champion technological innovations (i.e, electric and/or self-driving vehicles and alternative fuel sources) as the solution to our unsustainable practices. There are others who see it as a holistic approach in which integration with land use achieves behavioural change, leading to more economic vitality and environmental. It is easy to get excited by the shiny new gadgets (e.g. Google’s self-driving car) but those form just one part of the solution in order to achieve environmental, economic and social sustainability.

The Groningen Way
As Hans Vissers delves into the historical post-war developments of Groningen, it becomes clear that its geographical location as a regional hub and isolation from the urbanised western parts of the country contributed to the manner in which some smart and innovative choices were made regarding the traffic circulation and multi-modality of the city. The 1977 Traffic Circulation Plan would be a culmination of a decade long attempt to wean the city of unnecessary car traffic. In combination with a strong political will and vision, the city of Groningen started to lay down its roots for becoming one of the best cities for cycling in the Netherlands. It boasts a mode share of 60% for cyclists!

The late 80s and 90s also saw the urgency to return urban vitality to the city core. This need facilitated plans and visions (e.g. the Binnenstad Beter program in 1993). Important areas of the city core were pedestrianized, while a program was launched to inject new life into the city through residential functions and experimental architecture while respecting the city’s historic, medieval textures. By containing new developments such as the Euroborg and UMCG within the the compact city structure, Groningen has been able to retain its multimodal network in the new millennium.

The city is now starting on the next phase in which the main station area and public transit service frequencies and qualities will be improved upon in the coming decade to facilitate the future needs of the city and the region. This program is led by Groningen Bereikbaar, an alliance of private and public stakeholders who will change the face of mobility practices in Groningen by 2020.
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Silver bullets
Hans’ experience allows him to sum up the important elements within the mobility planning transitions of Groningen;

  • Just do it: Take action and see what happens.
  • Far away: The isolation of Groningen contributes to the ease and urgency for implementation.
  • Visionaries: Strong political will and leaders.
  • Public: Involve the public to get the discussions going.

However, the context allowing these elements is very different from the one that we face now. A downward slide in economy and real estate markets has led to more cautious planning and stopgap solutions. This does not mean that we have to give up sustainability for pragmatism. It just means that there are no silver bullets. When it comes to sustainable mobility, solutions have to be customised and context specific.

Waging a war
Dr. Wiek gave a short reflection of their visit to Groningen, which included a Transit-Oriented Development walking tour to Hoogezand-Sappemeer, Europapark and Groningen Central Station, in reaction to the task they had to redesign the City of Avondale. He raised a few interesting points about the battle yet to be fought;

  • Sustainability: The Dutch way of planning has always revolved around compact cities but at a certain point, we need to measure and evaluate its contribution to sustainability in absolute and intangible terms.
  • Local vs. Region: The mode share data shows that although the city of Groningen is doing great (especially for bikes), the region is not great in comparison to EU averages (at 15% for bike use and 71% for car use).

The students from Arizona were particularly interested in the details of how and why certain visions came to pass in Groningen as possible solutions back home. One even described the process as waging a war and the different battles fought against various ‘enemies’ such as car use and car culture. Hans cautioned for being extreme in the polemics against cars. They are part of the multi-modal network but they have to be carefully managed when space is scarce. Here Mario Sabel from EnergyExpo defended the car-lovers and proposed a less confrontational stance with the help of better marketing and branding. His foundation educates people about making ‘Clean, Cleaner and Cleanest’ choices when it comes to their mobility needs. This means choosing a clean-fuel alternative, progressing to public transport and then at last eschewing car use.

Watch this space!
Groningen is not resting on its laurels. Plans are abound to consistently maintain and improve on the mobility condition within the city and the region. Even though most of the focus is now on bicycle usage and spaces within the city, there is also balanced attention for the improvement of public transportation. These efforts in combination with densification and transformation strategies of brownfield sites makes Groningen an exciting example of not just what could be possible but what it is yet to be for innovations in sustainable mobility.

Authors: Wendy Tan & Just Verhoeven

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