So many bikes, so little space
The Dutch like riding their bikes to the train station. But railside parking space is running out.
Anybody who has visited the Netherlands won’t be surprised to learn the Dutch are up to their ears in bicycles. But those bikes have now began to encroach on public space so much, municipal governments are left with few other options than to remove some of them by force.
Train stations in major cities especially are burdened by the number of bikes parked there, the deluge of rusty steeds threatens to clog throughways for passengers and traffic.
Mark Visser, a member of a bicycle removal team, serves on the frontline in the battle against this two-wheeled invasion: Amsterdam’s Central Station. “If we do nothing for a week, we have a total mess on our hands,” Visser said.
Visser and a few colleagues work with a small electric grinder to cut locks and remove bicycles that have been parked outside of designated stands or are left unattended for too long.
A new type of civil servant
In recent years, municipal bicycle removal teams have spread through the country like wildfire. At the root of the problem lies the increased popularity of bicycles as a means of getting to and from train stations, a trend municipal governments often find hard to accommodate in the cramped downtown areas surrounding railway hubs.
Last year alone, Utrecht removed 9,000 bikes, almost twice as many as the year before. In Nijmegen, the numbers went up from 5,474 to 6,331 in 2009. In the same year, The Hague took 7,141 of its citizens’ bicycles off the street, nearly 2,000 more than in 2008. Rotterdam was the only major city where the number removed remained stable at 12,000.
Amsterdam, however, is in a league of its own. Last year, 45,000 bicycles were removed there, 6,000 more than in 2008.
It seems unlikely the trend can be reversed any time soon. The Dutch semi-governmental agency, ProRail, charged with maintaining the country’s railroad infrastructure, thinks growth in demand for stationside parking space will far outstrip supply in the decade to come. Even the construction of dedicated multi-story bicycle parking facilities won’t satisfy the insatiable hunger of the cycling masses. Amsterdam will be constructing three bicycle parking lots near its Central Station in the coming years, enough to accommodate 10,000 bikes. But according to ProRail’s estimates, 16,000 places will be required by 2020.
On a national level, the numbers are similar. ProRail estimates that 170,000 cyclists will be looking for parking spots near the country’s train stations ten years from now. Currently planned infrastructure will only provide for 70,000 parking spaces.
Did they see it coming?
Wim Bot, of the Dutch Cyclists’ Union, says the shortage of parking spaces has been a long time in the making. “In the last ten years, we have seen the percentage of train travelers arriving by bike at the station increase from 30 to 40 percent. ProRail expects this number to grow to 50 by 2020. The number of train travelers is also growing by a few percent every year. Put two and two together and you have an explosive growth in demand for parking spots.”
If ProRail knows what’s coming, why hasn’t it opted to build a bigger bicycle parking lot in Amsterdam? “At the time when we planned the reconstruction of the station area, our forecasts weren’t as extreme,” said Mark Wienbelt, who is responsible for bicycle parking at ProRail.
Redesigning the parking facilities to accommodate larger numbers is “unrealistic I’m afraid,” Wienbelt said. “Reconstructions of station areas are massive projects with a lot of moving parts. Changing our plans would be expensive and would cause major delays as well.”
According to Wienbelt, simply adding more parking space would lso be insufficient to solve the problem. New garages are always quick to be clogged with so-called “orphaned bicycles”, bikes abandoned by their owners. “We will need to look for innovative solutions if we want to tackle that problem,” Wienbelt said.
A possible answer could be the construction of parking facilities rigged with special sensors that would allow caretakers to see when a bicycle was left in place for longer than three days or so, Wienbelt said. “Whenever somebody leaves it there longer, the caretaker would be able to remove it easily.”
Currently, removing an “orphaned” bike can take a lot longer. Bicycle removal teams have developed a special method to determine whether a bike has been abandoned: they put little stickers on a pre-determined position on the bicycle’s wheels. If they return and the stickers are no longer in the same place, this means the wheel has turned and the bike has been used. If it hasn’t, the civil servants put a large orange sticker on the bike announcing it will be removed by the city if the owner does not do so himself within a month.
Removed bicycles end up in the municipal bicycle depot where owners can collect them, offering the keys to what remains of their locks – often destroyed in the removal process – as proof of ownership. Half of all bikes that arrive at the bicycle depot are beyond repair and destroyed. Of the remaining 25 percent, some are auctioned off to bicycle repairmen and some sent to social employment projects in Suriname, Hungary, Tanzania and the Netherlands.