What Can Utrecht Teach Other Cities About Cycling Now the Tour de France Has Left?
The clouds darkened and rain intensified, but this didn't seem to deter Dutch riders who cycled on regardless. Rain coats were pulled out of bags, hats were donned and umbrellas were lifted, making it immediately apparent I was in a totally different cycling situation to the UK. You could ride down the Tottenham Court Road in London at peak time in the rain whilst holding a big umbrella if you wanted to, of course, but I wouldn't recommend it. Here, things are different.
Hints that the Tour de France had recently been this way were everywhere. Shop windows were decorated with bicycles, flags were hung over every street and a statue of the city's most famous daughter - Miffy the bunny - had been put up in the tourism office. Naturally, she was riding her bicycle. The facade of the popular cafe Winkel van Sinkel was decked out in yellow jerseys, too.
But even though the pro riders had left, there's still a festive cycling feel to Utrecht that stems from the many thousands of people on bikes who cycle here every day. I saw small children being carried on their parent's bikes, middle-sized children riding alongside on their own, and teenagers enjoying their mobility and being totally independent.
I have no doubt that all that freedom stems directly from the excellent cycling infrastructure which you'll find all over the Netherlands, but what I was particularly impressed by was how the Dutch don't sit on their hands, but are always seeking to improve things.
The same junction, above in 2012, as it appears today, below in 2015. Notice how space has been 'found' for the new and safer cycle track without taking the pedestrian's pavement away.
I had been impressed by the new junction, but it was nothing compared to the building project which is nearing completion in the city centre. When I first visited Utrecht the space in this photo was part of a multi-lane city ring road built in the 1970s. All it did was create traffic congestion and bring more cars in to the city centre, where there was no room for them. So the city planners decided to push the ring road further out of the city - to loosen the city's belt, if you like - to create more space for people.
The move has allowed for the total redevelopment of the train station, created space for a new shopping area and offices and very soon the dirt that you see in the photo will be removed and replaced with water, re-connecting two sections of the city's ancient canals.
At the new station the city's cycle racks are being refreshed and new bicycle parking areas are being built. On Korte Jansstraat in the old town, a road which used to be clogged with two lanes of car parking has been re-surfaced in red bricks and the parking spaces moved away. Rather than harming the businesses there, the streets were busy with shoppers and restaurants had laid out new tables and chairs.
This is my third trip to Utrecht and each visit has left me with the same impression; that this is a city rapidly growing, improving itself, identifying the planning mistakes of the past and quietly getting on with rectifying them. It's lively and packed with young people and University students.