Famed for its historic university, soaring Gothic church tower and vibrant cultural scene, the city of Utrecht is also the busiest transportation hub in the Netherlands.
And for good reason. Located on the banks of the Rhine smack dab in the middle of this small and remarkably dense country, canal-laced Utrecht was the most important Dutch city up until the 17th century when Amsterdam, located to the north, rose to prominence. Centrally located and historically significant, it’s hard not to pass through Utrecht via road or rail. The city’s 16-platform rail station, home to the headquarters of Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways), is the largest in the country as well the busiest junction station.
This all said, it only makes sense that Utrecht Centraal station, where 40 percent of passengers arrive with bikes in tow, is now the site of the largest bicycle parking garage in the Netherlands — and in the entire world.
First proposed in 2014 by Utrecht City Council to help remedy the unsightly, chaotic jumble of bikes literally piled outside of the station, the three-story subterranean facility is now open but only half complete. As of now, there’s room for an impressive 6,000 bikes. By the end of 2018, when the 184,000-square-foot garage is completed in its entirety, there will be room for 12,500 bikes. When that happens, the garage will properly clench “world's largest” status, a title currently held by a 9,400-bike capacity automated parking garage located beneath Kasai Station in Tokyo.
Utrecht, the fourth biggest city in the bike-crazy Netherlands, has a larger-than-normal number of cyclists due to its student population. It's also home to the country's busiest rail station. (Photo: Marcelo Campi/flickr)
The new facility, which also includes a bike-share hub, is free to use for the first 24 hours. After that, it costs cyclists 1.25 euros ( $1.47) per day to leave their bikes in the secure location beneath Utrecht Centraal.
As the Guardian notes, the unveiling of the world’s largest parking bicycle parking garage in a country where bikes (22.5 million) outnumber people (17.1 million) should be cause for celebration. And it is. But in bike-swamped Utrecht, some cycling advocates are already bemoaning the fact that the spacious new garage isn’t even bigger.
With 43 percent of under-5-mile jaunts being taken around town on bicycle — a 3 percent jump from just five years ago — and an inherently disproportionate number of cyclists on the road due to its large student population, Martijn van Es of Dutch cycling organization Fietsersbond is concerned that Utrecht may find itself facing a dearth of bicycle parking sooner than anticipated.
“To quote John Lennon, ‘Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans’,” Van Es tells the Guardian. “By the time the politicians have made their decisions, and by the time things are built, there are more people cycling.”
And Tatjana Stenfert, project manager of the bike garage at Utrecht Centraal, doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“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 tells the Guardian. “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.”
Utrecht isn’t the only Dutch city that’s experienced a sharp increase in cyclists. Even Rotterdam, a sprawling port city that was rebuilt after World War II to be more Americanized and automobile-friendly, has experienced a 20 percent increase in bike ridership over the last decade.
More bike parking to come
To accommodate the uptick in cycling, other Dutch cities in addition to Utrecht have built or are planning to build sizable parking facilities. In The Hague, a parking facility with room for 8,500 bikes is due to open earlier next year. In Amsterdam, where 32 percent of journeys are made by bike and space to park them all is nearly nonexistent, there are plans to open a underwater parking facility beneath IJ, a bay-turned-lake that surrounds Centraal station and serves as Amsterdam’s waterfront. Tunnels would potentially connect the garage directly to Centraal’s metro and train station, the busiest transit hub in the city.
As I wrote in 2015, the decision to construct a massive — there’d be room for 7,000 bikes — subaquatic parking garage in Amsterdam isn’t strictly because there’s no room aboveground to build one. (Which there really isn’t.) It’s also an aesthetic choice.
While thousands upon thousands of chained bikes blanketing the city make for dramatic photo-ops for out-of-towners, many view the bikes as a form of visual pollution that detracts from Amsterdam’s dramatic beauty. Moving them underground — or, in this case, underwater — to a less conspicuous but convenient local would enable Amsterdam’s stunning historic cityscape to shine even brighter without all the clutter.