Utrecht: Catharijnesingel bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit bridges


Until the 1970s, the Catharijnesingel in Utrecht was a wide canal, with narrow roads on either side of it. Then the canal was filled to construct a six lane freeway that would inter the central city from the south east. This creation of a highway severely altered the urban environment that surrounded the newly constructed freeway. The City of Utrecht, like many American cities, had suffered a physical tear in their urban fabric that consequently separated communities and created an obstacle in the bicycle and pedestrian network.  During the time of the freeway, overpasses were used to connect the west and east sides of the Utrecht. However, these connections were for a mix of uses that combined pedestrians and bicyclists with automobiles.

As a freeway-Google Earth

Google Streeview of the freeway


The freeway was never fully completed after the 1970’s. It only span a few miles, therefore its use was limited at moving cars at a fast speed over several miles. To improve the conditions in Utrecht, and to bridge better connectivity from the west to east side, the City opted to return the defunct freeway back to its original purpose, a canal.  Because of the return of the canal, a new system of bridges are being built that will separate uses. One will support pedestrians and bicyclists only, and the other will support public transit only. Leaving personal vehicles to find routes to the north and the south.  At the time of our visit construction was still in progress, however, a pedestrian and bike only temporary crossing was already installed. In our observations, this detour were the new bridge will eventually be built, experienced a large number of cyclists as this connection provides immediate access to the Central Station and its expansive bike commuter parking lot.


Bringing the Canal Back

Bringing the Canal Back

Rendering of intersection at pedestrian and bicycle bridge

Rendering of intersection at pedestrian and bicycle bridge

Pros and Cons of the Catharijnesingel Canal

(+)  The restoration of the canal provides a natural space that will be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.  By removing the freeway, the city is reverting to a more human scaled urban form. By removing the freeway there are clear environmental benefits that include a reduction in noise and air pollution. As humans we enjoy natural places – although the canal is manmade, it does provide a biophilic opportunity for the community. With the dedicated bike/ped crossing, there will be an increase accessibility and mobility for the residents of Utrecht.
(-) An obvious con is a decrease in mobility for automobile drivers, especially those that have to rely on the automobile (eg. physically challenged or elderly).  By removing the freeway and redirecting traffic, there will be an  increase in traffic on surrounding surface roads, this can create congestion and have environmental effects in other neighborhoods. Lastly,  I would consider if the proposed bike and ped only facility will continue to meet demand well within the future.  Will the crossing need to be retrofitted again to keep up with increasing demand?


Is this viable solution in for the US?  yep!

Over the past several decades many U.S. city’s have begun to tear out freeways  that have severed their communities. Examples of these include Portland’s Harbor Drive (Removed 1974), San Francisco’s Embarcadero Frwy (removed 1989), and the Alaskan Way in Seattle (in progress). Another solution to the tear in the urban fabric is the creation of freeway caps. These capping systems function as an alternative to removing a highway, but also allow for the cities, neighborhoods, and communities to be mended.

Harbor Drive, Portland (1960's)

Harbor Drive, Portland (1960’s)

Harbor Drive - Now!

Harbor Drive – Now!

Retrofits in the U.S.

Highway removal and park creation is part of a series of changes that widened sidewalks and create other transportation options at the expense of car lanes. Turning six lane wide roads into public spaces help to calm traffic, create green space, reduce environmental degradation, and in some cases help to instituted public bicycle systems. By tearing down freeways, residents and visitors of many U.S. cities experience the city differently, through walking, biking, and public transportation rather than automobiles.

The above mentioned projects have created spaces at the human scale and have given natural access back to the residents. In all of these cases, in comparison with the Netherlands, non had the intention of creating an alternative transportation system to accompany the newly acquired space. In the U.S. the urban design of these spaces, whether a freeway teardown or a freeway cap, is centered on the creation of green space and/or economic development. Although bike/ped infrastructure is typically included it often is lacking because it does not connect to a larger network. However, in Portland Oregon, like in Utrecht, the City has opted to create  a bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit bridge (Tilikum Crossing) that crosses the Willamette River to better connect southeast Portland to downtown.

Of course big projects like these are not easy to come by. I won’t go into all of the arguments, but you can note that politics, funding, personal property rights, ROW, and nimby(ism) plays a major role in the U.S. in which large projects like those mentioned above are often put on a shelf and never realized. Whereas, in the Netherlands, the national and local government has the power to institute major projects. As argued by our host in Houten, the government does not experience much backlash from the public when it comes to funding such large and innovative projects – this is because the national government fully funds projects and taxes a only put to the maintenance of that infrastructure.


To learn more about really amazing freeway removals, visit http://gizmodo.com/6-freeway-demolitions-that-changed-their-cities-forever-1548314937


A link to further information on the Catharijnesingel  will be available through the NEU Wiki page (coming soon!) Check back for a link. But in the meantime, feel free to visit these website from more information!





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