So much of how you experience a new city depends on where you stay. And when we rolled up to our flat in Eindhoven, after a short train ride from Rotterdam, we knew immediately we’d hit the jackpot.
Standing in the car-free Catharinaplein, we found ourselves in a central square flanked by Sint-Catharinakerk, a beautiful, Neo-Gothic cathedral built in 1867. Our bedroom window overlooked a fietstraat (Dutch for “bike street”), giving us front row seats for the afternoon commute, as well as a number of bustling patios filled with patrons enjoying a bite to eat.
In truth, this is how we’d pictured the quintessential Netherlands experience – evenings spent savouring dinner on a patio, dozens of bikes parked wherever space could be found, and plenty of people watching in the aforementioned plaza. Pure bliss.
But we had heard mixed things about Eindhoven prior to our arrival. So we knew to get a true taste of the city, we needed to leave its comfortable pedestrianized centre and explore the surrounding neighbourhoods, experiencing exactly what the average citizen does on a daily basis.
The Garden City as a new model for daily life
To understand the Eindhoven of today – like any European city large or small – it’s important to discover its past. Cycling as a means of transportation is woven into the fabric of what it means to be Dutch, regardless of locale. And Eindhoven is no exception.
When the Philips Light Bulb Factory opened its doors during the First World War, the city began to boom, and with it, the number of cyclists on its streets. Even in 1947, as the automobile started to grow in popularity across the country, people on bikes constituted 71% of road users in Eindhoven (with motorists a mere 6%).
Recognizing the unprecedented growth Philips would bring, Eindhoven hired nationally renowned architects Pierre Cuypers and Louis Kooken to develop a housing master plan for the area. Their inspiration – the Garden City; imagined by British Urban Planner Ebenezer Howard – would prove to be the catalyst for continual planning, even to this day.
The plan would see residential living move to surrounding suburbs, radiating around the centre, which would house industry and shopping – a geographic separation of the three functions of daily life: dwelling, business, and commerce.
Tunnels as a way to deal with bicycle traffic
As a city built on manufacturing, the earliest indication planners would have to re-examine how residents travelled from A to B came during the commute to work. Philips – the city’s single largest employer – was situated on the other side of the tracks from Woensel, a largely blue-collar neighbourhood.
With no reliable crossing, cyclists of all classes (from factory workers to corporate executives) bottlenecked on either side, awaiting the gates to open. At its worst, these gates would remain closed for up to five hours a day, causing huge delays for the workers.
The solution, implemented in 1953: a tunnel, built specifically to allow passage for cars, but equally beneficial to those on foot and bike. Nowadays, these underground crossings are a staple of Eindhoven’s transportation network, including the fun Silly Walk Tunnel.
Tunnelling provided a way for engineers to make it easier for automobiles to move freely throughout the city, despite intersecting rail lines. In the following years, however, they became a more attractive way to deal with bicycle traffic, while “solving” the growing concerns of road safety and car congestion.
Keeping bikes “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”
On our first day in Eindhoven, we met with Dr. Frank Veraart, Professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, and co-author of Cycling Cities: The European Experience. He outlined his city’s transformation over the years, and how the development of large ring roads surrounding the city – built to link residential communities with industrial and shopping areas – did not mix well with the needs of cyclists, who, as recently as the ‘60s, made up 80% of Philips employees.
As Veraart’s book explains, in 1961, the city hired German Engineer Karl Schaechterle to draw up a traffic plan to help solve their congestion problems. His plan, in its most basic form, was to separate “slow” traffic from “fast”, largely realized through constructing tunnels underneath newly built car-only highways.
Veraart encouraged us to visit one of the first experiment in this vertical separation: The Berenkuil (Dutch for “bear pit”) – a sunken bicycle roundabout below the busy intersection of the aforementioned ring road and Insulindeplein.
At first glance, the idea seems brilliant – bicycles and motor vehicles moving freely without impeding each other’s progress. However, further examination highlights this separation also keeps bikes “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” from motorists, proving problematic when the two meet again, a little further down the road.
The Hovenring: A €6.3-million piece of “bike bling”
Since the Berenkuil, Eindhoven has embraced this vertical separation of modes, for better or for worse. The most recent, and arguably most attractive example, is The Hovenring, their now world-famous suspended bike roundabout. Opened in 2012, this €6.3-million (approximately $9.2 million CAD) piece of “bike bling” has helped build the reputation of Eindhoven as a cycling city, despite still having some of the lowest cycling numbers in the country (about 40% of trips).
“Although city branding was not the main purpose of these high tech bicycle projects, they certainly help branding Eindhoven as a bicycle-friendly and innovative city,” admits Jan Willem Hommes, Transport Policy Advisor for the City of Eindhoven. “One of our marketing ambitions is to have more tourists flying to Eindhoven Airport, stay at least one night, and then take the train to Amsterdam.”
“In the direct sense, it may appear pointless, but indirectly it helps in two ways: It keeps cycling on the local agenda by advocates and policymakers,” adds Veraart. “Secondly, it promotes bike-friendly policies nationally and internationally. These kinds of projects help advocates and policymakers to think and work together.”
An innovative spirit for homegrown solutions
In spite of the high price tag and lower-than-anticipated usage, the Hovenring speaks to an innovative spirit that has always resided in Eindhoven.
In fact, the much-acclaimed woonerf (Dutch for “living street”) arose out of a partnership between the Eindhoven and Delft Universities of Technology. Commissioned by the local Cyclists’ Union – looking to develop homegrown solutions to rocketing rates of road fatalities – woonerfs were built on 39 streets in nine Eindhoven communities, and later adopted by the national traffic code.
Eindhoven also lays claim to the hugely influential Stop de Kindermoord (Dutch for “stop child murder”) movement, which is considered one of the biggest factors in preventing the Dutch from becoming as car dependent as their western counterparts.
Improving streets and communities for all citizens
The Eindhoven we experienced during out short stay was one that appeared to be striving to improve its streets for all citizens – but was still a work in progress. After enjoying the intuitive cycle tracks in Rotterdam, we did find ourselves referring to the map more often, searching for linking bike routes. But to their credit, planners have recognized the need to make the trip from home to work or school a seamless one, connecting wide, unimpeded paths, including the Berenkuil and Hovenring.
Even the Starry Night Bike Path, homage to Vincent Van Gogh – who lived for a number of years in the nearby village of Nuenen – recalls Eindhoven’s innovative past and future. The kilometre-long trail combines solar-powered, glow-in-the-dark stones with LED lighting, creating a visual spectacle. Despite the dedicated, out-of-the-way, late-night trip, it still stands out as one of the highlights of our visit.
The work to becoming a smart city is not complete
As the fifth largest city in the Netherlands, Eindhoven stands up proudly to its peers, regardless of cycling numbers. We felt welcome on its streets, enjoyed the coming together of people from all over the region in its vibrant centre, and were reassured by its acceptance that the difficult work of becoming a smart city is not complete.
Since Philips’ decision to relocate its manufacturing offshore and headquarters to Amsterdam, Eindhoven has pivoted to embrace innovation and technology, establishing itself as a “technopole”. This new entrepreneurial spirit can be found at the University of Technology, High Tech Campus, Health Innovation Campus, as well as Strijp-S – the incubator lab housed in Philips’ former plant – and organizations such as Dynamo, a music production and talent agency found in the square we called home.
“Our city branding is based on TDK: technology, design, and knowledge,” suggests Hommes. “The city is a big living lab for all kinds of technical innovations, and projects such as 18 Septemberplein – the underground bike parking in the city centre – also show we’re looking to apply innovative mobility solutions in practice.”
“Eindhoven has changed dramatically over the last 10 years,” Veraart suggests enthusiastically. “It is thriving and becoming a more international city, with expats working for Philips, ASML, DAF trucks, and related businesses. Investments in shopping and cultural centers have also made it into a vivid and more lively place.”
Welcoming change, while respecting the past
To our North American eyes, the pedestrianized streets, historic churches, and remnants of industry sat perfectly next to newer residential and office buildings, giving it a character of welcoming change, while respecting the past.
We couldn’t help but cast our minds to other North American cities hollowed out by a decline in manufacturing (think Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Sarnia). But with an intelligent planning process, a multi-modal mindset, and investments in innovation, a more resilient Eindhoven has avoided the decay and decline seen in similar cities.
All in all, we left satisfied with our visit, knowing the next time we returned to this versatile city in the southeast, it will have changed again, and only for the better.
Modacity’s #CyclingAbroad adventure was made possible through the generous support of our friends at Daily Hive, Urban Systems Ltd., and Two Wheel Gear. To view the full collection of photographs taken by the authors in Rotterdam, please click here.