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Bicycle Streets (Fietsstraat) in Ghent

Bike to the Future

Now more than ever, urban planning is heading back to the future 

– back to when cities were life-sized places with rational

and practical solutions for moving people around.

When one day I came across an online article advertising an exhibition in Belgium with a very appealing title Bike to the Future, I didn’t think twice. A couple of days later I was sitting on the train heading to Ghent. Hosted in a splendid building of Design Museum, the exhibition showcased around 50 bicycles, many of which were prototypes. Their inventiveness, application of the newest technologies and craftsmanship was jaw-dropping (more in an article to be published soon). As part of the exhibition, visitors could chill out in a play&read zone. There, on a huge table, covered with brochures about bike infrastructure and activism, I noticed one about Fietsstraat. A bicycle street. Unthinkable as it may seem, it does exist.

It was cyclists who first lobbied for flat roads

Many motorists believe that roads were invented for them. Cyclists, also legitimate road users, are often given a cold shoulder and are treated like intruders on roads. As a matter of fact, it was cycling organisations, for example in the UK and the US, that campaigned and paid for better roads*. When in the 1840s a large portion of traffic shifted from coaches to railways, roads were left in miserable condition. Cyclists commuted long distances, from the outskirts to town or from town to town for work. They saw a need for smooth road surfaces.  It was also the case in Denmark where Danish Cyclists Association lobbied for politicians to improve road surfaces.** 

Bicycle Street

The first Bicycle Street (Visserij) in Ghent was opened in 2011 following consultations with residents. They expressed strong support for this concept which had been already known in Germany and the Netherlands. A year later, in 2012, the concept was incorporated into the Belgian road code.

The Bicycle Street is where cyclists are considered priority users. They are allowed to hug the centerline of the street. Cars are merely ‘guests’ and are not permitted to overtake cyclists. Well, this is a rule. When I was strolling down the street, one impatient driver did pass a cyclist. The speed limit is set at 30 km per hour. What is impressive is a custom red surface. So literally cyclists are given a red-carpet treatment.

When quitting Visserij, on the way back to the city centre, my attention was captured by colourful murals on a small side street. Being always greedy for graffiti, I turned into it and to my joy I discovered another Bicycle Street (Tweebruggen). Walls covered with original and witty murals.  Sense of calm. I instantly envied people living there. One of the residents stepped out of the doorway and saw me snapping pictures. We exchanged looks and smiled. I could read from his face expression: “Beautiful place we are living in, aren’t we?”

Yes.

Towns and cities that design for people, not machines, will be the most progressive of the next 150 years, 

the towns and cities where people will most want to live, work and play. Far from being a 19th century anachronism, the bicycle is fast becoming a symbol of urban modernity, 

and cyclists are again at the vanguard of making cities better places. Cyclists have always been ahead of their time.*

 

* The Guardian

** City of Bicycles by Cecilia Vanman

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