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Downtown on two wheels

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Last fall I traveled back to Groningen, Netherlands for some rest and relaxation and to visit my alma mater — the University of Groningen. As the most northern city in the country, the destination isn’t exactly on the radar of most international tourists.

In fact, most visitors are German tourists making a day trip to go shopping. But this gem of a city has a lot to be proud of and shares a lot with our own Central Coast. Secluded from the rat race and crowds of Amsterdam, Groningen enjoys lovely verdant pastures and prime agricultural lands just a few minutes from town, not to mention awards and accolades for having the best downtown in the country.

There is a certain pride in the quality of life there. As a play on words with its geography, the unofficial slogan of the city is “There is nothing above Groningen,� which to me calls to mind the pride of the “SLO Life.�

 Groningen boasts the highest rate of bicycle use in the nation, amounting to nearly 60% of all trips. Compare that to here at home, where the number is only 5%. The Dutch city’s path to success had much to do with its plan of “sweet and sour� or positive and negative incentives to encourage bicycle use.

 The “sweet� consists of setting up a network of bike paths and bike lanes, lowering speed limits, and other infrastructure including one of my favorites, called “four-direction green� intersections. These are intersections where motor traffic completely stops and bicyclists are given their own turn to travel in any direction —either straight ahead or onto another street. What’s more, those who ride a bike to work are given special tax credits, and employers will often cover the cost of a bicycle as a business expense. You could call it getting a “company bike.� Tax credits actually save the government money, since the cost of a tax credit is still much lower than it would be to maintain roads overcrowded with single-occupancy automobiles.

 The “sour� consists of limiting automobile movement. The city streets are more or less laid out as a series of concentric rings that get smaller as you get closer to the center of town. Traffic engineers cut the city into quadrants like a pie, then installed bollards so cars cannot drive from one end of town to the other without first driving outside of the “pie� — driving around downtown and entering through another quadrant.  This city action discourages driving a car downtown. Buses and bicycles, however, are not restricted.

The result is a downtown that is friendlier for walking and bicycling...as well as shopping. When the city first tested the plan, local merchants feared that they would lose business. What happened was the exact opposite. The downtown became more attractive, and business owners soon called for the plan to be expedited. Merchants have also found that those who arrive by bicycle tend to be better customers. While they may buy fewer items per trip, the trips are more frequent. Often, the biking customers spend more due to increased impulse-buying.

 Contrary to what you may think, neither Groningen nor the rest of the country were always bike-friendly. After WWII, reconstruction efforts in Holland focused almost entirely on the flow of auto traffic. Streets didn’t look much different than many cities in the U.S. Car-free zones like the ones you now find all over Europe were an anomaly. By the 1970s, Groningen was dealing with unprecedented traffic jams. Efforts to widen streets merely shifted congestion from one part of the city to another. It was like suffering from clogged arteries and only resorting to bypass surgery rather than trying to make lifestyle changes. Finally, the city realized that a change in habits was in order and started putting itself on a low-car diet and increasing exercise.

 We can learn a lot from the example of Groningen. First of all, it’s encouraging to know that the city’s success is more or less a recent phenomenon. That can give us hope. It’s also noteworthy that the city was dealing with many of the same problems that are now plaguing the Central Coast, with traffic congestion rated among the worst.

 Groningen’s plan of “sweet and sour� is also a good recipe. More than ever, we need positive incentives for people to ride, including finishing the Railroad Safety Trail and other bike paths countywide. In addition, we need more and better connecting bike lanes as well as other alternatives to the bondage of high fuel prices.

 While the “sour� may be a harder sell, we need to impress upon our local governments and neighbors that in a budget-crunched California, purely car-centric cities do not make good economic sense. The maintenance costs are just too high — and that results in higher taxes. As Americans, we have the optimism and guts to make a change when one is needed. Let’s make it happen. Here’s to a more livable and prosperous Central Coast. ∆

Adam Fukushima  is the Executive Director of the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition. He can be reached by pedaling, or by e-mail at adamf@slobikelane.org.

You’re invited to submit your 1000- to 1200-word commentary to kharris@newtimesslo.com.

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