Once upon a time, I lived in the city of Groningen. I still think it has the best quality of life of any city I’ve ever lived in or visited (and, to be honest, I’ve been lucky to live in some highly regarded places — Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Silicon Valley, CA; Sarasota, FL; Ithaca, NY; Wroclaw, Poland — and have visited many other beautiful cities). I really can’t explain how much better the quality of life is in Groningen — I’ve tried, but it doesn’t register if you haven’t had the experience. I can explain why quality of life there is so wonderful, though.
The bicycle commute rate is approximately 50–60%. Much of the rest of transportation is by bus or foot. There is a relatively tiny amount of traffic from noisy, stinky, space-inefficient automobiles. The city isn’t very large, but it is large enough to have good amenities and attractions — a large, vibrant downtown (or city center as Europeans call it); a large sports arena; museums; theaters; major events; and much more. But instead of driving through annoying traffic to get to such places, you go on a 10–15 minute calm, leisurely, fun bike ride through an idyllic city.
Furthermore, the city has many nice parks — large and small — and you can often even bike through a beautiful park on a large bike path/bike road for a portion of your ride. Honestly, it feels like living in a Hollywood dream world.
The city center is not fully blocked off from vehicle traffic, but it’s close. There are four quadrants the center is split into, and vehicles are not able to drive from one to another. Delivery vehicles can enter the city center, but not much else. There are two giant squares ideal for walking around (though, bicyclists can be a bit of a concern or nuisance in a couple of spots). These are beautiful areas for shopping, eating out, and socializing — when not in a period of self-isolation and social distancing.
The positive news out of Groningen is that things are going to get even better there! In particular, even all city logistics will have to be done by zero-emissions vehicles starting in 2025. (Hopefully they will meet their target much sooner.)
From 2022, the Municipality of Groningen will only permit freight traffic to enter the city center in the morning.
From 2025, ALL city logistics must be zero emission.
— Dutch Cycling Embassy (@Cycling_Embassy) February 26, 2020
Cargo bikes are already quite popular in Groningen. You can spot one almost any time you look up, and I’ve seen them used for everything from moving kids (like a minivan) to moving a couch.
Aside from bikes, electric vehicles can take over the rest of transport needs in the city center. While the situation today (or in 2007, when I lived there) already provides a tremendously quiet, clean, and enjoyable atmosphere compared to other cities its size, the vehicles that can and do drive around stand out as grotesquely smelly and noisy. It’s like being on the beach and seeing or hearing a rumbling diesel-spewing medium-duty delivery truck roll down the sand behind you. Not fun. When all of those switch over to quiet, clean, quietly buzzing electric vehicles, Groningen is just going to be another stage ahead of other medium-sized cities. Oh, how I would love to live there again … if only it had the beaches and sunshine of Southwest Florida.
To be frank about it, anyone planning or influencing any sort of development project should spend some time in Groningen to see what’s possible and why it’s so much better than what you probably thought was possible. Additionally, every city in the world should implement this new policy — zero-emissions logistics by 2025 (or sooner) or you’re not allowed in the city. Quality of life would improve by leaps and bounds, the climate crisis would get much more manageable, and public health would be unimaginably better than it is today — perhaps more than if we self-isolated for 3 weeks out of every month.
Kudos to Groningen for being a leader again.
All photos by Zach Shahan (me)