I was both excited and nostalgic to see Mike's article about Groningen a few months ago. This Dutch city is a gem, and one I was lucky enough to live in for 5 months. I've lived in a few American cities that are routinely on lists (or even at the top of lists) of the nicest places to live in the United States (Charlottesville, Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Sarasota, Sunnyvale, Ithaca), but none of these cities are in the same league as Groningen when it comes to quality of life. Below, I'll run down (or can I say bike down?) 5 things I loved about living in Groningen, but first I guess it would be a good idea to tell you why I was there. This also gives me a good opportunity to briefly introduce myself to you, which might be nice to do since I just started writing on TreeHugger two days ago.
Since I was a teenager, I have been concerned about the global warming crisis we are facing and I have been passionate about finding ways to help the world help itself and avoid tremendous climate catastrophe. For my bachelor's degree, I majored in both sociology and environmental studies in order to try to understand the crisis better and in order to learn how to inspire meaningful societal action. With the help of one of my professors, that focus also led me into sustainable development, smart growth, new urbanism, and city planning as a whole. After college, I pursued a master's degree in city and regional planning from UNC–Chapel Hill, where I narrowed my practical focus even further and decided to do my thesis on the topic of bicycle planning. For that thesis, I conducted a comparative study of bicycle infrastructure and bicycle transportation in the city of Delft (in the Netherlands) and in Montgomery County, Maryland. (There are a lot of similarities, honestly!) Thanks to a relationship between the UNC city planning graduate program and the University of Groningen, I was able to spend 5 months living in Groningen at the end of my graduate studies, and I actually had a lot of free time since I had done the bulk of my thesis research ahead of time. So, that's how I got to spend 5 months exploring Groningen.
Now, on to the fun. Below are 5 things I loved about living in Groningen. The first one requires quite a bit of context, so be patient.
1. No other city.
It took me a while to realize this one, but when it hit me, my world flipped a bit. I lived in a "student house" (3- or 4-story apartment building) right next to the road between the city center and the main University of Groningen campus. The University of Groningen is the economic core of Groningen, and there was really just this one street connecting almost the entire rest of the city to this main, new campus. I don't know how many people were crossing by my apartment every day, but it was certainly a huge number. However, it took me months to realize that it was such a huge number, because there were only ever a few cars driving along the road; the road was a very narrow, two-lane road; and the only sounds that really stood out to me were the clicks of old bikes with warped fenders and the dings from the bike bells of "faster" bicyclists passing slower ones (of course, none of the Dutch bicyclists race down the road, but some casually bike a little faster than others).
In the end, I realized that the quiet, practically musical sound of bicyclists passing my window would have been a horrible, obnoxious, and polluting roar in almost any other city on the planet. With a bicycle commute rate of 50–60% (and an even higher bicycle commute rate amongst university students), one of the busiest streets in the city was actually a quiet, pleasant place to live. I loved sitting in my third-story apartment or on my balcony and looking out at the bicyclists passing my building. The stark contrast between that and what that street would have been like if the majority of people weren't biking will make me forever adore Groningen.
2. Bike speed bumps!
Yep, this one's a bit simpler. There are speed bumps for bicyclists in a bunch of places in Groningen. Basically, they are placed before intersections with either sidewalks or roads. But the thing about these speed bumps is that they're a lot of fun! It's actually very enjoyable to bike over them at a quick pace.
3. Riding through the park to get to the city center.
Between my apartment building and the city center, the main bicycle route goes through a big park. While my pictures were not taken at the nicest time of year, the park is beautiful when it's warmer and greener. However, at all times of year, it was wonderfully peaceful and pleasant to bike through this park.
Also, it's worth noting that this route is much quicker and more direct than the route cars have to take. It was planned that way. Whereas bikers often have to go roundabout ways to get to their destinations in North America, it's the opposite in Groningen.
4. Babies on bikes.
As a university city, Groningen has a lot of young families. I loved seeing babies on bikes and took dozens of pictures of these beautiful young Dutch beings. I still smile thinking about them.
There were also fun sights like this group of toddlers in the bin of a cargo bike:
5. The smooth thrill of major intersections.
At major intersections, there are bike lights, but they don't operate exactly as you might expect. When it's the bicyclists' turn, all the bike lights turn green at once. At busy times of day, that means that there's a lot of criss-crossing as some bicyclists are turning left, some are turning right, and some are going straight. The first couple of times, it's quite scary to go through one of these intersections – you're sure you're going to get into an accident! But it turns out that bikes are so small and bicycling is so slow that you can easily navigate through the crowd. The ease of making eye contact also helps.
So, it actually becomes quite a fun experience. When I think of this process, I think of how fish swim together in pods and sometimes cross but don't run into each other. It's certainly something to experience!
Unfortunately, I didn't actually get any good pictures of this experience. But you can check out a few pictures I took of bicyclists at an intersection near my apartment to get a sense for how it might look.
Frankly, there are dozens of things I loved about Groningen. I'll write about more Groningen awesomeness in coming posts, and I'll share a lot more photos. However, if you want to scroll through all my Groningen photos, friend me on Facebook and you are free to have a look.
Also recommended: 20 more things I loved about Groningen (+ TONS of bike photos)