Delivering Happiness: Groningen’s clean traffic management

Delivering Happiness: Groningen's clean traffic management

Jeroen Berends and Sjouke van der Vlugt, Policy Officers in Urban Planning at the Municipality of Groningen, spoke to Niels Keissen about how the inner city of Groningen can remain safe, clean and attractive while preserving adequate space for everyone, including freight traffic.

POLIS member Groningen is the largest city in the Northern Netherlands, and one of the Region’s economic powerhouses. The historic centre, the core part of the city, is home to a buzzing nightlife, is seen as a cultural hub, and of course, a favoured gathering spot to celebrate FC Groningen’s (frequent) victories – at least for those who support the team. These activities have animated the district; however, they have also added to its traffic dilemma. Nonetheless, Groningen appears to have the issue in hand.

Niels Keissen (NK): An attractive city centre – isn’t that what every city wants? What makes Groningen’s approach distinctive?

During a meeting with residents within the public consultation of Groningen’s logistics plans, from left to right: Niels Keissen, Sjouke van der Vlugt and Jeroen Berends

Jeroen Berends (JB): Groningen is one of the most vibrant and livable cities in the Netherlands, as well as one of the fastest growing in the country. By 2035, the city is projected to have a population of 260.000, requiring the construction of 20.000 new homes. Nothing really special there but, crucially, we are a growing city in a region with a shrinking population. Residents in the wider surroundings of Groningen are increasingly dependent on the work in the city and the facilities here; the Region may be emptying, but Groningen is booming.

Sjouke van der Vlugt (SV): This means more and more people are coming to Groningen, which is good news for the city. Yet, at the same time, there are limits to growth – particularly when it comes to our mobility infrastructure. For example, the historic city centre has narrow streets: these are getting busier and traffic is growing. This means that we have to be smart with the space we have got. We are taking all kinds of measures; for example, we want to have less freight and delivery traffic in the city centre, and we are accomplishing this with stricter rules for the supply of goods to shops, companies and the hospitality industry. Less freight and delivery traffic means more space for pedestrians and cyclists in a beautiful, vibrant city centre.

The Municipality of Groningen, Groningen City Club (shop owners organisation), Dropper (ICT platform for bicycle deliveries) and other local partners have started the ‘Smart Distribution & Buy Local’ retail innovation lab. A new online shopping channel for local retailers was created to provide independent shops with a shared virtual community and improve their digital relationships with shoppers. Logistics is an integral part of the platform. Purchases made on the shopping platform are delivered on a zero-emission basis by local cargo bike couriers. The Municipality of Groningen made the first 5.000 deliveries possible via the Interreg Surflogh project.


A "bakfiets" (cargo bike) in Groningen – the bike has the logo of Groningen Fietsstad (bicycle city) on its side, © Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) © CC BY-SA 4.0 International via Wikimedia Commons

NK: Why does less freight and delivery traffic mean more space for pedestrians and cyclists?

SV: In the streets and squares in the city centre you should be able to walk or cycle to all the nice shops, restaurants and cafés without having to zigzag around all kinds of obstacles. All too often we see vans blocking pedestrian areas while loading and unloading, as well as lorries making their way through narrow streets and creating potentially dangerous traffic situations for pedestrians and cyclists. This also causes noise and exhaust pollution, which absolutely has to be reduced.

JB: It is a strong statement, which may not make us popular in the logistics industry. However, we have a common goal: a clean and attractive city center, a city for people, not cars. We have to hold a dialogue about how we are going to achieve that goal. This is why we need new policy – to comply with national agreements on zero-emission zones, and also to determine the size of those zones in our capacity as a local authority.

NK: What are these measures you are taking to reduce the amount of freight and delivery traffic in the city centre?

JB: We have a really big job ahead of us and a range of changes are needed. For example, we are going to enlarge the area where there is a time-window for traffic and establish a zero-emission zone. We are not there yet, of course – it will not work until we will have established means of enforcement as well. For this reason, we are introducing digital enforcement with ANPR cameras so that fines are immediately applied for violation of the time-windows or driving a petrol or diesel-powered vehicle. At the same time, we are not seeking to lock up the city; we want to ensure that service technicians can carry out emergency repairs, for example, our exemptions policy also needs to be overhauled. These changes are not only for logistics companies, distributors and entrepreneurs – we also need to make some changes within our own organisation.

Groningen’s city centre will receive a major boost in the coming years, allowing more space for pedestrians and cyclists and making it more attractive and easily accessible. The traditionally mediaeval city centre is becoming busier and busier, demanding a smarter approach to using the available space. This is achieved through dozens of projects grouped under the name Binnenstad 050 – Ruimte voor jou! The goal is to create an attractive, welcoming, safe and accessible city centre for people of all ages; for everyone. Expanding the time-window area and establishing a zero-emission zone are two of the more than 50 projects associated with Ruimte voor jou!

NK: What are the main changes?

SV: Time-windows have been used in the main shopping streets of Groningen for years. Freight and delivery traffic are only allowed to enter these streets between 5:00AM and 12:00PM – outside of these times an exemption is required. This limitation does not apply to other streets. From 2022, the same rules for loading and unloading will apply throughout the city centre. All businesses located in the city centre will then be subject to the same set of rules, which we believe to be fair and straightforward.

JB: It makes perfect sense to expand the area with time-windows. The way the inner city is used has also changed significantly in recent years. For example, there are many more visitors than thirty years ago, when the time-window area was established. It is not just the main shopping streets that are busy anymore. This actually applies to all the streets within the historic Diepenring, where there are many new shops and restaurants. All this means that ‘Groningen’s living room’ has really grown in size!

SV: The Municipality of Groningen signed the Green Deal Zero-Emission Urban Logistics (GDZES) in 2014, together with a number of other municipalities, the national government, logistics companies, shippers, car manufacturers, research institutes, industry and interest groups. This means that in 2025, our city will host a zero-emission zone that will exclusively allow traffic without polluting fuels or diesel emissions – vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen or muscle power. To keep things clear, the time-window area and the zero-emission zone will mirror each other. So, things are really going to change.

NK: How are logistics companies, distributors, entrepreneurs and local residents reacting to the plans?

JB: In the spring of 2020, we set out our plans in the draft “Space for Zero-Emission Urban Logistics” vision. We drew up this plan with a focus group made up of representatives from a range of interest groups. We then entered individual discussions with all parties, from market vendors, distributors, wholesalers, small and medium-sized enterprises to hospitality entrepreneurs. The great thing about this project is that everyone agrees with the basic principles. Our goal is the same, although undoubtedly sometimes we have different ideas about the measures we need to deploy.

SV: And that is also not surprising. We are asking them to make far-reaching adjustments. For example, hospitality entrepreneurs will have to receive their orders in the morning, even if they are not yet open, therefore this requires a significant change to the way they conduct activities. Logistics companies will have to plan deliveries differently and ensure that they buy emission-free vans and trucks. And because the time-window area is expanding, they will have to plan their trips differently.

JB: We believe activities can be conducted more efficiently. Currently, many hospitality suppliers bring in orders and put it in the refrigerator. All the time they are doing that, the truck is running outside. That is not what our city centre is for. We think that drivers should make their visits to the city centre as quick and efficient as possible. Together with suppliers (including suppliers to food-service outlets) and local businesses, we intend to relieve the strain of logistics traffic on public space.

The current time-window area, © Municipality of Groningen

The future time-window area, © Municipality of Groningen

NK: Will anything change for residents?

JB: Yes, but to a lesser extent. In the lead-up to developing the final vision, we also organised meetings with residents of the city centre. For residents, the changes mean that a washing machine might only be delivered in the morning, for example. During the meetings, we also presented residents with statements about the extent to which they felt this was a problem. The outcome was reasonably positive. It was a pleasant surprise to have the majority indicate that they would like to make use of pick-up points so that small parcels no longer need to be delivered to their door. Every little bit helps. Residents did have concerns beforehand about the intention of the plans with respect to the accessibility of parking spaces for passenger cars and for car parks. To the relief of the residents, this vision makes no changes at all in this area.

Under the banner ‘hive.mobility’, the Municipality of Groningen, the University of Groningen, OV-bureau Groningen Drenthe, Dropper and numerous international partners established the ULaaDS project in mid-2020. The aim of the project is to accelerate deployment of new and efficient shared and zero-emission solutions to address the challenges of future urban logistics.

About the authors:

Niels Keissen is Senior Communication Consultant with the Municipality of Groningen,

Sjouke van der Vlugt is Policy Officer, Urban Planning with the Municipality of Groningen,

Jeroen Berends is Policy Officer, Urban Planning with the Municipality of Groningen,

The historic city center with its narrow streets, © Pepijn van den Broeke


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