Where are they supposed to go?
No bicycles here
There was no space in the bike racks at the Aweg when University College student Anton Schwenzer wanted to park his bike there, so he leaned it against a tree and attached it with his chain lock. The next morning, it was gone.
It seemed unlikely to him that it had been stolen. It wasn’t a very fancy bike, and he’d locked it up good. He realised it must have been the city. But why had they taken his bike? Surely it hadn’t been blocking anybody’s way? ‘It would’ve been nice if they’d started out with a warning’, he says. ‘I had no idea where my bike had gone.’
In Groningen, it’s strictly prohibited to park your bike in shopping areas and narrow streets. Bikes that have been parked where they’re not allowed or where they’re in the way are taken away by the city to a warehouse at the Damsterdiep. If your bike remains there for more than a week, it’s moved to the Algemene Fiets Afhandel Centrale (AFAC) warehouse in Vinkhuizen, where you need to pay a fine to get it back.
The city came up with this policy because they wanted pedestrians in the city to have more room due to the pandemic. This would prevent the coronavirus from spreading. But even though no one actually believes we can fight Covid by removing bikes, the city has continued the practice.
Economy student Campbell Warn also lost his bike to the city. He and his girlfriend parked their bikes against a wall in the Poelestraat before getting drinks at a pub. The residents of the building they’d parked their bikes against had put up a note saying they didn’t want any bikes, but there was nothing official from the city.
From inside, Campbell’s girlfriend watched city workers loading their bikes into a van. He only just managed to get them back by running after the vehicle. ‘I was stunned. I didn’t feel like it’d done anything wrong.’
My bike didn’t get stolen, the city took it
Helena Ojong, a nursing student, also doesn’t know what she did wrong. Her bike disappeared from right in front of her house at the Schuitendiep. According to the official city website, parking your bike in that area is allowed.
As such, she determined that her bike had been stolen. She paid a fifty-euro deductible to Swapfiets and was given a new bike. Only then did she receive an email, from Swapfiets, not the city, that her bike was at the warehouse in Vinkhuizen. ‘I didn’t even know there was a warehouse.’
A little while later, she once again parked her rented bike in front of her house. And once again, it was taken. But this time, she didn’t get a new one. ‘I didn’t want to pay another sixty bucks, because by now I knew that my bike had not in fact been stolen. The city was taking them.’ She went to Vinkhuizen to ask for an explanation.
But she didn’t really get one. As such, she still has no idea why her bike was taken.
According to city spokesperson Natascha van ‘t Hooft, bikes are never removed without good reason. ‘If a bike is blocking the path in such a way that pedestrians or emergency services can’t pass, it can’t be there.’ When city officers see this, they report it. ‘We focus on places where the bikes are the biggest nuisance: in shopping areas, the Guldenstraat, and the entrance to the Poelestraat’, Van ‘t Hooft explains.
But what about the Oude Kijk in ‘t Jatstraat? The chaos in the Poelestraat or the Schuitendiep actually isn’t all that bad, but when the university is open, all the sidewalks between the Harmony building and the university library are packed. The residents and business owners in the street, among others, are greatly annoyed at this.
When there’s a bike in front of my shop window, I throw it on the pile
Whenever there wasn’t a lockdown, there was a big pile of bikes next to Thijs Buiting’s travel book shop De Zwerver. ‘It’s dramatic and it makes the street look untidy. However, if someone parks their bikes in front of my shop window, I do in fact throw it on the pile’, he says.
He’s called the city about the issue but was told it was ‘outside their purview’ to do anything about it. He and his colleagues have started leaving notes on the errant bikes, asking their owners to please park them elsewhere in the future.
Nanouk Criens, who owns the Nanoukstore boutique, also took matters into her own hands. Whenever a student makes a move to park their bikes in front of her store, she immediately goes outside. ‘I have a shop window and I don’t want it blocked by all these bikes.’
Her neighbour across the street, art shop Ongering, has the same problem. ‘It’s driving us crazy. What bothers me the most is people who just park their bikes diagonally across the whole sidewalk.’
UG head of department facilities Rein van den Bos is also frustrated by the carelessly parked bikes. He feels responsible. ‘After all, it’s the people making use of our building that are causing the nuisance.’ But the university’s hands are tied.
According to Buiting, the city considers the Oude Kijk as a B-grade shopping street, which makes it a free zone for everyone. That means the city doesn’t enforce any kind of parking policy. The university isn’t allowed to install extra bike racks on the street, since it’s public property. Nothing can be parked in the little square in front of the Harmonie building, since emergency services need to be able to pass by.
But thousands of people cycle to the university every day, so we have to make do with what we have
But ‘the city has washed its hands of the situation’, says Van den Bos. ‘The only thing we can do is keep an eye on things, provide information, and use manpower to keep things in order.’
That manpower consists of the bike stewards, who are doing everything they can to make sure students and staff park their bikes properly. ‘But thousands of people cycle to the university every day, so we have to make do with what we have’, he says.
One thing is clear, however: no one really understands the rules. ‘It doesn’t really matter how long your bike has been there. Sometimes they take it after just a few minutes. In other places, you can leave your bike out for weeks without anything happening to it’, says Campbell. Anton is also confused by the rules. ‘There are other bikes that are parked more sloppily than mine, but they’re still there. What gives?
The students would like it if the policy was clearer. At least then, they would know what to expect. But Van ‘t Hooft says the policy is perfectly clear. ‘Students can decide for themselves whether their bikes block the path for others’, she says. ‘We don’t need to do that for them.’