How the Dutch love of cycling is glowing in the dark to inspire innovation | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.11.2014
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How the Dutch love of cycling is glowing in the dark to inspire innovation

Aims to reduce carbon emissions have sparked an innovative boom in The Netherlands. It starts with glow-in-the-dark, solar powered, heated cycle lanes, and may go anywhere. Suzanna Koster, Eindhoven.

For a country that has more bicycles than residents, these words will seem unbelievable: "What we see is that the bicycle is getting more popular."

We're in The Netherlands.

And Martijn van Es of the Dutch Cyclists' Union laughs as he says the words. But here's the catch: "It's not just with cyclists, but also with policy makers and engineers."

The global economic crisis - including widespread energy concerns - has inspired engineers and policy makers to look for more cost-effective, environmentally friendly, winter-proof bicycle lanes.

Their quest has resulted in innovations seen nowhere else in the world.

One such innovation is the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle lane that has opened this month.

At night, thousands of green and blue glowing stones encased within the concrete lighten up a bicycle lane that trails through a dark and open field.

Netherlands innovative bike lane

Will glow-in-the-dark bicycle paths inspire new love for old?

The swirling pattern of the stones was inspired by Van Gogh's painting starry night. It's been 125 years since Van Gogh died. He used to live here.

It's not just about fairy-tale looks, says Daan Roosegaarde, the designer, who is famous for his glow-in-the-dark work.

"It's also about thinking about the future of landscapes, which are energy neutral."

The stones are charged by the sun, but still need a little bit of electricity to last all night.

Heijmans, the construction company that built the path, hopes to develop self-sufficient stones in the future.

Sustainable cycling

It's all come at time when the Dutch government has set itself on a mission to reduce carbon emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050.

The goal is turning innovation into a sport, says Maarten Hajer, the director general of PBL, the Netherlands' Environmental Assessment Agency.

"There is a creative competition where each municipality wants to do better than the other," says Hajer, "and that is precisely the environment where you get true innovation."

Netherlands innovative bike lane

Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp (right) on an e-bike at the SolaRoad launch

It's also important to have government back innovators, says Joziene van de Linde, head of Heijmans technology.

"Most of the time," says Van de Linde, "they are the first ones to notice new technologies and they get really enthusiastic."

The province of North-Holland boasts one such local government.

It launched SolaRoad, the world's first solar energy cycle lane.

The tarmac is made up of crystalline silicon solar cells topped with a translucent layer of tempered glass with skid resistant coating.

Minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp opened the lane riding an e-bike, saying SolaRoad is just the beginning.

Marking change

"We start with bikes and then perhaps the busses and then the cars. We are investing in innovation - a lot of money - as a government. In total, about 2 billion euros every year," says Kamp.

Netherlands innovative bike lane

Van de Linde: Innovation needs government support

But not everything is perfect.

Hajer of the Environmental Assessment Agency says SolaRoad lacks efficiency, because the surface is too rough to generate energy, especially when it gets dirty.

That said, generating lots of energy may not be the point.

"We hope to be in transition to a low carbon economy and a clean technology future and in that phase you need symbolic markers of the change," says Hajer.

Another marker of change is a heated cycle lane on the outskirts of the city of Wageningen. It melts ice and snow in the winter.

"We call it heating, but actually, it just takes 4 or 5 centigrade for the ice or snow to melt," says Job Van Roekel, director and designer of the heated bike lane by Easypath.

Van Roekel has built a tube system similar to ones used in floor heating over a 50-meter test stretch.

Netherlands innovative bike lane

Van Roekel on a test stretch of the Easypath heated bike path

The concrete surface heats water in the summer. The water is stored at 150 meters below ground-level, where it remains at temperature until it is pumped closer to the surface in winter.

It takes just one small solar panel to keep the system running.

Wageningen has a longstanding tradition of adopting green solutions and the heated bicycle lane fits that profile, says Remco van Ahee, a civil engineer with the local municipality.

"If local governments wait for mature products nothing moves," says Van Ahee. "And it's good for our reputation. That's worth a penny too."

Martijn van Es of the Dutch Cyclists' Union welcomes the renewed love for cycling lanes, and hopes the momentum will last.

"There are a lot of things developing at the moment, but the crucial thing we want to ensure that it is not just trying and talking, but also that we give it some time and a permanent place in solutions for cyclists in The Netherlands."

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