This is the second in a series of RIPPL articles supported by Gemeente Groningen. In the run up to the International Cargo Bike Festival, which takes place in the city this coming June, we’re taking a deep-dive and focussing on how cycle-logistics works in this city of bikes.
In Groningen there has been an unfussy, straightforward way to get hold of a cargo trike for the day for over 30 years; long before the buzz phrases ‘mobility-as-a-service’ or ‘sharing economy’ were coined. The trikes, instantly recognisable to any Groninger, are available to hire from volunteer-run Stadswerkplaats which, although it is an unassuming organisation, is something of an institution in this city.
Located in a quiet, leafy square in the historic core of Groningen it is immediately obvious, as you approach, which building is occupied by Stadswerkplaats. Outside three sets of heavy-duty, wooden workshop doors sits a row of sturdy, old-fashioned looking cargo trikes, waiting to be hired for the modest fee of €12 per half day.
Founded in the late eighties, Stadswerkplaats (meaning “City Workshop”) is by no means only a place to hire cargo trikes. It’s also a fully kitted out wood and metal workshop where the people of Groningen can work on their own DIY and art projects. Also on offer is a range of affordable lessons in metal and woodworking, as well as specialist sub-disciplines such as wood-turning, welding, plumbing and tool-sharpening.
The organisation didn’t initially intend to specialise in bakfiets (cargo bike/trike) hire – according to founder Sven Thieme it happened more organically than that. The first bakfiets was bought at the request of workshop users in need of a way of transporting their creations home. Demand quickly grew and a second and third bakfiets were added. Fast-forward to 2019 and the fleet has grown to eight – most of which may well be in use at any one moment on busier days.
Founder Sven Thieme and Stadswerkplaats city centre nerve-centre. Photo credits: Tom Parr
Founder Thieme, a born-and-bred Groninger who to this day still runs Stadswerkplaats, initially set up the organisation because he was keen to work with his hands. Of the three main activities Stadswerkplaats is involved in (workshop, lessons and cargo trike hire), cargo trike hire is the one that generates the most revenue. This helps the organisation, a non-profit, keep afloat financially; they received subsidies for the first 20 years, but for the past decade have stood on their own two feet.
Does anything ever go wrong with the trikes? According to Thieme it has been known to happen; inexperienced riders, heavy loads and kerbs sometimes combine to cause punctures or broken spokes. In these cases, a €10 fee ensures you are personally rescued by Stadswerkplaats, something which apparently happens a couple of times each month. Thieme also tells me with a wry smile about one time bakfiets #5 ended up in a canal just minutes after being hired. Luckily, it was fished out almost immediately by a passing boat from the Gemeente.
Of course, when something does go wrong with one of the trikes, it is very useful to have access to the workshop and expertise needed to fix it (#5 is still in use today, despite it’s dip). Over the years almost every part of the trikes has been fixed or replaced in this way by Thieme and his team of volunteers. For those parts which cannot be fixed or rebuilt in the workshop, Thieme now has a three-decades-long relationship with the suppliers, and knows exactly what he needs to order.
Who, then, are the people hiring the Stadswerkplaats cargo trikes? Thieme states that the most common reason for hiring is to move house; which makes the bakfiets much in demand in student-oriented Groningen. A quarter of the city’s residents are studying at one of the two universities. It’s therefore quite a common sight to see casually-dressed twenty-somethings pedalling along with precarious loads of mattresses, lamps, pot plants and furniture. Hiring a van isn’t really a great option here. And as you might imagine, it is not unheard of for large amounts of beer to find themselves transported from A to B under pedal power…
According to Thieme however, students aren’t the only users of the service. The cargo trikes are also frequently pressed into service by non-students; also known as native Groningers. They’re mostly used in the city centre and surrounding neighbourhoods, where a traffic circulation plan in place since the 1970s intentionally makes it incredibly awkward to use private motor vehicles. And with a capacity of 250kg, it is possible to carry most items you care to think of on a Stadswerkplaats bakfiets.
Over the years, the cargo trikes have also been called upon to carry out other, more unconventional duties, including several weddings and funerals. They have also been deployed for city centre advertising, sales and even political campaigns. For such applications, what could be better than an object which attracts people’s attention, carries promotional materials, and also conveniently doubles up as a table?
Local broadcasters Oog TV are also regulars at Stadswerkplaats. Herestraat Helemaal is a weekly local TV show in which broadcaster Piet van Dijken interviews Groningers whilst strolling down Herestraat. It’s filmed with a camera mounted on Stadswerkplaats bakfiets #3, which rolls backwards down the street at walking pace, just in front of Van Dijken and his interviewee. Several hundred episodes have been filmed in this way.
Another regular client is the Gemeente (Municipality) themselves, whose waste department makes it possible for residents to transport bulky waste from city centre homes by hiring a Stadswerkplaats cargo trike free of charge; the Gemeente picks up the fee. It’s a win-win-win arrangement that saves the Gemeente time and resources, is free for residents, and is a valuable source of repeat income for Stadswerkplaats; one of the elements that give the organisation a sound financial footing.
Perhaps it’s a sign that Groningen truly is a cycling city to it’s very core, that an organisation such as Stadswerkplaats can blend in and seem like just part of the furniture – from an outsider’s perspective at least. They don’t shout about it, maybe they don’t even think about it, but sustainability is baked in. It’s an unpretentious organisation which pre-dates many of today’s smart shared mobility startups by over three decades, and you wouldn’t bet against it outliving most of them too. All by offering a simple, affordable service; a way of moving stuff from A to B on dependable, old-fashioned trikes.
University of Groningen: “Student stories: Bakfiets-ing around the city”
GroningenNieuws.nl : “Gratis gebruik bakfiets voor wegbrengen grofvuil” (Dutch)
Sikkom: “Gehuurde bakfiets eindigt na twee minuten in de gracht” (Dutch)
OOG TV: “Bakfiets Herestraat Helemaal Gestolen” (Dutch)
Header image credit: Modacity