Cycling is already one of the most sustainable methods of getting from A to B that there is. But one municipality in the Netherlands decided to take that a step further when, in 2015, it built a bike path that actually generates energy.

Krommenie and its solar panel bike lane.

Engineers in Krommenie, about 15km north of Amsterdam, laid down a ground-breaking bike path made of specially designed solar panels. The 90m long section of “SolaRoad” was 1.7m wide and generated 3,000kWh of electricity — enough to power one home.

This first SolaRoad was installed as a pilot project and so was viewed as an experiment. On several occasions during the pilot, improved versions of the solar panels were installed “to test different coating technologies, solar module designs and cell types”. In the first iterations parts of the top layer came loose in freezing conditions, prompting several — somewhat premature — news reports that the whole project had been a failure. Subsequent improvements in the design solved this crucial top layer problem, and others.

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Lessons learned

A major lesson to come out of the pilot was that users — the 150,000 people who rode over it in the first year — experienced the SolaRoad exactly as they would a normal bike path. In other words, they simply did not notice it. It also became clear during the pilot that maintenance was a non-issue. No special cleaning regime was put in place, a decision that was deemed a success.

Since the Krommenie pilot scheme, several SolaRoads have been installed in the Netherlands and France. In Nantes, the SolaRoad panels powered local street lighting for a bike path crossing an area of rocky ground, which would usually have meant a costly grid connection. In another, a bench with charging points for e-bikes, phones and tablets was powered off-grid. Alternatively, the electricity generated can simply be fed back into the grid.

Form AND function

But SolaRoad isn’t the only innovative cycling path involving solar power. Another much more aesthetically pleasing example can be found near Eindhoven. The Van Gogh Path emits thousands of tiny points of light from within its surface, in patterns inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night.

Charging during the day and emitting light at night, the award-winning 600m bike path celebrates the cultural heritage of the area, where Van Gogh lived from 1883 to 1885. Indeed, the path runs right between two windmills that feature in his paintings.

The light emitted is not only decorative, it also provides safety. And not only traffic safety in ensuring that users can see the road clearly. Just as important, and often overlooked, is the social safety aspect. Unlit paths are often avoided by those who feel vulnerable, and so go unused at night. Good lighting is a partial solution to that problem.

Off the beaten track

These unconventional bike paths — hybrids of solar power and cycling infrastructure — are symptoms of wider trends. They help to make our cities more sustainable, and do so in the often limited space available. To earn a place in the streets of tomorrow, a piece of infrastructure must multi-task. Those that can are likely to be adopted on a larger scale.

The interweaving of playfulness and safety into these designs is also revealing. It points to the constructive, interdependent relationship between urban cycling on the one hand, and the trend towards liveable cities on the other.

The technology is in its infancy, but we will see more of self-lit, self-sufficient, electricity generating bike paths. It offers opportunities not only to policymakers wanting to make bold, popular statements on active travel, but also to industry. In the coming years, manufacturers, consultants and architects who successfully carry out comparable projects will find city authorities beating a path to their door.