Europe’s largest port of Rotterdam shows how it is leading the way in all forms of future mobility, from autonomous vehicles to hydrogen-powered water-taxis. Chris Price gets on his bike to check out the city’s future transport plans…
This could be ‘Rotterdam or anywhere’ sang The Beautiful South in their huge 1990s hit, Rotterdam. In a sense they were right. On the surface there is nothing particularly remarkable about the city famous for its huge port – the largest in Europe and once the biggest in the world until being overtaken by Singapore at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Less touristy and less instantly picturesque than Amsterdam, though not that much smaller in terms of population (6000,000 compared to around 800,00 people), Rotterdam was bombed heavily by the Germans in WWII so many of its old buildings didn’t survive. As a result, much of the architecture – while in part striking – is particularly modern by European standards and the old town squares of nearby cities such as Brussels simply don’t exist.
Instead, when redevelopment took place between the 1950s and 1970s it focused heavily on the rise of car ownership in much the same way as cities such as Birmingham and Coventry (two UK cities bombed heavily in World War II) also redeveloped with drivers’ needs taking priority.
So when I stepped off the Eurostar from London as a guest of the city’s part Government-funded marketing and investment agency Rotterdam Partners, I didn’t have high hopes for my two-day visit to discuss Future Mobility. Especially as Rotterdam Central Station is right next to an incredibly busy car-packed street with practically no sign of any trees or greenery anywhere!
Thankfully I was soon proved wrong. “What’s interesting is that compared to 10 years ago, we have a completely new vision about mobility and we’re starting to change this big car boulevard into a more pedestrian-friendly area,” said Marcus Edelenbosch, Program Manager Mobility at the municipal authority, Gemeente Rotterdam, pointing at a busy roundabout with a few fountains but with little space to sit and relax.
The approach is based on four principles, he explained. The first is to create more space for walking, cycling and public transport, the second is to provide safer means of moving across the city, the third is to create a more inclusive transport system that everyone can use and, last but by no means least, is a transport system that can move goods smoothly across the city.
Inevitably, as this is the Netherlands, bikes and mopeds take centre stage in Rotterdam’s mobility revolution. Like other cities in the Netherlands, there are bike lanes everywhere. Mostly these are also segregated from cars to increase safety, whereas in London it’s not unusual to find yourself in a bike lane with no barriers separating you from fast-moving traffic.
Indeed, my trip to Rotterdam started, unusually, with a bike ride around the city, though it took some time to get used to the vast array of different types of two-wheeled transport on the road – including ‘cargo bikes’ with baskets in the front which were big enough to hold several bags of shopping, bikes for disabled people and those for riders carrying kids.
In addition, there are the usual rental electric mopeds and small motorbikes, but unusually no (legal) e-scooters of the kind that increasingly litter the streets of places like London and Paris. This is because of an incident when four children died in the back of an electric stint cart in the Netherlands in 2018. So although you do see some e-scooters on public roads in Rotterdam, these are generally ridden illegally by teenagers.
Electric and hydrogen future
While getting around by pedal bike remains popular in Rotterdam, much like in the rest of the Netherlands, there is a push towards electric and hydrogen-powered travel – and not just e-bikes and electric cars which are becoming popular throughout Europe.
As part of our trip, we visited Rotterdam The Hague Innovation Airport (RHIA) which has become a testing ground within the international airport for several new environmentally-friendly aviation technologies. Not only does it boast a huge Solarpark to the side of the runway which helps power the airport’s facilities (as well as save 13,320 tons of CO2 every year), RHIA has also partnered with dozens of companies on future mobility projects.
“The Innovation Airport was founded in 2019 by the municipality of Rotterdam and Rotterdam The Hague Airport with the idea that we need to innovate the aviation sector because there are new rules and regulations coming up,” Emile Stöver, Strategic Advisor RHIA told journalists from across Europe. “There are basically only two ways you will be able to comply with these new regulations – firstly that you fly less which marginalises the sector, or secondly that you innovate by trying to reduce the emissions you create.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, RHIA prefers the second option. In 2025, RHIA is planning a completely electric flight between Rotterdam and London. It’s also currently providing a testbed for Royal NLR which is developing a range of hydrogen powered drone research aircraft called HYDRA-2. These will deliver zero CO2 emissions – only water vapour.
At Rotterdam The Hague Airport NLR is also working on adapting a small electric Pipistrel air into a hybrid hydrogen-electric powered plane. “We want to use the hydrogen solution as a range extender,” explained Jan Bos, Director of Marketing, Aerospace Industry, NLR. While currently, the all-electric aircraft can provide around an hour of flying time (making it suitable for training pilots) it’s hoped that by extending the range with hydrogen technology it will be possible to offer longer flights between islands in the East Caribbean.
Indeed, hydrogen is also playing a role in Rotterdam’s extensive water-based transport. As well as running a standard diesel-powered boat and an electric-powered model, Water Taxi Rotterdam has also developed a hydrogen-electric powered passenger boat which it demonstrated to journalists during the city’s annual World Port Days festival. “We have a hydrogen fuel cell that can deliver a maximum of around 45 kilowatts and with the battery we have a traction motor that can deliver a further 90 killowatts,” explained Jonas Brendelberger, Co-founder of Zepp Solutions, which has developed the hydrogen cells. “This is enough power to run the watertaxi for up to 9 hours continuously”, he continued.
Of course, it’s not just how transport is powered that is set to change over the next few years. How we engage with transport will inevitably evolve too. At the Future Mobility Park in Rotterdam, they are currently testing the latest self-drive shuttles which are the size of large minibuses. These are already being used to transport passengers across various settings including at a hospital and at a European Space Agency site in Netherlands, and it’s hoped they will be used to transport people from the metro station to Rotterdam The Hague airport too in around two years’ time.
Demonstrated to journalists were several semi-autonomous shuttles that followed each in a platoon at fairly low speed. Rather than a driver sitting at the front of the vehicle, he was inside the cabin alongside the passengers using a standard games console handset to manoeuvre the vehicle and brake when necessary. However, thanks to Lidar cameras all around the shuttle, which can detect any outside movement from people or pets, it is already possible for it to drive the shuttle completely autonomously.
Once a fairly ordinary-looking city geared around the needs of the port as well as internal combustion engine drivers, Rotterdam has transformed itself over the last few years with some striking architecture and a gradual shift towards lower emission transportation. However, this is just the beginning. The next few years it’s hoped will really put the Dutch city at the forefront of mobility with a broad mix of hydrogen and electric power transport which will vastly reduce carbon emissions and make transportation more pleasant for everyone.
Below: A demonstration of autonomous vehicles at Rotterdam’s Future Mobility Park