Houten – A City for Cyclists July 22, 2010Posted by Dana Petit in Denmark, Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Master's, Netherlands.
Tags: bicycle infrastructure, bicycles, Netherlands, urban design
While in the Netherlands and Denmark, I visited a variety of sites and towns that provided cyclists with better-than-average everyday biking experiences. This isn’t difficult in two countries that pride themselves on the comfort and convenience of their bike infrastructure. The sites I visited ranged from suburban residential neighborhoods to downtown commercial streets and everything in-between.
One of the highlights of my stay in the Netherlands was visiting Houten, a town of approximately 50,000. Back in the ’70s, Houten was a wee village of 4,000.
Because of its proximity to Utrecht, a larger university town, the national government designated Houten as a “centre of growth,” and the village was left with the challenge of figuring out how to accommodate up to 10,000+ new inhabitants. While many in the village were opposed to such dramatic growth, forward thinking leaders saw that developing Houten as a “bike city” could help to maintain the village’s small-town social dynamic and high quality of life.
I had the delightful experience of biking to Houten from downtown Utrecht, where my hostel was located. In the United States, biking from the center of a city of 300,000 to a suburb on its outskirts would probably be a harrowing experience. It might involve biking on the shoulders of two to four-lane roads, struggling through intersections in which few motorists expect to see a cyclist, and generally adapting to infrastructure never intended for bicycles. On the way to Houten, I was always on a bike lane, a bike path, and even a bike road. (A bike road is a road for bikes, on which cars can travel, but they must move at the pace of the cyclists.) While I took my trusty bike map along with me, I hardly needed to refer to it because of the constant wayfinding signs along the bike paths and lanes that pointed me in the right direction.
Houten was designed so that cyclists can move about faster and more easily than motorists. The town has an extensive network of bike and pedestrian paths than extend radially from the shopping district at the town center through an extensive greenway system. Most residents can bike directly from their home to the center or even to a destination on the other side of town almost exclusively on bike paths. However, the road system only allows motorists to drive to the central shopping district, not through. If a motorist wants to get to a destination on the opposite side of town, they have to use the “ring road” (freeway) that wraps around the edge of town. Motorists are minimally inconvenienced since the ring road is a fast moving highway, and the cyclist’s experience is greatly improved by the extensive system of direct, car-free bike routes.
I spent a number of days biking around Houten, photographing and drawing its bike paths, neighborhoods and shopping center. The wonderful thing about Houten’s bike infrastructure is that it enables a full spectrum of the population to engage in cycling. Everyone, from young school kids to working professionals to the elderly, uses the bike paths. I even saw a number of people using electric wheelchairs on the bike paths. Hanging out in the town square, which, incidentally, can only be accessed by bike or on foot (motorists must park in a nearby parking structure), I watched a constant stream of people move past on their bikes: Parents ran errands with their children in carrier seats. Teens biked in groups of friends. Business professionals biked along in their suits, and many people waved to acquaintances and stopped to chat with friends. There were also many pedestrians that moved along on separate sidewalk space—the bike paths are too crowded and fast for pedestrians. While the town square was very lively and urban, it was also pleasantly quiet and relaxed since there were no fast moving cars or trucks.
Since returning to Ann Arbor, I continue to ponder how lessons from Houten could be translated to U.S. cities. While the opportunity of designing and building an urban expansion on the scale of Houten doesn’t come along very often, I think the key lesson from Houten is the importance of prioritizing bicycle infrastructure early in the design process. From speaking to a traffic engineer with the City of Houten I learned that, during the design process, the bike system and a system of public green spaces were established before roads and other infrastructure. The rewards for this level of prioritization are greater mobility for a wider range of the population as well as creation of lively, socially vibrant urban spaces.