Welcome to Houten
We spent day 5 of our trip in the town of Houten, located in the Utrecht province. Houten is renowned for its sustainable transportation policies that support cycling and walking over the use of automobiles; as the city expanded in the 1970s, the key focus was to make a more livable and safe city. This was achieved by approaching design and planning with a car free structure, and adding public space like greenery, schools, and water. In the city of Houten, bicycles never have to stop for cars.
Figure 1: Rainbow Houses in southern Houten
Key Design Elements
What sets Houten apart is the ring roads that surrounds the city. Within the rings, cars can only access parking in neighborhoods on the perimeter; the town centers can only be reached by bike and pedestrian paths. To get to another point in the city by automobile, one must exit to the ring and drive around the loop — due to the large number of cycling paths, biking is the fastest and most efficient travel mode (Foletta, 2010)
Figure 2: Map of Houten, Outlining Roadway Ring (adapted from Google Maps)
Figure 3: Example of Roadway Ring
City Heart Centers Near Transit
Houten has two city centers, one in the northern section and one in the southern section, that are known as the hearts of the town. What makes these city centers so important is their connection to railway lines that lead to larger communities like Utrecht. This connectivity to bigger cities even further supports the lack of need for automobiles; this is supported by a top notch Dutch transit system that you will hear more about in the next blog.
Surrounding the city centers and intersecting the neighborhoods are green belts that house parks, large open spaces, and waterways. In planning the town, emphasis was placed on the use and availability of public space to replace the larger motorways that were no longer necessary. Not only do the green belts beautify the town and increase public well-being, but they help spread the town density out by running parallel to major cycling tracks; these make the parks easy to access.
Figure 4: Greenbelt near Centrum Houten
Two Level Roundabouts
The cycling routes in the two rings are connected by a series of tunnels that go under the roadway to allow for easy access between town sections. In the middle of Houten is a very unique two level roundabout that features automobiles on the top section and bicycles on the bottom. Out of all the roundabouts we have used in the Netherlands, I felt the most safe on this one due to the complete separation of auto and bike; while this design feature is not applicable everywhere, Houten is a shining example of what can be done with the proper design approach.
Figure 5: Two Level Roundabout
Would this work in the US?
It would be incredible to see a city like Houten work well in the United States, but this would require a lot of far planned out design and change of general opinions on cycling. I think about my hometown, Peachtree City, and the massive network of multi-use trails located throughout the town. You can really get anywhere in the city by bicycle, yet nobody uses the trails for more than just recreation. I narrow down this problem to two main reasons:
Car access through the city: unlike Houten, wherever cycle paths are located, car roadways are also present, running either directly parallel or nearby. The staged elimination of these car roadways would help increase the amount of cycling through the city; this would have to start off small by possibly closing roads surrounding some of the key hearts to the city.
No access to transit: The nearest transit station is 20 miles away, so there is no way for people who live in this community to get to larger cities/locations like Atlanta and the airport. In Houten, 66% of people living in the town work elsewhere, and a similar trend can be seen in Peachtree City; by expanding transit to the center of the city, there would be an increase in interest of biking the shorter distance to the station and taking the train to finish the trip.
Foletta, Nicola (2010). Houten: Utrecht, The Netherlands [Online PDF]. Retrieved from: https://www.itdp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/22.-092211_ITDP_NED_Desktop_Houten.pdf