Houten is known as the best biking city in the Netherlands for good reason. Their city is built primarily around bicycles, not cars. They have designed the city so the fastest way between almost any two points is by bike. They have done this by surrounding the city with a ring road and providing only a few access points to get into the “bubble” of the city. They have also limited the depth that these access roads can penetrate; most only stick to their confined neighborhoods. If you’re in one section of the city and want to get to another by car, you must exit the city to the ring road and then follow the ring road to the specific access point. This is the driving force as to why bicycles are so ubiquitous in this city.
It is mainly this network that makes Houten the best biking city in the Netherlands. We’ve visited lots of other Dutch cities that have significant bike infrastructure, and while they all have good networks like Houten, they also have creative design decisions to promote biking. For example, today in Utrecht, our tour guide talked about how they can manipulate the location of transport modes by very subtle markings or different colored pavements. What makes this even more impressive is that they’re retrofitting the bike infrastructure in many parts of the city. Houten was planned from the beginning, so most of their bike paths are simple paths that were designed to accommodate bikes. While the citizens of Houten may not want to hear this, I find the retrofitting cases to be much more interesting and impressive.
I could not see a city built like Houten in the United States. I could definitely see design principles from the city used in some circumstances, like having a network with great signage that ties into a transit system, but the whole idea of an entirely planned town doesn’t sound like it would jive well with an American culture. Americans like their individuality, and in Houten and many other suburban planned communities in the Netherlands, there doesn’t seem to be much character. All the buildings look the same and everything has a utilitarian purpose. In America, we can point out individual neighborhoods that have local flavors to them, which I believe is what attracts a lot of people to live in some areas of the United States. While creating an entire town from scratch like Houten will function very well, there’s something very inorganic about it that scares me.
Having said all this, I enjoyed my time in Houten; I just couldn’t see myself living there. We got to basically make the city our playground for two hours, and I thank them for that and for sharing the city with us.