Begrudgingly, I returned from the Netherlands after our week abroad, with a frustration towards the infrastructure in the United States and an excitement for what we may be able to create, also 6 packages of waffles and a dozen wooden tulips. I would say that the biggest theme that seemed to follow through their transportation landscape was that the focus was clearly on the mobility of humans. It seems second nature to transportation engineers here in the states to look at our network throughputs in terms of vehicles per hour, we seem to have a general view of reducing transportation to the perspective of the car. All of our designs prioritize this mode and work to inconvenience the car as little as possible – all the while forgetting that the car is merely a tool for the mobility of people. The Dutch seem to be doing a better job designing a system around the purpose itself, that being the mobility of people, rather than optimizing it so that one tool for moving people works as well as it can. I think this difference has permeated to the core of the built environment. Human scale design should never have to be a trending design principal. This fundamental difference plays out in countless ways but I truly think that most difference can be traced back to that common seed. I truly loved riding my bicycle around the Dutch landscape and it certainly captivated me to the point of making habit changes as best as I can.
The question of the cultural influence surrounding the infrastructure in the county is an interesting one – I was actually able to ask this question to a few of the professionals we met with while abroad – It was a question all of them had a hard time answering. With regards to bicycling the answer was usually that the country has had a long history of bicycling, but it is hard to judge exactly where this cultural element began. It is easy to see how this proclivity has been encouraged through design. They seem to be able to bring the best out of their culture through the design of their built world – a kind of far reaching physical determinism. This makes me think about our role here in America in influencing culture. It seems that we may be able to lead the horse to water – in the form of creating environments that are conducive to cycling – but that making the horse drink, or shifting culture is something that will require a much more nuanced approach. It may be true that part of the role of an engineer is to be a culture shifter – but that is a question that all of us in the built environment business need to continue to think about and understand the power of the choices we make with regards to infrastructure. Are we bringing the best out of our cultural tendencies as the Dutch seem to be doing or are we bringing the world out of ourselves?