Photo: Example of a street in Amsterdam where vehicular access was removed and the corridor was redesigned to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit.
Seamless is an overused word to describe a multi-modal transportation system. However, it’s difficult to find a more suitable term to characterize the relationship between public transit systems and the bicycle network in the Netherlands.
We have traveled through the country side and around 6 cities without using a car. From a tourist’s perspective, transitioning from a plane, to a train, to a light-rail, to a bus, and then onto a bike is convenient and intuitive. It feels like one continuous system. Speaking with transportation planners and engineers in the Hague, Utrecht, and Houten, we learned that the Dutch plan and design infrastructure that enables these two modes of transportation to support one another. I believe way-finding, real-time information, branding, universal ticketing, bicycle parking, and connected sidewalks are the key design features that made navigating the country, without a car, effortless.
Providing users with a legible map is basic, yet fundamental. The maps, on trains, light rails, and in transit stations show multiple networks and key transfer points, which allows users flow from one mode, like a light-rail, to another mode, like a bus. Real-time information is provided at transit stops and on board trains, light-rail, and buses. Small (maybe 3” x 6”) monitors, which display the time of then next bus, are attached to the bus stop poll. It’s simple, but has a profound impact on user confidence and comfort. On-board monitors project the expected arrival times, as well as, schedules for other systems connected to that specific route. This complication of real-time information allowed me to feel like I was in control of my commute. I could make informed decisions and change my route if I anticipated a problem up ahead.
The public transit professionals suggested that creating a uniform brand and universal ticketing was one of the most politically challenging endeavors. While I was not particularly aware of the different branding for each mode, I appreciated the speed and ease at which I could transfer from train to light-rail to bus. I used the same transit pass for each mode, which significantly reduced the time it took me to commute, and the branding must have been so intuitive that had no need to pay attention to it.
Photo: Light-rail stop near suburban development between Delft and the Hague
Photo: Bicycle parking next to the Light-rail stop pictured above.
Every city in the Netherlands seems to be in competition over who has the best bike parking at their transit station. The Dutch take a holistic approach to transportation planning and they understand that to stimulate bicycle use they must, simultaneously, encourage people to take public transit. The symbiotic relationship between public transit and biking is supported by providing secure bicycle parking directly adjacent to or even underneath transit stations. The two modes are so well integrated that an overwhelmingly amount of people bike to transit stations. The Netherlands is investing billions of euros to accommodate the people who chose to bike to transit stations. Bikes are getting so much attention that some people feel as if public transit is being neglected. One of the public transit officials in Amsterdam expressed that the streets and sidewalks are littered with bikes, and there is physically no room left for pedestrians and public transit on the street. He made it sound like bikes and public transit are in competition for space and ridership. He suggested a modal shift from bikes to buses and made the argument that if more people chose to use buses to travel to train stations, there would not be an over crowded bike parking issue.
While I do not sympathize with his perceived dilemma, I understand his perspective. Congestion can be a problem for all modes of transportation and finding space for each mode can be a serious challenge. However, I believe that encouraging people to switch from biking to riding the bus is not the answer. From what I observed I believe the Netherlands is making smart decisions when it comes to building out a multi-modal network. I am especially impressed by their decision to restrict vehicular access on certain streets, replace it with light-rail lines, separated bike paths and sidewalks.
Photo: Before and after the reconstruction and tunneling of a 6 lane road in the Hague. Vehicle access was moved underground to make room for public transit, bikes, pedestrians. For me, one of the craziest parts of this projects involved relocating a 175 year old tree (they moved a massive tree across the park...that's dedication!)
At the beginning of this trip, I wondered if there were any inherent and permanent differences between the United States and the Netherlands that held the U.S. back when trying to accommodate bicycles. After two weeks in the Netherlands, I can’t argue that there are some things, like the flat landscape, that are in favor of the Dutch. However, most of the things that make biking easy in the Netherlands, particularly in the region of cities known as the Randstad, are due to careful planning and effort.
For example, I suspected that the small size of the Netherlands could be a major advantage in their favor. I assumed that because the country was smaller, it would be easier to get from place to place on a bike. After experiencing their network of transportation, it occurred to me that bicycle convenience has nothing to do with country size and everything to do with city density. The Dutch are government has a very different approach to land use than the United States does. In Amsterdam, the city owns most of the land, so the government decides how and where new developments should go instead of private businesses. Municipalities tend to build dense housing close to the center of the city and don’t allow unchecked urban sprawl. This strategy means that most people living in or around a city are actually a reasonable biking distance away form the city’s core. Our government has not put any focus on increasing density and Americans have actively spread out over sprawling suburbs. Features that seem dictated by our surroundings are actually the product of our own long–term choices.
While riding from Delft to Rotterdam, the landscape changed very quickly from urban to rural. In the course of five minutes I rode from the University Campus to a field with grazing cows. Five minutes in the other direction I would have found the core of Delft. This sort of transition doesn’t tend to happen nearly as fast in The U.S.
Taking trams through Amsterdam gave me a new perspective on traveling through the city. Previously, I mostly paid attention to the intra–city transit system to avoid getting hit by trams and to keep my tires out of the tracks.
The tram–lines made crossing the entire city quickly a possibility. They seem particularly good for reaching places on the edge of the city that are too close for a train station but exhausting to reach by bike on a daily basis. The subway system has a few lines that cover 3 or 4 of the major outlying areas of the city. Street–cars fill in much more of the city, particularly near the core, and busses extend outward to service the remainder of the city. This hierarchy of denser and denser systems caters to almost all trip distances and gives good coverage throughout the city. It was impressive to see how well coordinated the trams were and how many trams managed to pass even when there was only one track. I personally find the trams system harder to understand than the trains, but that may be because they are used within the cities and I have a better understanding of intercity travel.
After the tram tour we heard a talk from Mark, who works in the department of public transit for the region of Amsterdam. The region of Amsterdam contains the city itself as well as several satellite cities and the airport. In the seventies, Amsterdam was shrinking as people moved to the satellite towns, but by 2010 the population was booming again. The city stopped planning new housing during the economic crisis, so they are now trying to keep up with new demand. This means constructing new housing, building islands for new development, and beefing up the transit system to handle more riders.
The north-south metro line has been under construction for decades and has cost twice its budget. It begins operation next year, so the transit authorities are trying to predict and account for the changes it will make on the city's transit system. Hopefully, it will make trips to the north side of the city much easier, because there are few bridges and the easiest way to cross the water now is by taking a ferry.
Houten was developed from a tiny town of 4000 to a much larger town of 30,000 in the late nineties and then 50,000 by 2015. These two phases involved making a northern ring and later expanding by adding a southern ring. The planners left the old town center mostly intact, but decided to give the new ring a central hub at the railway station. Radiating out from this center are green spaces that run between the neighborhoods. Only bikes and pedestrians are allowed in these green spaces. Cars can access all of the houses, but they have to come from the ring road surrounding the town rather than central roads that radiate out. This inversion of car access means that the central green spaces are quiet, safe, and car free.
The second ring was treated somewhat differently. It has a core and a ring road just like the first expansion, but instead of radiating spokes of green space, there is a pentagon of green corridors about half way between the town center and the outer ring.
I got to explore the northern portion of the town by bicycle and I think the inner spokes of green space are a successful piece of design. It provides a safe place for children to play and go to school. It also encourages people to run errands and visit friends by bike. The concept of making city centers free of cars is a good one, but I think that there are major city planning problems that Houten’s planners did not address at all.
More than 60 percent of Houten’s population commutes out of the town to work everyday. Houten is unique in it’s layout, but in many way it is not different than an American suburb. I am much more impressed with plans that minimize traffic in large city centers because it encourages people to live inside the city and commute to work by bike. Houten does nothing to promote sustainable commuting because there are few jobs in town that match the incomes and skill sets of the residents. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but I suspect that houses in Houten are expensive, and that most people who live there have high paying jobs in Utrecht. The residents move out of Houten to work, and people who can’t afford to live in Houten come there to work the jobs in town.
If there had been more effort to get companies to build offices in Houten’s town centers or close around it’s ring, I think the problem of long commutes would be less. The admirable experiment of a town with green cores and few cars doesn’t make up for the fact that Houten is a suburb 30 minutes from Utrecht, not a self–sufficient town in itself.
My final thoughts on the Dutch infrastructure are about how convenient and safe I felt biking around the Netherlands. I was very nervous beginning this class because after biking around Atlanta I knew that I was the least experienced cyclist in the class. Although I did spend the majority of my time at the back on the group, I DID IT! The separated bike routes and cycle tracks allowed me to feel safe and it made me feel more comfortable getting around. After the two weeks, the bike was second nature, I didn’t think about getting around via car and I didn’t miss it. It felt weird to see people driving when I returned to the United States. I also was more observant of bike infrastructure here in Atlanta to determine how comfortable I feel riding around the city. In the U.S. bikes are less of a priority so the infrastructure is not as prevalent. When I drove back from the airport to my apartment, I did not see a single bike and that is a huge difference between the U.S. and the Netherlands. Biking is a huge part of their culture and is well integrated into society from an early age so getting around by bike is a no brainer for them. In the U.S. biking has the connotation as a children’s activity or a method for college students and sports cyclists to get around. It is not something that everyone does no matter the age, gender, or physical ability of the person.
The Dutch integrate public transit and bikes by making it easy for the citizens to transfer between the two modes relatively effortlessly. The point of this is to have people able to bike to the train stations and be able to catch a train easily then rent a bike from their final destination. All of the train stations we encountered had a bike parking lot in or near by the train station exit so it is very easy for people to transfer from bike to train. There was also a bike rental place near the parking lots as well. In the Delft train station, the bike parking had an entrance near the train platforms for easy access. The trams and bus stops were also immediately outside of all train stations so if someone does not have a bike in that city, they can easy get around the city. It is also nice that all of the public transportation uses the OV chip card to get around so they don’t have to buy a new ticket while switch modes of transportation, we saw this a lot while riding around in Amsterdam, it made it really easy to get everywhere around the city. Although some of the sites we went to on public transportation were the same as the bike tour with Cornelia, it worked because it should how easy it is to get to the same places by bike and tram, without much delay.
The past two weeks have really been eye opening for me. The Dutch approach and the American approach to infrastructure design are drastically different in many ways. Firstly, the infrastructure itself varies between the Netherlands and the US. The Dutch have created a very defined system for structuring their roadways and cycle lanes based on vehicle speed and roadway use. The US is a bit more unorganized in their approach to developing cycle networks. One section of roadway may have dedicated cycle lanes, another section has sharrows, and then in another section the cycle facilities disappear altogether. The way in which the Dutch solve congestion issues is also very different from the American approach. In Atlanta, roadways are usually expanded in an attempt to reduce congestion. The Dutch rightly view this approach as only reinforcing the problem. Instead, they invest money into transit systems and cycle facilities to provide other options for people to travel along that corridor. Sometimes, they even remove the vehicles completely, like in the city center of the Hague. This is something that I would like to see in Atlanta especially. Too often we have four lane highways running through the center of residential areas. Even though it may not be feasible to remove the vehicles completely, it would be nice to see at the least a lane taken away to provide room for a cycle track in some areas. In order to see this type of approach taken in America, the public view of cycling will have to change.
If the people don’t support cycling and urge policy makers to support expanding its infrastructure, change will be hard to come by. The Netherlands has had a strong cycling culture for over 50 years. This culture didn’t just come about spontaneously though. The people chose to support cycling and then vocalized their opinions through public demonstrations and marches. I think that change within the US will also require active participation by the people. The minority that sees the potential cycling has as a transportation mode needs to use the voice they have to instill change. Hopefully, as the infrastructure becomes available and the cycling community grows, more people will see the benefits and potential in cycling. Most people will only change their current behavior if either they are forced to do so or there is incentive to do so. As cycling infrastructure is expanded within the US, more and more people will begin to change their habits, but it will surely be a slow process.
The Dutch are not just good at creating an incredible cycling network. They’ve also developed a highly effective transit network which consists of trains, trams, subways, ferries, and buses. During our last week in Delft, we had the opportunity to meet with a few professionals who are tasked with developing and maintaining these networks. It was very interesting hearing them discuss the difficulties that the Netherlands are facing and some of the problems that come along with having a transportation system focused on public transit and cycling.
One of the biggest problems they are facing now is where to park the bikes, especially at train stations. Depending on the train station you are using, you may have some difficulty finding somewhere to legally park your bike. In Delft, it was a very simple process. The bike parking was located directly underneath the station, allowing you to ride in, park your bike, and be on the train platform within a few minutes. In other stations, like Amsterdam Central Station, it may take you 10 minutes to find a spot to park a bike there due to the lack of a large parking facility to accommodate the tremendous amount of people that cycle to the station every day. If necessary, you can also bring your bike onto the train. As I understand, doing this adds an extra fee to your train ticket. I did not see many people do this, though. The ones that did bring their bike on the train had the compact, collapsible bikes that could easily be brought on board. I think most people don’t bring their bikes because of the bike share system that exists at all of the train stations. Using the OVfiets card, which is used to access the transit systems, you can borrow a bike from the train station to use for the last leg of your commute. They really do have a remarkable system in place that allows travel to any urban center and some rural areas without the use of an automobile.
The Dutch didn’t just focus on building an expansive network. Responsiveness and reliability were also important factors. To ensure people would want to use transit over an automobile, it was important that they’re transit system was efficient. Most inter-regional trains run every 10-15 minutes, and their tram lines and buses have wait times of 5-10 minutes. It is also amazing how the different regions work together to form a complete network with consistency between the regions. Also, to increase use in new developments, the transit system is sometimes established within new residential areas prior to people moving into those areas. This ensures that people do not form habits of driving while the transit system is being established. All of this shows the depth and detail of the Dutch transit system and the way professionals aim to integrate the system with the cycling network. They are lightyears ahead of the US in terms of establishing complete transit networks, but their success gives us hope for our future.
Our Romanian tour guide, Cornelia, from Sustainable Amsterdam put it best when she said that sometimes tours in the Netherlands are better from an outsider’s perspective. What people from other parts of the world know all too well is that the Netherlands is an unrivaled example of sustainable transportation. What the Dutch may often take for granted, having been exposed to this lifestyle since birth and having learned to ride bikes at an unusually young age, is truly remarkable to outsiders.
Another point, suggested by our hosts in Utrecht, is that while the Netherlands has historically been very good about sustainable infrastructure and bicycling, the relatively newfound attention from other countries seeking guidance has called for the Dutch to take a closer look at their own system and what makes it so wonderful. This has led to a sort of a bicycle renaissance, even in the Netherlands.
These points truly speak to the Dutch culture regarding transportation. Just as Americans typically do not second guess using their personal, single-occupancy vehicle to travel long distances to work, the Dutch instinct is set to use active transport locally and rely on trains and public transit for longer journeys. That is not to say the Dutch don’t use cars. Many people, including those in areas served well by transit, own and use cars. Cars are just seen as one option and in many cases are not the most convenient option available.
The US has a lot to learn from the Dutch regarding planning. In many cases in America, it feels that we are always behind the curve, retroactively planning. I think there is a lot more America can do with its zoning process and connectivity planning to facilitate more strategic, well-thought-out, livable cities. I believe now is a prime time for this mentality and approach in America. Perhaps due to my young age, but I think the current level of interest in bicycles, transit, and walkability is unprecedented for American cities.
Safety, comfort and convenience are three components to making bicycling a true alternative to other modes of transportation. From my experience, the Dutch truly make it the more convenient option to use alternate modes of transportation. Driving and parking cars in many locations seemed like a nightmare. Even where possible, the bike could get you so much closer, so much quicker. Safety and comfort are sometimes a balancing act when it comes to bicycles, but at the end of the day, the safety standards of the Dutch system put American infrastructure to shame. With all three traits, one important component is separation. The Dutch have proved that the bike does not always need to be separated but have shown that it is neither truly a car nor truly a pedestrian and in many cases deserves priority or its own infrastructure.
For transit, two crucial traits are convenience and reliability. Convenience may mean focusing on the last mile connectivity and strategic planning and zoning around transit accessibility. Reliability speaks to frequency of trip times and likelihood of delays. If people do not trust their system, the negative experience will deter many from use.
Since use and funding are typically contingent on each other, the decrease in one can create a negative feedback loop in decreasing the other. For either mode, bicycles or transit, as these qualities (safety, convenience, etc.) are met, the use of these systems will increase. With the increasing use, these modes will increase in safety, prominence, and hopefully funding. This is the opposite, positive feedback loop American cities are waiting for; it just needs to be triggered.
The past two weeks in the Netherlands were amazing. Learning about the transportation infrastructure from the different officials was an unforgettable experience. Seeing the process from design to implementation fascinated me. When it comes to public transportation infrastructure and design, the Netherlands makes the United States look like we’re still in the Dark Ages.
The first crucial difference with Dutch design is the urban growth boundaries. The Dutch ensure their cities do not sprawl outward like Atlanta does. The urban growth boundaries allow for the cities to remain dense which makes public transportation economically feasible and encourages biking.
The cycling infrastructure is also much safer and comfortable than the US. I haven’t yet ridden my bike in the US again yet, but I know I will be incredibly more stressed. Separating cyclist infrastructure encourages cycling since its both safe and reliable. In the Netherlands, cyclists never must travel as a car. The most common infrastructure is to ride on is protected cycle tracks. The Dutch always consider how quick cyclists can traverse from one area to another.
To ensure speed of travel, the Dutch commonly build bridges or underpasses. These alternate routes either reroute cyclists to safer routes or leave cyclists at ground level and reroute cars and trams. The Dutch use this solution for dangerous crossings for cyclists.
These underpasses and bridges usually cost enormous amounts of money. For the Dutch, however, cost is not a limiting factor for design. In their minds building infrastructure that help promotes more sustainable means of travel will benefit everyone. Sustainable transport will improve air quality and lower carbon emissions. For a country that is at sea level, combating climate change is a must.
Overall the combination of their culture and design creates a positive feedback loop. The cyclist friendly culture promotes cyclist friendly design which in turn promotes cyclist culture. In the United States, a large cyclist culture is unlikely to appear with the current design. Therefore, promoting public transportation and cyclist design like the Dutch will allow cyclist culture to thrive. After the infrastructure exists, the positive feedback loop between design and culture can begin. After my two weeks in the Netherlands, I am cautiously optimistic how the United States can incorporate Dutch design.
Thank you, Dr. Watkins and Georgia Tech, for an amazing trip I’ll never forget!!!!