After traveling around the Netherlands for two weeks, I feel I have a very different perspective on transportation. Although I already believed the United States needed more and better cycling and transit infrastructure, it brought a whole new perspective to see it implemented and to talk to the Dutch about how it got implemented. I feel capable of thinking about roadways in a fundamentally different way than before I went there.
I think there are 4 major aspects of their sustainable transportation system that allows it to function: public participation, prioritization of safety, varied prioritization of modes, and network focus. The Dutch are a pragmatic and direct people. They care a lot about safety, especially of children, as well as noise and air pollution and density, but it is the death tolls of children on the roads that led to the riots that got the Dutch their infrastructure. They knew cycling was safer, so they did that. It was a theme in our discussions that the people wanted something, so it was built. Americans do not interact with their infrastructure in such a way, rarely (never?) rioting for improved infrastructure. We get much more passionate about civil rights related causes. Perhaps if we can tie civil rights into our need for improved infrastructure, we can have a similar reaction.
True to the roots of their cycling infrastructure, the Dutch prioritize safety over expediency in most situations. In America, we prefer expediency, even the vehicular cyclists' arguments are based on expediency. However, based on what I experienced in the Netherlands, a focus on safety has far more benefits. Instead of shared lanes, they have shared roads, but roads are only shared when speeds are very low (around 20 mph). Above that, and there is at least a bike lane. But if the road has the volume and speed requiring 2 lanes in each direction, then the bikes are always separated. Prior to the Netherlands, I thought the protected cycling track on 10th street was really great, but when going past it today, I thought it was still so far behind what I had ridden on the last two weeks. But, also by prioritizing safety, they slow down the cars. Slower cars are safer for everyone. As bike and pedestrians feel safer, they increase in number. With such high numbers of cyclists, the Netherlands was able to remove cars from many city centers. This then gave them more space, which is a priority in such a small country. They were able to use this space for better uses. For example, the square our hotel was on that was crowded with people dining each night, was previously a parking lot! This was outrageous given the historic feel of that part of the city. By removing cars from teh city centers, they made their cities far more livable, safe, less polluted, and quieter. I think that being accustomed to quiet cities makes people more aware when it is loud and this brings about the Dutch people's concern about noise pollution.
Although the Dutch do prioritize safety, they also prioritize different modes at different times. This way of thinking seemed so different from how we think in the United States, although I've known about complete streets. We have talked about such things as bike boulevards, but the concept of having many places where cars were not the priority was mind boggling. They have signs marking this all over the place. They have signs showing when you have entered a pedestrian zone, for example. In these areas pedestrians have priority, although other modes can still use the space. They also have fietstrats which are bike streets. Their signs say it is a bike street, but other modes (such as cars) can use them as guests. They also have their roadways with heavy car use and their highways, but they aren't afraid to say that this area will be for another type of mode. I think there would be a lot of fear about doing that here, but could have a great impact on some sections of the city.
Finally, they think in terms of networks. I think we too try to think in terms of networks, but perhaps some political and financial situations make this harder. What is especially interesting about their networks is that they also think on a regional scale. We attempt with out MPOs. It is possible to travel between cities in the Netherlands by train, car, or bicycle. They also think about integrating these modes so that a person can use local networks by bike, regional by train, then local by bike again or however they wish to travel. Their immense network facilitates a lot of this travel.
By prioritizing safety, having spaces where bikes are the priority, and creating extensive networks that are well connected to other modes, the Dutch have built a transportation system that they are proud and that the people connect with and ask for more of.
Flying back is always easier. I got through customs in record time too. By first transit experience back in Atlanta was taking Marta to Midtown. I tapped into the station with my Marta card and got to the platform right as my train was leaving. That wasn’t the part I noticed though. The part I noticed was how few resources there were to tell you when the next train arrived. Completely different in the Netherlands. The same applied inside the train as there were no digital monitors indicating the next station. On the way back I was able to see my corridor as well as the Westside Beltline under construction.
Once arriving at the Midtown station, I began my long walk down 10th St. It's a pretty boring 20 minute walk from there to my house. Traffic was busier than usual because of the Atlanta United game. I walked past one car with its windows down and a man audibly complaining about how traffic shouldn't be this bad. While I agreed with him, it was for reasons he probably didn't share. See, I have seen a different alternative that works because of this trip. This alternative needs major adjustments before it can make its way to Atlanta though.
One of the first things that needs to change is our current bike infrastructure. Sure, Atlanta is doing something and that’s great. But they’re doing it the wrong way. Vehicular cycling is for 1% of commuters, so cycling infrastructure shouldn’t cater to them. A 3 foot cycletrack separated by paint and wedged between moving traffic and parked cars is not a healthy alternative nor a strong first impression for would be cyclists.
I have learned a lot from this program. The Netherlands is clearly an amazing place. But it’s not quite for me. I need hills and wilderness desperately. The Netherlands are on a course towards sustainability and have been for a while now. Atlanta is just now starting to set a course with the Beltline. It is important that a Dutch perspective is included in Atlanta’s future or it may never lose its identity as the poster child of sprawl.
One of the most interesting parts of Dutch infrastructure is how separated, but integrated all the infrastructure is. This is most apparent with their transit infrastructure. Most of their major train stations (at least the ones we visited) had ways of connecting by bus, bike, and car and often had connections to tram systems as well. Walking among the streets, one could often see public transit lines, bike lanes, and car facilities in the same space. It was all a bit of a transportation engineer's dream.
One of the most amazing things to see is their bike parking garages. They build parking lots of thousands of bikes, sometimes more than 10,000 bikes! With so many bike commuters, they often have far fewer car spaces. They have two layers of bike parking on each floor. It can be a bit slow and challenging to get the bike into a top rack, but the Dutch are able to do this much more rapidly than I could. These bike parking garages are easily accessible from the train station. In Delft it is connected to the station and one can simply park a bike and walk into the station. This makes the connection very quick and easy, easier than parking a car and walking into most places in my opinion. THis is especially true because these parking garages, although they can be very large, can be much smaller to accommodate the same amount of bikes as the car. I think this also helps in reliability of travel times. Their train system is very timely and frequent. When riding a bike, there isn't unexpected traffic that could delay you which makes it a more reliable form of transportation in terms of time. The trick is finding a parking space for the bike since these garages are often full. But by having the parking so close to the train gates, it helps quicken the parking process and improve the timeliness of using a bike for the last mile problem and encourages more biking.
Although they have such great parking, bikes can be carried on board the trains. Doors where bikes can be brought are marked. This typically requires an extra fee, so we did not do this. I only saw 1 person bring their bike in. With how cheap their bikes are, it is possible to own a bike both at the origin and destination. They also have an inexpensive bike share program that operates off the same card. There really is little reason to bring a bike onboard a train.
These cards that work on all the public transit and the bikeshare are a great form of integration. It makes transitions and management of funds for travel easier. This is partially made possible because the train company also runs the bikeshare since they saw it as a benefit to them. It would be nice to have this kind of integration in Atlanta, but with so many different agencies, it can be a challenge.
Overall, their transit system is timely, frequent, integrated, and centrally located making it easy to use and easily accessible. This makes it a part of life in the Netherlands in ways that it is not here.
Today we visited Amsterdam for the second time. However, this time we were asked to approach it not from a cycling perspective. Instead, we looked into Amsterdam's PT.
It started with a trip on the Intercity Regional Train. The Dutch use Intercity trains to go from city to city and the Sprinter to go from small towns near a city. From there we transferred to Amsterdam Metro, which is the most familiar form of PT for me apart from busses. From Metro we switched to light rail. The difference between the two starts at the height of the platform. Light rail doesn't need a high platform or as much rail as the Metro.
Additionally, light rail went through Amsterdam's narrow city streets. At some points, there was only room for one tram to go through a street at a time (as shown above), yet everything still worked out well. Amsterdam's transit system goes far and wide.
After the transit tour, we had a lecture on Amsterdam's transit. At one point we were asked to give an example of a city who's transit system would work best for our city. That got me thinking about how unique of a city Atlanta is. It's hilly and landlocked. Usually a city possesses one of those qualities, but Atlanta has neither. This makes it particularly difficult to take examples from other cities and apply them to Atlanta.
If there's one thing I've learned from visiting Europe in general, it is that one type of transit is not sufficient. There's a place for light rail, heavy rail, and buses. Alone they all have crippling weaknesses, but together they can form a strong system. In Atlanta, there are these three as well, but they don't work together all that well. So obviously there needs to be lots of thought into how to make sure different transit systems work together.
In Amsterdam, the metro got you the furthest the quickest while the tram made sure you could reach your destination. In combination with a bike, it is a very attractive alternative to driving.
Bikes and transit are very much in sync in the Netherlands. One major theme of our trip was that every major city that we visited presented and was very proud of their brand new or under construction additions to their bicycle parking at their train stations – some bike parking increasing by over ten thousand spaces! The Netherlands has an exceptional network of both regional trains and local trams, both of which allow for bicycles with some restrictions. Usually you are not allowed to take your bike on the train during heavy commute times, but when allowed, bikes are welcome in the cars labeled with a bike symbol, denoting the car space is designed to accommodate bicycles.
If you do not feel like traveling on the train with your bike, you may elect to park your bike, ride to your destination and travel via tram, foot, or bike share to your destination. With the same chip card to use the train and tram, you may check out a rental bike from any station. Some commuters actually keep a personal bike in both their hometown and work town and can store them at the station when needed for no to little charge.
In Delft, the transition between bike and train is facilitated by using a separate entrance and parking area for bikes directly above the boarding platform. Parking aisles are marked with number of available spaces to make parking quick. Once inside, it is just down one level to your train as opposed to two levels from the main station entrance.
Figure 1. Delft Station Bicycle Entrance Ramp | Figure 2. Delft Station Bike Parking
For those that prefer biking, where there is a tram or train line, there is always a nearby bike path for the same trip. This holds true even in more rural areas where trips between cities can range a couple dozen miles.
Figure 3. Tram and adjacent bicycle path
The Dutch value the accessibility and level of service of their transit system. In one example, they would prefer to have one train station in the center of an area that has a train every 15 minutes than to have two decentralized stations, arguably closer to some residents, that operate trains every 30 minute. While the two scenarios have the same frequency of service for the overall area, the latter comes with the perception of more frequent and flexible service by consolidating the stations.
When preparing for this course, we learned that the Dutch are very time-conscious people. This stays true with their trains as well. While I am sure delays may happen, I did not experience a train that left a moment after its scheduled departure and likewise for arrivals.
The most applicable take-home point from the Dutch system is the strategic location of its bike share programs connected to the train stations. For the most part, the bike share is only located at stations because people have their own bikes for local travel. The ease of this transition is also very important. Marta has just started housing bike share locations but it requires extra effort unlike the Dutch who use the same card for access to any of their public transportation. Atlanta also suffers from the disadvantage of many residents not owning their own bicycles, so while less strategic for interaction with public transit, bike share stations located throughout the city are also very important.
All in all, our dream of last mile connectivity is lived on a daily and culturally ingrained basis by the Dutch and there is so much we can learn from their integration and facilitation of public transportation use of all types.
Throughout the past two weeks, it has been easy to get accustomed to the Dutch transit and train network. At train stations in each city, numerous amounts of bike parking exists. Commuters can bike to the station, park their bike, and easily walk up the platform to board a train. The racks are on two levels: the ground and a level above it. The first time parking my bike on the upper level I had some trouble using the mechanism. After a few times parking, I became a master and it was quite easy to use.
Bikes can be brought on board certain traincars, but I have never seen a non-foldable bike on a traincar. Because of their cheap bicycles, the Dutch usually have bikes parked at multiple stations: one to ride to their station and get on their other bike to go to work at their final station.
The Dutch measure transit based on accessibility and connectivity. It is critical for Dutch design that people can easily bike to their train station and make the transfer to a train. Without this easy accessibility, the Dutch would have to drive to work which would create negative externalities. Connectivity is also critical. You can live in almost any city and connected by train to the entire country.
The performance of transit is measured based on the amount of users and the timeliness of the system. If trains, trams, and buses were always delayed ridership would be discouraged and people would turn to the only other option for long distances: the car. Having an efficient system allows the Dutch to remain confident in their pubic transit.
Riding back from Harlaam Saturday night, the tracks to den Haag were being maintenanced. To accommodate users that need to get back to den Haag to transfer to Delft, express buses were located at Leiden: the last station before the maintenance. The Dutch ensure their transit is both reliable and responsive. The United States can learn from the Dutch's integrated transit systems.
“Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.” - Austin Kleon
Houten is a suburb of Utrecht comprised of ring roads surrounding Houten and its expansion, South Houten. This city represents a more extreme approach to prioritizing the cyclist. Both cities are centered around their respective train station. In fact, when the expansion was proposed in the national plan, Houten refused to begin any development in South Houten until a new train station at its center was built.
Figure 1. Map of Houten and South Houten showing the ring roads and central train corridor
From the train station, a network of parks and bike paths connects the cities. To travel by car, one must use the ring road. There are branches from the ring road to neighborhoods but there is no allowance for through-traffic. This design greatly discourages car use in their city and creates a safe environment for all ages to ride their bicycle. Many children ride to and from school unaccompanied.
Figure 2. Park and path network from train station
The ring road is an extreme boarder for Houten. It is always obvious when you are leaving Houten as you will either cross under or over the ring road. Outside the ring road there is little to no development to prevent sprawl.
Figure 3. Crossing at the ring road | Figure 4. Outside the ring road
Despite being centered on train stations, many households own a car for travel outside the city. We also learned that many residents still commute outside Houten for work and the majority of the commuters drive cars to work. This presents a conflict in the suburban bicycle community where the bicycle is prioritized locally but the city’s location promotes continued regular use of personal vehicles.
I think the Houten design could be applicable in two very different scenarios in the US. Like its identity in the Netherlands, Houten could be applied as a unique American suburb where most families have a car and commute but within their suburb, the main mode of transport is cycling. In my opinion, the better application is to use the ring road concept for a downtown area, as is more commonly implemented throughout the Netherlands. Cars are able to commute to the city, but at some limit are required to park along the periphery. Within the city, traffic is reserved for trams, cycling, and pedestrians with limited vehicle use for emergency vehicles, taxis and deliveries.
In the 70s, Houten was tasked with expanding itself from a town of a couple thousand to tens of thousands in a relatively short amount of time. Urban planner Robert Derks took on this task but wanted to completely reinvent the wheel. By reinvent, he really just wanted to go back to a time when streets were safe and children could be trusted to get to school on their own. So the modern Houten was born.
While a car can go to anywhere in Houten, its infrastructure heavily discourages it. Houten is surrounded by two ring roads in much the same style as the ring road that connects Amsterdam, the Haag, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. They are the only way to get to places within Houten by car as there are no roads going through either of Houten’s city centers. There is only one exit from Houten onto the highway as well. Instead of cars, residents are empowered to get around Houten via bike, feet, scooter, etc. There is an extensive network of cycle paths that connect everything in the town. There is also a rail line that goes directly down the middle of the town, although this is more for going between places outside Houten.
Figure 1: Houten's intersection that takes cars to the highway.
Houten’s bike routes might seem daunting at first. Relying on google maps or shear force of will will surely get you lost. The streets that cars are allowed on are weird and branching by design. The town’s bike trails are dividing up into several different routes are delineated by color. So long as riders follow the signs, it is difficult to get lost. From a bike it is easy to tell when you have left the inner perimeter of Houten as the bike path will go under the ring road. This is smart design that lets children or directionally challenged people easily know where the boundaries are.
Figure 2: Cyclepath going under the ring road
There are some issues with Houten though. Most notably is its high commute and driving modal share. See Houten is technically a suburb of Utrecht, a much bigger core urban area. With many in Houten being very well educated comes the desire for higher paying jobs that can only be offered by a city like Utrecht. Although Houten has a couple office buildings in it, it is not nearly enough. This results in a large portion of Houten’s population (around 2/3rds) commuting out of the city. The troubling part is the majority of these commuters go via car. With only one exit to the highway, there are frequent traffic jams. With two train stations with routes that go to Utrecht, it is strange that these car commuters make this modal choice.
Most troubling however is Derk’s reaction to this commute rate. Houten does not lack jobs, and Derk sees this as a reason for people to not commute out of Houten. This seems to ignore one of the biggest sustainability challenges of the future, urbanization. More and more people are moving to urban areas, and Houten is not urban. Derk’s solution might not be relevant as a result. It’d be interesting to see if Houten retains any of its youth after they graduate.
Overall, I felt that while Houten’s model of using green space to surround urban space is a novel idea that should be implemented into the cities of the future, I could never see a small rural town in the US being sustainable after this type of transformation. It works for Houten because of the Netherlands fantastic rail infrastructure. For the US, rural populations are too sprawled and accustomed to car infrastructure.
Houten is a bicycle and pedestrian planner’s dream.
As a planner and a bike commuter, I fantasize about a city where everything can be accessed by bike. A city where children can safely and independently travel to school and to friends’ houses. A resilient city that is self-sustaining, yet connected to the region by an expansive transit network. Houten is a manifestation of this dream. However, after experiencing it, I’m not sure I could live there.
Figure 1. Houten's inner core of bike paths
Initiated as a Greenfield development, in the 1970s, the architects, planners, and engineers had free rein to design a city that fit their ideologies. They believed that the auto-centric city plans of the 1960s and 70s were jeopardizing the physical esthetics of small towns and the social health of communities. Recognizing the social and environmental benefits biking, the developers and citizens drew up land use and transportation plans for Houten that prioritized public transit, bicycles, and pedestrian by aligning transit as the central spine of the city, organizing an organic system of green space off of the transit hubs, creating an inner core of paths, and prohibiting vehicular traffic to penetrate through the city. Unlike most cities, the consultants, who developed the original designs, continued to work with the city to build out plans and strategically accommodate growth.
Full Model of Houten
I feel in love with the city, during the morning lecture about Houten’s transportation network, but after spending the afternoon biking through the neighborhoods and city centers, I questioned whether I could see myself living there. I’ve never felt more comfortable navigating through a city. The streets are designed with subtle traffic calming features, like chicanes, which made fast vehicular traffic virtually inexistent. The sheer number of children biking along the paths made it clear that biking is by far the most convenient mode of transportation to school and that parents feel comfortable giving their kids more freedom to roam. The layout of the city seems perfect and I’m not quite sure what specific aspects turn me off. Does it lack diversity? Is it the scale of city?
Figure 3. Shared road with chicanes
Speaking with public officials, we learned that Houten has a population of about 50,000, but about 60% of residents are employed outside of the city. Of those daily commute trips, 90% are taken by car. Hearing the first statistics didn’t surprise me. From my experience living and working in Boulder, Colorado, I learned that when cities create strict urban growth boundaries they often have issues with regulating housing affordability. Higher housing prices attract a population with larger annual incomes and, in turn, higher levels of education. It makes sense that a city of this scale can not sustain the diversity of jobs needed to attract a more educated population, but it blows my mind that 90% of those trip are taken in a car. If all the pieces are there to make bike-transit trips possible, what’s motivating people to drive?