Day 4 in the land of Stroop, where biking is king and nobody drinks water. A group of six of us biked 70 kilometers from Delft to Houten this morning, leaving at o’dark thirty to make it in time for our lectures and tours. It was amazing traveling through the scenic hinterland and we only made a few wrong turns.
Figure 1: The group about an hour into the 70 km trek
Houten is the reigning champion for best bike city in the Netherlands and the self-appointed best biking city in the world. A town of about 25,000, Houten geographically resembles a peanut shape, and has an outer ring of car-oriented roads with bike-only infrastructure inside the ring. In 1971 the Houten leadership decided to transition from a car-centric city to a human scale one and the ring road acted as a geographic boundary to help facilitate that goal and ensure higher density development while preventing sprawl. Houten initially was just one city with neighborhoods spread out along green bikeways, which are long parks located around bike paths. When the town started to become overcrowded, Houten annexed more land and created the second ring. The result is what we see today, with vehicles relegated to using only the ring road and a connector road between the cities.
Figure 2: Riding through one of the several neighborhood greenways in Houten
Houten has seen great success toward its goal of being a completely bike city. They have about 40% bike mode split currently. I like the vision we heard about yesterday from Andre, but I also think this model only works without existing infrastructure. Houten was essentially built from nothing, so there was complete flexibility in design. Additionally, I think the vision of Houten is narrow and doesn’t address some of priorities that cities should emphasize. For example, they designed the city for bikes and achieved a 50% mode shift from vehicles to bikes, but they also made every vehicle trip from origin to destination over double the length or its original distance. Hence, total vehicle miles travelled actually increased despite the perception that they would improve. This is harmful for the environment and on pavement maintenance plans. I also foresee problems with freight delivery. How does Houten regulate the delivery of packages and products within the outer ring barrier? Andre kind of provided a non-answer to this question during our session and also said that they have problems with delivery vehicles using bike lanes when they are not allowed to.
Overall, I do not think the Houten model is transferable to a larger city, and especially not transferable to a city with existing infrastructure. The reason Houten works is because it was built from a clean slate and has a high-density development in a bike-able geography. Atlanta, or even a smaller city would have trouble mimicking the results of Houten.
Houten is a town that's been designed for the bicycle. With one ring road surrounding the initial development and small connecting roads to residences, this town is an attempt to counter the convenience of cars that exists in most other towns. An extensive cycle network through designated green space connects the train station to residences, offices, and all that Houten has to offer in a short time. Despite having this network, the total bike share of trips is only 40% - lower than neighboring towns that have been retrofitted for the bicycle.
As a way to intelligently manage a growing population, the government of the Netherlands declared that the small village of Houten had to grow dramatically. The existing village had around 3,000 inhabitants who mostly disapproved of the growth target of 100,000 inhabitants that was set. While Houten today has less residents than initially expected, the town has grown dramatically.
Transportation Network Design
As stated before, the town’s center is the Houten train station. Greenspace flows throughout the east and west, with separated bike and pedestrian paths running through the scenery. The main paths are populated with key features of the town such as schools and offices. Residences are also connected to the network. Figure 1 below shows the greenspaces, bike paths, and ring road.
Figure 1: Plan of Houten
There is one road that surrounds the town, with smaller roads servicing residential parking lots. The densities of these residences aid in the compaction of these parking spaces. Cars cannot drive through the center of Houten, but must instead drive from the parking lot to the ring road, and then travel around the entire town to reach their destination. This inefficient path incentivizes the use of bicycles and walking even more. Figure 2 below shows a two-level roundabout with bikes traveling below cars to avoid conflicts altogether.
Figure 2: Two-level roundabout in Houten
Applications in the United States
The Houten approach to transportation design is hard to relate to existing cities. Changing fields into roads and townhomes is far easier and cheaper than altering existing structures and infrastructure. With that being said, the only way that I can see the Houten approach to transportation being applied to the United States is in the development of new suburbs (especially in Florida similar to The Villages).
New suburban developments (much like Houten) convert the natural landscape into whatever a planning group decides. In these scenarios, focusing on the use of bicycles and walking in scenic greenspaces would likely be a success. Having more densities than single family housing is crucial, but a starter-neighborhood (in Americans' minds) could be the purpose and concept behind a Houten-like development. Given that many starting families seek to move into the suburbs and also enjoy greenspace and recreation, a Houten approach to American suburbs would likely be a success.
Houten was lucky enough to take a stab at “city making” from a blank slate. As a native engineer, but newfound planner, I have learned that we can no longer plan new cities from scratch in the United States since we are constrained to the existing street and utility network that was formed when cities first originated. Houten has the advantage of conception during the time of the new town movement, which was prevalent throughout England in the 1960’s. The movement led to purposefully planned towns built at human scale. However, The Netherlands and the United States both experienced a surge in personal automobile ownership around this time, and as cities became more car-centric, they also became more dangerous, especially for children. Houten vowed to plan a safer town, one where the interface between cars, bicycles, and people was minimized.
Figure 1. Reference map. The red pin shows the location of Houten in relation to other cities. Source: Google Maps
Rather than setting up a grid system for cars, Houten created a ring road to route traffic away from the city center. Figure 2, above, shows the initial ring road in yellow. The area within the ring road was then separated into several neighborhoods that were only accessible by car via the ring road. Setting up the network in this fashion made vehicular trips longer, and thus, less convenient. On the other hand, walking and biking between neighborhoods was made easy thanks to the vast inner network of walking and cycling paths.
A couple of decades later, Houten expanded beyond the ring road to create a similar network to the south of the existing city. The result was a rough figure 8 pattern as shown in figure 3 below. Houten, and moreover the Dutch in general, have made it a point to support transit use by creating denser nodes of development around the city centers. Thus, it’s important to note that transit stations are the focal point of both north and south Houten.
We arrived in Houten by train and were set loose to explore the town by bike. Some notable features in Houten’s plan include an abundant use of green space, an easy-to-follow way-finding system using signage and number/color-coded routes, and even a double-decker roundabout! Below are some photos of our short, but very sweet ride:
Figure 4. One of Houten’s transit stations. At some point during the trip, all of the bikes parked out front became the norm and not the exception!
Figure 5. Examples of way-finding throughout the trail network. Notice the pole on the left has two colors of stickers, denoting the route number.
Figure 6. The double-decker roundabout. Cars zoom around the top like a typical roundabout, while bikes enjoy a two-way roundabout on the bottom level
Figure 7. The underpass that connects the northern and southern portions of Houten. Notice cyclists and pedestrians are completely separated from vehicular traffic.
Will the United States ever have a Houten?
As of today, approximately 40% of all trips made in Houten are made by bicycle. Can the US mimic this type of system to increase the share of biking trips? Yes and no. As stated earlier, building a completely new town just to support biking is unlikely. Cities need an economic base from businesses and a decent starting population. Creating this scenario out of thin air would take enormous support from all levels of government. Furthermore, changing daily habits from mostly driving to mostly biking or walking is a major hurdle! Therefore, at this level, I personally don’t think Houten is a practical model for a new US city. However, I do think the Houten model can work on a neighborhood level. Instead of creating a new subdivision for cars, try to re-center the focus on bikes and walking. There are several areas along Atlanta’s metro line (MARTA) that could fit this bill. Areas along the new portion of the BeltLine could also implement a Houten-esque strategy. The point is, in America we like a proof of concept before going all in, and mimicking Houten on a smaller, more manageable scale could be the first step toward creating a more bike-friendly Atlanta.
I’m not sure how I would describe Houten to a person that has never been. I would hope that they had seen The Truman Show, because that’s really the best way I could help someone understand it. Houten seems almost to good to be true; too perfectly designed to be real. It is a case study in what can happen with excellent, well-thought out planning. As in, if a bunch of planners got together to start from scratch on a city, Houten is what they would make.
We got to listen to a really prominent and experienced Dutch city planner named Jan. He loved to talk about transit. I talked to him about light rail for at least 30 minutes and he was much obliged. But something he told us, which will stick with me, is that when you are looking to develop, you start with transit. Once you have the mechanism to move people around, the people will come. It’s a field of dreams kind of transit attitude, and it’s kind of cool. When it comes to Houten, this ideology definitely applies. Houten began with a group of people realizing that a town could be built right on the train tracks that lead to Utrecht. And so they just built it. Houten feels like it was born as the brain child of a bunch of city planners that got together to make a perfect city. Essentially, it’s a town with hardly any automobile roads, except for on the outer ring of the town. It’s hard to describe, but mostly because it’s unlike any US city I’ve ever seen (or anyone has ever seen). Houten is similar to Atlanta with its loop; one might compare the “ring road” that surrounds the small town to 285. But that’s about where the similarities end.
Figure 1: Green space and bike paths in Houten.
The Houten Approach
Houten’s approach to transportation is fairly simple, and when you consider the history of the small Dutch town just outside of Utrecht, it makes sense. As our lecturer today, Andre, put it, the original planners of Houten wanted to make “the greatest city to live in.” These planners started with a blank slate: Houten was a tiny village, a blank canvas for a city planner. With their vision of a perfect town in mind, and with their eyes always on the future, the creators of Houten began designing what is now an outstanding city.
The main guideline of the Houten planners’ philosophy is essentially to minimize car transportation as much as possible, maximize public space, and make getting around on a bike easy. There are only a few roads going through Houten that cars can access, and they’re very small. While almost everyone in Houten owns a car, they get around most everywhere in Houten on bike. Contained within the “ring road” is one of the most robust bike networks I’ve seen in any Dutch town. Andre described the approach to building that network pretty well. He told us that the planners started with green space; once they knew where that would be, they added the bike paths; only then did they put some arterials for automobile access. Biking is almost always preferred. Andre even showed us a route between places in Houten that took more than twice as much time by car as it did by bike!
Figure 2: The train station in southern Houten. Check out that multi-modal approach!
An American Houten?
So could something like Houten work in the US? Well, I think it’s unlikely. First of all, I think one of the main reasons Houten works so well is that the planners got to start from scratch. A city like Atlanta was simply far more “off the cuff” than Houten was. Additionally, I think our car-centric culture would definitely inhibit any effort to make such an “anti-car” town. Americans would throw a fit if they couldn’t access their neighborhoods or their grocery stores in their car. It’s sad, but it’s true. What I will say is that there are plenty of pages American planners can nab from Houten’s playbook. Start with greenspace. Design for a human scale. Make biking more convenient than driving. Always look deep into the future. There are hundreds of ways to try to make our cities better in the areas Houten excels at. Perhaps all it will take are trips like this! And a little political expediency, if that’s possible (it’s not).
Figure 3: A double round-about in Houten. Now it seems like they're just kind of rubbing it in our face, right?
Houten is a town in the Netherlands near Utrecht and is known as one of the top bicycle towns in the world (in 2008 and 2018). In Houten, residents (and guests) are encouraged to travel by bike because of the accessibility of the railway station, green park zones, and an extensive network of cycling paths where cars and cyclists are able to avoid each other. A loop runs around the city to connect cars and houses but a more extensive, faster, and internal network connects bikes. The network is so simple and safe, that it is a perfect place for kids to grow up biking. Every child is pretty transportation independent as soon as they can ride a bike. Although a large number of jobs from the community require commuting, the internal bike network is very strong and in constant use; commuters have the convenient option to build additional bike infrastructure.
Kids biking in Houten
Imagining Houten Bike Network in the US
When I first heard of Houten, I thought of all of the missed opportunities to replicate Houten in the new developments in the US. In Florida, there have been a number of large developments (close to my Orlando house in Avalon and Celebration) that popped up from the swamps into a housing mecca. They include thoughtful land plans and innovations but none have embraced the Houten bike-centric lifestyle. Many of these (and many future growth opportunities) have the ability to focus on their version of “sustainable transportation” but none actually commit to the level of sustainable transportation in the development. In the US, development is focused on making money and transportation costs may take a while to pay off. I think a Houten-style development would work in the US but it would take a dreamer and large community support to make it work. I think that if this was implemented in the US, the developer would need to give free bikes, biking lessons, biking community and tours to change the US car-centric mentality (not to mention a bikable Publix if developing in Florida). There is a lot of land and growth in the US so I think it is only a matter of time before a community similar to Houten is built. If there is a golf cart community with specific golf cart infrastructure in Peachtree City, GA, there can be a bikable community in the US.
Houten is unique in that it was mostly planned anew when it was decided that a small village would become a small city. Planners had the opportunity to design a city essentially from scratch and used that as a chance to create something new. The main goal of planners was to make a livable city, including all aspects of life into their equations. With a rising concern of the negative effects of car traffic (such as pollution, safety, and air quality), Houten decided to prioritize cycling in its city layout. It was purposefully designed to make it more convenient to travel by bicycle than by car within the city limits. An outer ring and roads leading into the city were built for car use but traveling between neighborhoods within the city was designed to be easiest by bike. An extensive cycling network was built connecting all parts of the city, making cycling an easy and safe option for all residents.
There were many examples of cycling infrastructure in Houten that help contribute to its status as “Best Bicycle City” in the Netherlands. The green belt is a network of paths that are designated solely go bike usage. There was also a two-tiered roundabout with the lower level for bicycles and the upper level for vehicle traffic. Finally, all the bike paths were in red pavement or brick, and there were speed indents (similar to speed bumps but dented into the ground) to slow motorized bikes in the bike lanes.
It is hard to imagine taking this approach in the US as a lot of major cities have already been built and new development is mostly in suburban areas. While suburban areas have a lot that they could learn from Dutch infrastructure, they tend to be large and sprawling, making cycling a less appealing mode of transportation. However, there is a lot in U.S. cities that could be done to transform their existing car-focused infrastructure to be more bike friendly or even bike priority. For example, giving bicycles priority on neighborhood roads by designating advisory bike lanes. This gives cyclists more space and security but also allows cars to pass through when needed.
Something that Andre mentioned that I thought was interesting is that city planning is a decades-long process, yet politics often fluctuate within short time periods. With new politicians coming in and out of election cycles and changing their stances with the newest tide of public interest, it is difficult for planning to really function on a time scale required to finish a comprehensive plan. I got the impression that he thought planning should happen completely separate from public will, or at least outside of election cycles and with a certain amount of protection from the latest public fad. As someone interested in going into city planning or public policy, this raised a few important questions for me to consider: when should public involvement be solicited in city planning projects and if elected politicians are to be separated from planning decisions, how can planners get an understanding of public will? I definitely understand where he is coming from in that politicians do what they can do be reelected even if that means turning on former allies within the city, but also, I believe in the affected community having a voice in what happens in their neighborhoods. For me, Houten was a really cool example of a city that had a vision and was able to follow through with it and learning more about how they accomplished their vision gave me a lot to think about.
Houten’s Approach to Transportation Network Design
Houten went through an extensive planning period soon after it started growing as a city. This time was critical to allow for planers to make radical changes to city development that are safe for children to travel by bike and that intensively incentivizes cycling as the mode of travel.
Houten is designed with two major ring roads on the outside of the city that connect in the center. Figure 1 and 2 display the northern and southern half of the city divided by two major ring roads. Houten prioritizes cyclists and pedestrians by making their routes more direct and convenient than car routes.
Figure 1: Northern-half of the City of Houten Distinguishable by its Transportation Network
Figure 2: Southern-half of the City of Houten Distinguishable by its Transportation Network
In the center of both ring roads is a train station with offices, retail space and residential areas built around the stations. This design makes all destinations close to a train station and to each other. A statistic shows that around half of all travel in the city is done by cycling, which was intentional because travel distances are reasonable for biking. Most trips that are not done by cycling include grocery shopping where the car serves to transport baggage. The purple lines are the ring roads just for motor vehicles. The yellow network are shared bike and motor vehicles roads important for emergencies and deliveries. The dashed line in both figures below is the train line. The green areas are the major bike routes. This design model is not adopted anywhere else in the world.
Transportation design prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists through narrow roads, traffic calming measures, and separating bicycle paths from car traffic in many areas. The urban planner we met with today mentioned there are no traffic signals for pedestrians or cyclists in the city. Even though other cities like Delft in the Netherlands give priority to cyclists with traffic signal timings, I agree there is a huge advantage to not stopping and waiting as the ride is smooth and direct. Specific designs that improve safety are featured below:
Figure 3: Speed Bumps to Slow Motorized Scooters that Share the Cycle Paths
Figure 4: Plastic Bollards Physically Separate Cars from Entering Cycle Paths
Figure 5: Tunnels Continue Bike Paths in a Smooth Flow Without Interruption from the Ring Roads
Figure 6: Winding Residential Streets Lower Vehicle Speeds and Make Drivers More Aware of their Surroundings.
Adoption in the United States
Cities in the US like Atlanta are dealing with urban sprawl where people are not willing to bike the long distances from suburbia to city centers. Current US cities can promote traveling by bike by making it more difficult to drive. Measures may include reducing the number of parking spaces in cities and residential areas and incurring fees on parking spaces.
Design approaches in Houten are best applied to new districts of cities where there are opportunities to develop schools, housing and everyday shops in proximity, so people are willing to bike. Additionally, there are several opportunities for land development in the US to design a city from scratch or one with a newly growing population. One proposal in the US currently is a car free city close to Denver Colorado to serve a smaller population (Barber 2019).
Houten planned their transportation and overall city design based on keeping their children and citizens safe. As Andre Botermans, our Houten lecturer, said today, “cars are enemies of human beings.” He meant this in that when vehicles hit a person, it doesn't tend to end well for the person To maintain this goal of safety, Houten has limited vehicular traffic within the city and encouraged biking and walking to destinations. Houten considers itself less of a biking town and more of a “slow traffic” town. To discourage driving, Houten built a ring road on the outskirts of the town, as can be seen in the map below. This also was a way to discourage urban sprawl. Inside the city, a few roads enter the neighborhoods and lead to parking. Past these roads, none of the roads allow vehicles. Additionally, none of the neighborhoods have vehicular traffic connections to each other (instead there are cycling and walking paths between neighborhoods) and vehicles have to yield to cyclists and pedestrians within the ring road. In most cases, it's faster to bike than drive to places within Houten.
Houten has two urban centers since it is basically two different towns that ended up connected by tunnels and bridges when more and more people started moving to Houten. One of the connections is a two-level roundabout with vehicles on the top and bikes on the bottom. In the north and south sections of Houten, there are urban greenways with bike paths through them, with the north greenway running east to west and the south greenway being shaped like a pentagon around the city center. There's also an extensive bike network going through all of the neighborhoods and connecting school children to their schools with easy-to-follow wayfinding signs with both colors and numbers to help you. Here are some pictures I took while biking through Houten below.
Figure 3. South City Center and Train Station
Figure 4. Two-Level Roundabout
Figure 5. North Greenway Cycle Path
Figure 6. South Greenway Cycle Path
Figure 7. Wayfinding Symbol in Houten Along Cycle Track
I can envision the Houten model in suburbs and small cities in the United States; however, I can't imagine this set up in big cities like Atlanta. Mostly, I can't imagine this in big cities because the distances travelled in Atlanta are longer than what is usually bikeable. In suburbs in the United States, this would be a great model if we had public transit (like extensive train networks) to bring people from the suburbs to the big cities. The only way I can see this being implemented is if we notice a city expanding in size and do extensive city planning work to connect separate suburbs to a major city with trains.
In all, Houten is an amazing city planning feat. The planners realized there was a town growing near Utrecht and a way to influence the growth, and they took that opportunity and ran with it. Something I noticed in Houten was the way that each neighborhood had its own unique look, almost like a subdivision in a U.S. suburban area. The biggest difference between these houses and the ones in the U.S. is that in the Netherlands, most areas have multi-family homes such as townhomes and apartments while in the United States we prefer much more space.
So far on this trip, I'm starting to realize that transportation choices by citizens is less in the biking infrastructure and more in the zoning and design of houses and cities. Houten is a great example of how a neighborhood like Virginia Highlands in Atlanta could become less car-oriented and more safe for children to play in. Here's a last picture of one of the streets I liked in Houten today.
Figure 8. Street in Houten Showing Houses Leading to the South City Center
When the Dutch government began to think of ways to develop the then-tiny village of Houten in the late 60’s, they had one main goal in mind: to make it a livable city. In order to achieve livability, they determined that the amount of car usage within the city must be limited. This concept is the backbone of how Houten became what it is today.
While the planner wanted to limit car usage in the city, they couldn’t ban vehicles completely, as people still use cars for inter-city travel. Therefore, they created a ring road that encircles the city, with a few smaller roads stemming from the ring road, so that residents can access their houses; however, these roads barely penetrate the city. As a result, residents are able to easily use their cars for trips outside of Houten. Vehicular trips to other locations within Houten are also possible, but the ring road is the only way to do so, and oftentimes trips by car are slower than by bike.
Figure 1: Portion of the ring road.
Within the city, all transportation is conducted via cycling or walking. The idea is that the reduction in congestion, emissions, and noise associated with a lack of automobile traffic will lead a to a more livable urban environment. Therefore, a network of bike and pedestrian paths has been created within the city to facilitate efficient transportation. The network is vast enough to reach every part of the city. Some parts of the bike paths, called the green belt, are designated as the main bicycle network for the city, while the rest of the paths may be shared with pedestrians or vehicles. The bike paths are made with red asphalt, while the walking paths are made with white pavers.
Figure 2: A portion of the green belt.
To ensure the efficiency of cycling and walking, the roads that enter into the city are grade-separated from the paths. This means that there are no crossing conflicts, leading to safer and stop-free riding/walking. Mopeds are placed in the same category as bicycles in the Netherlands, so they may use the bicycle paths. However, there are many “speed bumps” (which are actually the reverse of the ones we have in the US—they aren’t raised but rather indented into the ground, see Figure 3), which serve to slow down mopeds while not interfering with cyclists. The city also used to have bollards at the entrances to bike paths to prevent confused motorists or sneaky delivery drivers from entering the path. However, these have been recently removed, as they posed a danger to cyclists.
Figure 4: Speed bumps in Houten that are designed to slow mopeds without interfering with bicycles.
Applicability in the United States
I think this approach could be taken in the US, at least to a certain extent. There are certain areas already in existence where cars have limited access. Take the city of Seaside, Florida for example. This is a sleepy beach town where bicycling is the primary mode of transportation. The roads have low speed limits, and there are a few areas where there are only bike paths for transportation. Although, this town’s design does not completely prevent vehicular infiltration, as is the case in Houten. I think Americans, at least in this day in age, are very car-centric, and therefore need easy access to a car no matter where they live. So, I think the urban design strategies seen in Houten can be used somewhat in the US, but no to the fullest extent.
Houten, a city in the Netherlands, has a unique approach to transportation – even for a Dutch city. On Wednesday, the class rode a train out to the city, arriving around 10:30 am. Andre Botermans, a Houten City Planner and International Cycling Ambassador, gave the group a lecture providing background and information on the city.
With roots as a small village of about 3,000, it was not until the 1960s that planners began to envision a city with 100,000 residents. At the time, the Netherlands were experiencing rapid population growth and needed more capacity. Houten seemed like a logical choice due to its proximity to the growing city of Utrecht. The residents, however, did not want such a rapid expansion, leading to a design size of 25,000 – a compromise down from the initial 100,000. With the size settled, planners designed a city that would prioritize non-motorized users such as bikes and pedestrians as much as possible. The pinnacle of this design came down to one aspect: the ring road.
The ring road is the red line surrounding the developed portion of the city. On the road, cars can travel around 60 km/hr. This ring road is different from others found in cities, however, as it is the only road available for cars to navigate through the city. Cars may travel around the city and progress inwards to an extent, but no routes are available for cars that pass through the city. In contrast, there is an extensive network of bike path allowing direct routes for bikes. The impact of this design can be seen in the comparison below.
As seen above, often a trip is faster by bike than by car. In addition, small details encourage walking and biking – such as parking placed a short walk from residences. Greenways provide beautiful routes for cyclists and pedestrians. The bike infrastructure is impressive, as shown in the grade separated roundabout that the group was able to visit.
Houten's grade-separated roundabout
Could a Houten ever occur in the United States?
Houten is an interesting Dutch city to study due to its extreme priority for bike usage. When talking, Andre Botermans remarked that even other Dutch city planners have a hard time envisioning their own town with a similar plan. If it is hard for the Dutch to envision the scalability of Houten, then it is certainly hard for me to envision a similar plan in the United States. Certain barriers, such as public-opinion-driven spending threaten funding for a project centered on a mode used by a small minority in the States. Communities such as Peachtree City and Serenbe indicate that communities centered on vehicles other than cars as well as communities heavily planned can and do exist in the United States. Can Houten ever be the rule as opposed to the exception? This I doubt due to the niche nature of such a heavily planned and bike-centric community. With that being said, Houten is a concept that can be derived and applied in a variety of contexts and provides a valuable case-study.