Houten gave me the uneasy vibe of being a little too perfect and a little too quiet. It reminded me of the utopian societies we read about in middle school literature, always eerily pleasant and always destined to fall (though I am not trying to claim Houten is going to fall). But putting aside that looming feeling that kept me looking over my shoulder all morning – I really enjoyed my time in Houten and wish that I could have spent all day there.
Figure 1 - A beautiful bike path in Houten
Figure 2 - Another beautiful, car-less path in Houten
The infrastructure there is very very well designed for cyclists. Accessibility to the city by car is very limited. To move around Houten in a car you need to exit the city, use the ring road that encircles the city and re-enter at the entrance closest to your destination. There is not a network of roads inside the city that allows you to navigate within the ring road. Also, very few entrances from the ring road allow access to the city center. I believe there are about 4 car access roads to the city center, the rest of the streets stop in the outlining neighborhoods. On the other hand, an entire network of bicycle tracks lie within the ring road. You can bike to the north city center from anywhere in Houten within fifteen minutes. Also, at the handful of conflict points between cyclists and vehicles, the bikes always have priority. Also the design of Houten included ease of navigation. All the bike routes had unique numbers and colors that were posted on the lamp posts. This way, every several feet you could check where you were cycling. Finally, I think my favorite part was all the green space. They city planner we had the pleasure of meeting showed us how they changed up the concept of green parks in Houten. Instead of using pavement to connect the parks, they used parks to connect the pavement. They have a main bike route running along green space across the city center, between developments. This way, when people commute, they get to do so in green space, instead of surrounded by hardscape.
Figure 3 - A path marker
As nice as all this may sound, there are some challenges to transferring these concepts to the United States. I think most of it comes down to geography, urban sprawl and culture. First, many regions of the US are not flat, which is a big obstacle to cycling. The Netherlands is very lucky that the country is naturally flat, which promotes cycling for more than recreation. Second, the cities here are purposely designed to be dense. Everything you need on a regular basis is close enough to where people live that they can comfortably cycle there. Instead of there being one massive grocery store across town, like in the US, there are multiple little ones which promotes cycling as well. Finally, the culture here also encourages cycling. Here, getting a bicycle as a child is a rite of passage – in the US it’s getting your driver’s license. Many things need to change is the US before anywhere looks like Houten, but many smaller steps can be taken to get us headed in the right direction!