Picture this: Houten, but everyone who lives there, works there
On Wednesday, we were able to go to Houten: a suburb of Utrecht. Houten used to be a small town near a main rail line, with no more than 5,000 inhabitants. However, after two planned growth projects, the city swelled to 50,000 inhabitants, and the now-city grew with the assistance of planners who created a unique vision for the suburb. They planned for a bicycle-focused inner city, surrounded by a circumferential highway that provided vehicular access to every neighborhood.
The result was interesting. Cycling inside the city feels like you’re biking through a suburban neighborhood from your childhood. Some paths along canals and parks are completely car-free, other roads between homes include the occasional encounter with a car. The whole time I felt at ease and comfortable. We were also able to ride on a double roundabout that was grade-separated from a vehicular roundabout above. That was cool. Shops and grocery stores were spread out around town. Two train stations anchored Houten in the center. There was no connectivity between neighborhoods through the greenspaces of the city. Indeed, it was faster to travel by bike to the other side of the city than by car. Riding through the city felt like a cycling utopia.
What struck me was finding out from the planner, Andrej, that the mode split for Houten commuters was 80% motor vehicle, and that 2/3 of Houten residents commute to Utrecht. It struck me in two very important ways. First, Houten is not the cycling utopia that Dr. Watkins painted it to be. Only recreation and errand trips are majority cycling trips. The people that live there rarely work there! Houten is still very much car-dependent, though not car-centric in design. However, it is this same fact that makes Houten that much cooler. This proves that Houten is more similar to American suburbs than we think, and it proves that it can be feasible in America. Cycling as a means of transportation is very much a cultural thing, and it must be learned slowly, as one learns a new habit. It cannot happen suddenly. As such, the best way to get Americans moving is to begin by switching their errand trips away from cars. The commute (though very important) can be worried about later. If we get homemakers cycling to the grocery store every week, or children biking to school every day, then we can begin to encourage Americans how to change their methods for other trips. It could encourage them to live closer to their common destinations, including their jobs. Americans are obsessed with suburbs, and Houten proves that low- and medium-density residential zones can exist in a sustainable and multimodal environment, even if it’s still a car-dependent one.