Houten (Holland): Heaven or Hollow?

The next post of the EU BICI series stays in the Netherlands and travels to the widely acclaimed bike town of Houten.

“We keep it simple: we design all bike facilities in town to be 3.5 meters wide.”

-Andre Botermans, urban planner for the town of Houten (the Netherlands) talking on June 25, 2014 to a delegation of the World Symposium on Transport and Land Use Research.

All things in Houten appear simple, including bike planning. Within a country that celebrates bicycling more than any place in the world, you have an entire community designed around the bike. If it can’t work within this context, it can’t work anywhere. The question I found myself asking while touring this oft-heralded cycling mecca is, what is it? Is it a blissful cycling environment that is largely absent of cars and where most destinations (except work) are within 5 km? If yes, then Houten nailed it. But what if it is something else?

Phases of development

The first phase of development of Houten started between 1966-1974 and cycling was chosen as a lynchpin for the design of the community[1]. Most housing fronted on bike paths and everything was within 11 minutes. Car (motorized) traffic, while tolerated a bit within the immediate neighborhoods, was largely relegated to a peripheral road (parking was deferred to the rear of the homes/apartments). A second spurt of development came on-board 20 years later as planners pointed to Houten to accommodate considerably more residents via the Vinex Location program[2]. This additional wave roughly doubled the size of the community, but still within cycling parameters. The now tightly planned and confined part of Houten consists of roughly 15 housing-centric pods (each with roughly 300-400 units), all within an area of 4 km x 4 km[3].

The network

A seamlessly connected network of 135 km of red asphalt bicycle facilities are available to whisk you between two town centers and other destinations of schools, housing, as well as some employment. Any intersection between cycling facilities and auto-through traffic is addressed with grade-separated treatments; no traffic lights here. Should you desire things not immediately available in the immediate confines, two stations are available where trains run on 15 minute headways; within two stops you can be in Utrecht, one of the four biggest cities in the country and roughly 10,000 people per day take advantage of this option. One of the stations—labeled ‘Transferium’ because it is so easy to transfer modes—has almost 4,000 convenient bicycle parking spaces right below the platform. Around 40% of short trips are done by bike[4] and 20% are by foot. Life here is good, simple, pure and quiet. Cycling is safe; cycling is slow; some call it heavenly. If the it is considered to be attractive transport options with little environmental impact, Houten has struck the right chord.

But if the it is anything more, a moment of pause sets in. Houten feels hollow for me—maybe a bit too sterile? Life here appears to be analogous to a “Truman show” existence. Some have questioned for what we critics might searching: hypothermic needles on the streets? Houten’s character smells “new town”—of the same ilk as those designed around the same time in the U.K., France, and even the U.S. The typical American suburbs are critiqued for being overly auto-dependent but also sterile. Yet, Houten had a slightly different flavor. Here you find a balanced transport system but little else. It is here were you question the degree of vitality and liveliness that multiple modes might provide to an urban fabric.

Surprises?

The bike-centric design and culture is admirable and extensively embraced. But to some North American visitors, at least two ‘dirty secrets’ sneak out.

  • The residents of Houten drive cars. Car ownership is apparently among the highest in the country and residential parking places are provided for. Roughly 18,000 housing units in the center; and roughly the same number of cars. The commercial parking scene is even more interesting. Within the auto parking garages close to the center, the first two hours are free[5]. Wrapped into their rent, shop owners in central Houten subsidize the free hours through their rent for fear of a slump in business parking charges if were much higher. Even in the heaven of cycling, the tail of free car parking still wags. However, one takeaway suggests that even in the absence of regulated parking or priced parking, cycling can still shine if the environment is made so attractive.
  • Motor bikes share the bike facilities. Dutch law categorizes bicycle with low-speed motor scooters (those under 50cc engine and identified with a blue license plate); this means bicycle facilities are sharing with motorized equipment[6]. Yellow-plated motor bikes (greather than 50cc) are relegated to the standard streets. A sharing situation occurs more than one would expect, sometimes at surprising speeds. Furthermore, a yellow-plated motor bike on the cycling facilities was even spotted more than once.

Houten’s acclaimed success largely stems from its ability to develop a town from scratch. And, simplicity helps. Few communities in the world can implement a blanket 3.5 meter rule for all cycling facilities; varying widths of right-of-ways get in the way. Furthermore, a rule of thumb for the road engineers is to never design a straight-line distance more than 75 meters—for fear of cars or anyone else gaining too much speed. A nice luxury if you can afford it. According to the town urban planner, Andre Botermans, the biggest challenge now facing Houten’s cycling success is maintenance. The red carpet—or rather, asphalt—has been laid out. How they keep it fresh is the issue. A few years back, the town reportedly dolled out about $42 per person to maintain and improve bike facilities[7].

Given Houton’s superior ability to address pressing transport issues of the day begs the question, “why has it not been replicated elsewhere?” As best as I can discern, there are at least three rationales, in increasing likelihood of probability:

  • I presume the Dutch haven’t really been in the business of planning new towns in the past quarter century.
  • The market for this type of community is limited—too small for housing developers to be attracted to such.
  • Given the emerging international trends on creating vibrant, creative, artistic, vital (insert other adjective here) communities, the inherent bones of Houten suggest peaceful, tranquil, and possibly even boring (related to the above).

Depending on your take, cycling in Houten could be heaven, a bit hollow, or somewhere in between.

[1] …alongside greenbelts, playgrounds, and car-free aspirations

[2]The Vinex program was apparently created by the Dutch Ministry of Housing in 1993 as response to anticipated housing shortage. A central authority prescribed locations for over a million houses by 2015 and Houten was a recipient.

[3] Wikipedia suggests: The built-up area is 5.08 km2 (1.96 sq mi) with 18,451 residences.The slightly larger statistical district of Houten has almost 50,000 residents.

[4] Formal statistic suggest 42% of trips less than 7.5 km

[5] Rates are roughly 1.50 Euros / hr thereafter.

[6]Two wheeled motor vehicles with an engine displacement over 50cc are motor cycles (yellow license plate); they are treated as motor vehicles and use the motor ways (translation: banned from cycling infrastructure). Under Dutch law, anything with an engine displacement under 50cc (blue license plate) is permitted to mix with normal bicycles on the cycling facilities.

[7]Amsterdam reportedly came in at $39 while the Hague was at least $27 (source: Nicole Foletta, ITDP Europe, page 46 ,Europe’s Vibrant New Low Car(bon) Communities. Case Study on Houten). Its unclear how these figures were arrived at; most transport budgets combine modal expenditures. Nevertheless relatively, it appears Houten is spending a lot.

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One Response to Houten (Holland): Heaven or Hollow?

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell August 7, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Kloosterveen, just outside of Assen, is also a Vinex community and has a similar Truman Show or hollow feel to it. Part of the problem here I think is that the central village and retail area is like a fortress and looks a bit like the Starship Enterprise. It’s just not inviting nor really connected to the community around it so it lacks any liveliness. People just don’t want to hang out in its square like they do in other communities.

    They also and rather strangely put in a ring road (Vestesingel) between the outer ring of housing and the inner ring (currently undeveloped) and retail. Cars travel quite fast on this ring road and yet it’s a shared road with bicycles. This has apparently generated increasing complaints from residents.

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