So, what if I told you we should design and build a new CITY for 50,000+ people where bicycle transportation is the main mode of transportation? Sounds good right? Vehicles move in your periphery, if they move at all, and your ears are filled not with the honking of cars or the typical noises that contribute to noise pollution found in most cities, but instead there is silence. This is how I perceived the city of Houten. Houten is a master planned city, totally created from nothing, in the 1970s and brought to fruition today. A city where bicycle transportation is given the ultimate priority, where motorized vehicles are forced to move around the city limits or strategically float overtop of the city with elevated bridges and roadways, so not to impact the human powered vehicles below. I applaud the idea of a city designed around bicycle transportation and in that regard I think that the master plan achieved its main goal, design a city that can sustain itself with bicycles as the main form of transportation.
Although I am not a urban planner or city designer the limited number of courses that I have taken in regards to city growth and design show examples of successful city neighborhoods and larger districts that all have a variety commercial, residential, institutional, etc. options (vertical and horizontal mixed-use) in relatively close proximity to each other. Different businesses and buildings arrive overtime and give the neighborhood a sense of place and distinction from other areas in the city. Time allows these neighborhoods to evolve overtime and even though the city is relatively young, because everything was created like POOF!! I can’t imagine how individual parts of the city will age any differently or at different rates than other parts. In the successful neighborhood examples that I have seen offer are the residents a variety of choices a that ultimately enable a diverse group of social classes (often reflecting different ethnicities too) settling in these neighborhoods. Our visit to Houten lasted a little more than an hour and in no means did I see the entire extent of the master planned city, but from the small portion that I did see there was something eerily fake about it. It really reminded me of that movie the Truman Show or Seaside, FL. However, those developments were small neighborhoods, this was a CITY!!! A city that had over 50,000 inhabitants! Wow, so that means that there really is a market for this type of development?
We did not have enough time to question our tour guide about all the specifics of the city, but he did mention that the average income was without a doubt higher than the national average income. It really seemed like there was a lack of diversity and choices that individuals had to choose from. Though everyone used his or her bikes there was no major industry/employer, university, or tourist attraction that was mentioned on our tour. The majority of residents used the public transportation system to commute to their jobs that were in surrounding cities.
*I’m not sure why out of all the cities that we visited in the Netherlands, this one, which could have been argued to be the most successful in terms of bicycle transportation infrastructure, was without a doubt my least favorite place to visit or potentially live in. I think it gets back to the idea of just because a building is “sustainable” doesn’t mean that it is livable. Understanding the tradeoffs of the design choices is imperative to the long-term livability and success of a project/master-planned city.
While in Utrecht we visited an elementary school that was wrapping up their final school day before entering summer break. Our group arrived at the school in an ample amount of time before school released to witness mothers and fathers arriving to meet and pickup their children. This was such an incredible site to see! Parents arrived by bike or on foot to congratulate their children on another successful year (I can only hope!). Everyone was riding bikes of different shapes and sizes; anything you could imagine was there! Parents rode bike and so did their children, lead by example.
Later, we met with the principal of the school to discuss how the schools in Utrecht approached bicycle safety. The principal with the help of the city implemented a bicycle program that taught youngsters about bicycle edict and being aware of other forms of transportation that are on the roads ways. This seems like such a simple idea, but I truly believe that educating the youth is extremely important to maintain bicycle safety and use in the future. I also believe that educating the youth in America about the option and importance of alternative forms of transportation could prove to be an extremely successful way of gathering a big user group in upcoming generation. And even if the incorporation of bicycle education in elementary schools does not generate more bicycle users it would minimally make these children more aware of bicycles on roadways that optimistically would reduce car-bike accidents.