The Safest Suburb In The World Did It By Ending The Culture Of Cars

The difference between this Dutch city and most North American commuter towns is that it actually makes good on its promise of safety, security, and good health.

What happens when you build mobility systems entirely around safety? I found out the morning I arrived in Houten, a design experiment set amid the soggy pastures of the Dutch lowlands.

I stepped off the train, eyes blurry with an Amsterdam-size hangover, and found a bustling downtown without a car in sight—just throngs of white-haired senior citizens wheeling past on bicycles, their baskets loaded with shopping. I was greeted at Houten’s city hall by the mild-mannered traffic director, Herbert Tiemens, who insisted that we go for a ride. He led me down Houten’s main road, which was not actually a road but a winding path through what looked like a golf course or a soft-edged set from Teletubbies: all lawns and ponds and manicured shrubs. Not a car in sight. We rolled past an elementary school and kindergarten just as the lunch bell rang. Children, some of whom seemed barely out of diapers, poured out, hopped on little pink and blue bicycles, and raced past us, homeward.

"We are quite proud of this," Tiemens boasted. "In most of the Netherlands, children don’t bike alone to school until they are eight or nine years old. Here they start as young as six."

"Their parents must be terrified," I said.

"There’s nothing to fear. The little ones do not need to cross a single road on their way home."

Once upon a time, Houten was a tiny village clustered around a fourteenth-century church. But in 1979 the Dutch government declared that Houten needed to do its part in absorbing the country’s exploding population. The hamlet of 5,000 needed to grow by 10 times in 24 years—an expansion similar to what many American suburbs would experience. Faced with such an overwhelming change, the local council adopted a plan that turned the traditional notion of the city inside out.

The new Houten was designed with two separate transportation networks. The backbone of the community is a network of linear parks and paths for cyclists and pedestrians, all of which converge on that compact town center and train station (and, incidentally, a plaza laid out with the same dimensions as Siena’s Piazza del Campo). Every important building in the city sits along that car-free spine. If you walk or cycle, everything is easy. Everything feels close. Everything feels safe.

The second network, built mostly for cars, does everything it can to stay out of the way. A ring road circles around the edge of town, with access roads twisting inward like broken spokes. You can reach the front door of just about every home in town by car, but if you want to drive there from the train station, you need to wend your way out to the ring road, head all the way around the edge of the city, and drive back in again.

Where bicycles and cars do share roads, signs, and red asphalt make it clear that cyclists have priority. It is common to see cars inching along behind gaggles of seniors on two wheels.

The result of this reversing of the transportation order? If you count trips to the train station, two-thirds of the trips made within Houten are done by bike or on foot. The town has just half the traffic accident rate of similar-sized towns in the Netherlands and a tiny fraction of the rate found in most American towns. Between 2001 and 2005 Houten saw only one person killed in traffic—a 73-year-old woman on her bike, crushed by an impatient garbage-truck driver. If it was a comparably sized American town, that number would have been twenty times as high.

By the end of the day in safe town, I could barely keep my eyes open. Houten was as sedating as a glass of warm milk at bedtime. This was, of course, the point. The town was supposed to be dull: it was the kind of place where young couples moved to have kids, just as North Americans move to quiet cul-de-sacs on the edge of suburbia. Old folks moved in, too. The market streets were packed with them, gliding back and forth on bicycles loaded with groceries and grandchildren. The place is so popular with buyers young and old, it is currently being doubled in size, its ring road looping around a second town center and train station.

The difference between Houten and North American commuter towns is that Houten actually makes good on its promise of safety, security, and good health. If protecting children from harm was really a priority in wealthy economies, we could have built ten thousand Houtens rather than ten thousand Weston Ranches in the past thirty years.

Excerpted from Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Charles Montgomery. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Jarrett M]

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  • Poltroon

    Who decided that cars are a culture? Where I live cars are a necessity. Let see these folks in the photo peddling their asses around at 10 below zero

  • Gnoll110

    How did they do things "Where I live" before 1900?

    What did they do there during the oil shocks in the 1970s?

  • John Cruz

    I was very excited for this release and I was not disappointed. A fun quick read, even if there is some bias. Granted the picture painted is very much over the top idealism, but it's not as though Montgomery shies away from letting it known that this book is somewhat of an advocacy piece.

    I can't comment on the Houston thing as I've never been there. That being said, I don't usually hear people from Houston trash Houston, so I have to believe there's something there that's making a lot of people happy.

  • Gnoll110

    It's one thing to greenfield 90% of a town, but how to move away from an existing car culture in a town already built for it?

    I'ld start with reading Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order, especially A Vision of a Living World (Book 3, of 4). Chapter 9 is The Reconstruction of an Urban Neighborhood. It deals with how to reduce the cars role, by processor that move land over to pedestrian uses.


    How I wish my Country will be like that, just to save countless number of School children being knocked down by motorists

  • Jelena Iden

    Of course, bicycles are environmentally-friendly, good for health, green and everything, but... BUT!

    I will not get under the rain; come all-wet home and treat myself from pneumonia for several months, because of the perfect health care system in Netherlands.

    I will not fall on my knees or break my bones, because bicyclists don't bother to follow or even learn road regulations.

    Why? Because I drive in a safe warm metal box that is cold CAR.

  • Meriam

    Very interesting article that shows that when there's a will, there's usually a way. I do think it would be hard to implement this concepts in cities with steep hills, though, like the one I live in. The flat part of the city has cycling lanes that are used a lot, but most part of the city is way to steep and hilly to cycle there.

  • John Culvenor

    #Houten story looks interesting. By what measure/s though is it the safest suburb in the world? Big claim.

  • Waqas

    Even within Utrecht we were pretty safe and the kids felt secure and confident.

  • Charles

    Only earlier this year his teacher and I took his whole class of 24 kids to Utrecht by bicycle, her riding in front and me following the 10 year olds.

  • Libby

    Well, I have lived in Houten for 8 years and I am happy to report that I don't feel in the least bit suicidal. I was actually a bit offended that Charles Montgomery described Houten as dull. Sure it's not Amsterdam, but at least it is not Nieuwegein...

  • Charles

    Something I've been doing with my son since he was 5 years old, thus introducing him to a more demanding traffic environment.

  • Divemaster1962

    Living there myself, I can confirm most of what's been said in the article.
    If the writer's guide had been a bit more adventurous, he would have shown him how easy it is to cycle to the nearest city, Utrecht, in about 20 minutes over more safe bike-ways.
    Something I've been doing with my son since he was 5 years old, thus introducing him to a more demanding traffic environment.
    Only earlier this year his teacher and I took his whole class of 24 kids to Utrecht by bicycle, her riding in front and me following the 10 year olds.
    Even within Utrecht we were pretty safe and the kids felt secure and confident.

  • Charles

    That being said, accidents are often also caused by cyclists feeling like they own the road. People will often cycle with 3 or more next to each other, blocking the road for other users. They'll also often assume that they have right of way when they don't.

  • Koen Winckers

    one of the drawbacks of this system is that children growing up there are not accustomed to normal traffic rules, so that they, for example, take a lot longer to get their driving license. i grew up in houten, and now the traffic in any other city is terrifying by comparison.