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.