What the misguided war between cars and bikes often misses is that it’s perfectly possible for both to coexist in peace—even in the suburbs. Such inter-modal harmony is happening right now in a Dutch town called Houten.
Located about five miles from the city of Utrecht, Houten and its adjacent sister town of South Houten are home to nearly 50,000 residents. In some ways Houten is a typical suburb. The neighborhoods are filled with medium-density, single-family homes,* a fair number of residents own cars (415 autos per 1,000 locals, with 36 percent of households having at least two cars), and on average there’s even more than one parking space per person.
But in many more ways, Houten is anything but typical. Car traffic is primarily resigned to a “ring road” that encircles the area. Within that ring is a network of low-speed streets meant primarily for people traveling on foot or by bike (there are 80 miles of bicycle paths alone) that connect to two main intercity train stations and most of the area’s schools and shops. As a result, car trips are the minority in Houten, with an estimated 66 percent made by alternative modes.
“Houten is a paradigm of urban planning for bike and public transportation use,” says civil engineering scholar Peter Furth of Northeastern University in Boston, who takes his planning students there every year. (He once said that if the Netherlands is bicycle heaven, then Houten “is the heaven of heaven.”)
“It’s kinda been known in transportation or city planning circles for more than 20 years,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s kinda well-hidden.”
Cars keep to the perimeter, not the core
In the late 1960s, Dutch officials recognized Houten—then a tiny village of a few thousand—as a potential area for major population growth. An architect named Rob Derks came up with a town plan that prioritized pedestrians and cyclists over cars. Construction began in 1978 and was finished a few years later, and when more growth was predicted in the 1990s, the area replicated itself into South Houten.
(These and other Houten details come courtesy of a fantastic 2014 summary report of the area by Nicole Foletta of ITDP Europe.)
It’s the ring roads around the perimeter of Houten that make the town so unique from a planning perspective. One heads north and the other south, with a speed limit of 55 miles an hour. To get home, drivers exit the ring roads onto local streets in the core of Houten that extend into individual neighborhoods but don’t connect to other parts of town. To get somewhere else by car, you have to get back on the ring road.
Houten’s local mixed-use street network has a low speed limit (~18 mph) and gives travel priority to walkers and cyclists. Plenty of streets and paths are off-limits to cars—some are physically blocked by bollards. The bike paths in the extensive cycling network have their own brick red coloring. Where bike routes do cross the ring roads, underpasses separate bike and car traffic. On average, Houten residents own more than three bikes per household.
In addition to homes, the core areas are loaded with shops, plazas, and jobs—many of them adjacent to one of the two train stations. No one lives more than a mile and a quarter from a train, and a majority of Houten residents live within a mile of a grocery store. That makes it easy to do most of life’s daily chores without a car. The biggest transportation problems that locals face are bike parking, speeding mopeds, and “uncollected dog poop.”
The mobility breakdown validates the design. Plenty of people still drive; the car commute share is over 50 percent in Houten and South Houten alike. But the vast majority of shopping or social trips are made without a car. And cycling and walking together account for 55 percent of total Houten travel, with public transit making up another 11 percent.
“Houten—it is a suburb,” says Furth. “This is what’s incredible. It is a suburb. Where you’d expect a really high car share.”
Could Houten ever work in America?
From an American planning perspective, the allure of Houten is that it doesn’t push suburbanites to give up their cars or their single-family homes.* UC-Davis transport scholars Mark Delucchi and Ken Kurani recently came up with a conceptual plan for a suburb with a truly sustainable transport network. It too combined high-speed ring roads and low-speed interior roads; the closest real-world example they found was Houten.
The conceptual schema even remarkably similar to Houten’s own layout:
But Delucchi isn’t sure the Houten model translates well to American suburbs. “I think there are a host of reasons it will be difficult to implement our plan or even a milder, Houten-like version in America,” he tells CityLab via email, stressing that he’s speaking not from his research findings but as someone with general knowledge of transport systems. Chief among these challenges is overcoming the pervasive American preference toward individualism over social planning.
And for sure, life in Houten isn’t for everyone. Here’s University of Colorado-Boulder transport scholar Kevin Krizek writing about his impressions of Houten, which he called a Truman Show-style existence:
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.
That hasn’t stopped other places from mimicking parts of Houten’s success. The Dutch city of Groningen has a ring road, with interior traffic considered “car-lite,” says Furth. Paris recently announced plans to make it easier for cyclists to cross the city’s beltway, a concept that echoes the bike passes below Houten’s ring road. Furth says the closest American counterpart to Houten can be found in college towns.
“You’re not allowed to just drive through a campus,” he says. “In the middle of the campus it’s thriving with pedestrians and bikes going here and there. Then around the perimeter you create this [car] zone.”
Still, he says, there’s only been one true replica of Houten to date: South Houten. “Houten is proof that it can be repeated,” he says. “Yet at the same time it still is the only place where it’s been done.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to housing in Houten as being “low-density.” Furth clarifies that Houten is more accurately described as a medium-density suburb (he estimates about 40 dwellings per hectare) with mostly single-family homes.