A few weeks back I was fortunate to be a guest on a university study tour of the Netherlands with Peter Koonce and Peter Furth. I posted a video on Dutch Systematic Safety by Peter Furth a few months back. Professor Furth has been leading study tours of the Netherlands for American transport engineering students for over a dozen years. I’ll be writing a bunch of posts on the interesting things I saw and learned, in particular the things that are relevant to Auckland/NZ.
To start off, here is a post on Houten. Located 10km from Utrecht, Houten is a bedroom community designed by Robert Derks during an era of focused greenfield development under the government’s urban expansion plan of “concentrated deconcentration”. It was designed from the beginning to be a place where people could walk and cycle for their daily needs and to live within an easy bike ride (1km, 8 minutes) to the train station.
The design of Houten began in 1968. It evolved because of several events. First it was a rejection of the growing car based modernism (CIAM). There was also the oil crisis of 1973 and a historic high number of traffic fatalities in 1971. To make the city safe for cycling, the city was designed with two distinct street networks – one for cars, and the other for walking and cycling. People walking and cycling have a dense network of paths and streets, the car network is confined to small catchments served by a distributor ring road. These small catchments of housing can only be accessed by the ring road. By design, local trips to friends, shops, and the train station are closer by bike than by car. Local trips outside of people’s immediate neighbourhood require a circuitous journey via the ring road.
Carefully prescribing vehicle routes is now common practice in many Dutch cities. Many of the city officials and professionals we spoke to were actively re-organising street networks to improve safety and residential living quality by limiting and redirecting through traffic. I’ll write more on this in another post.
Houten is a remarkable example of how greenfield development can successfully create conditions that support non-motorised transport. Because of its dual street structure and the availability of high quality rapid transit, it is somewhat difficult to draw lessons for New Zealand. The one thing I think that is particularly relevant is the comprehensive application of traffic calming techniques. Let’s just say they don’t just post 30 kph signs.
Drivers access specific neighbourhoods via a 90kph distributor ring road. This road is exclusively devoted to traffic flow, so there are minimal access points and few intersections. Because of this, it only needs to be one lane in each direction.
The entrance to each neighbourhood is marked by larger buildings that form both a landmark and gateway feature. What follows is a series of design interventions that require motorists to snap out of their motorway trance and become aware of their new surroundings.
The first trick is that the entry roads are short, no more than about 40 metres. Immediately after entry, the road has a lateral shift – a curve or a turn.
Using the example from the Wernaar neighbourhood accessed by De Akker, drivers are forced to make a sharp turn. Forward vision is limited by trees. Trees are also located close to the street’s edge further narrowing the drivers’ field of vision and adding a degree of side friction.
After the deviation, cars are channelised into a narrow lane. The first intersection is marked by a raised-up intersection, the introduction of pavers, and for good measure, a 30kph speed limit sign. The intersection is also uncontrolled so a car coming from a different direction remains a possibility. There are no lane markings.
Past the first intersection there are a web of short streets that serve as lanes, and car courtyards. While very narrow, little more than 4m, most of the streets are shared in both directions. The blocks are very short, with sideroads every 50 – 70m. When the streets cross a main bicycle routes, drivers are slowed again with speeds humps and priority (for cyclists) markings.
By slowing traffic so quickly and effectively, the entire neighbourhood becomes a pleasant place where people can live peacefully and children can roam widely. While the street network seems denser, and potentially costlier from a development perspective, the road space becomes multi-purpose- serving in sections as main cycle routes and in other areas as courtyards and front yards.
It’s baffling to me that designs like this haven’t universally taken hold except in some resort settings. Also, why aren’t these traffic calming techniques more widely understood and applied in the Anglosphere?