A Case Study in Bike-Friendly Suburban Planning

Original article publish by City Lab.

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 low-density 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.

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.)

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.

Map of HoutenA March 2014 map of Houten shows the ring roads encircling the main residential and commercial areas. (Wiki Commons/Janwillemvanaalst)
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.”
A major of non-work trips in Houten are made without a car. (ITDP Europe)
Could Houten ever work in America?