Cycling in Houten – a triumph in Planning

When providing for cycling, it’s easy to get hung up on the various design details in how to build best-practice cycling routes. As I showed you in my previous post about Utrecht, the Dutch certainly have many very good treatments for streets and cycleways that bear repeating elsewhere. These things are important, and we should endeavour to get these things right here in New Zealand too. However, they will all be of limited use if we haven’t also considered the bigger picture of planning our city overall.

The Houten train station runs above the main walk/bike path through town
The Houten train station runs above the main walk/bike path through town

For example, I could build a really nice cycleway, say from Halswell into central Christchurch, with good width pathways and safe road crossings and intersection treatments. And indeed, we’ve started to to do this, with the Little River Link and Quarrymans Trail major cycleways to come. However, even then it’s still a 10km bike ride from Halswell all the way into town. For many people, that seems like too long a distance to ride, so they won’t bother. And the main road into town (Halswell/Lincoln Rds) is actually more direct anyway, providing another reason to hop in the car instead (or maybe the bus). So, if we want to encourage more cycling we have to consider:

  1. Making it easier to do short trips (3-5km max) from home to other key destinations (including public transport connections)
  2. Making it more advantageous to bike instead of driving (in terms of time/distance)
Cycling in downtown Houten
Cycling in “downtown” Houten

Houten is a relatively small city (pop. ~50,000) southeast of Utrecht, similar in size to Invercargill and Nelson. The old town area of Houten has been around for hundreds of years, but in the 1960s the district was planned for expansion to relieve some of the growth of Utrecht (it’s actually closer to downtown Utrecht than Halswell is to central Christchurch). Much of that construction took place in the early 1980s, including a new town centre and railway station. Since the 1990s a second southern area, Houten-Zuid, has also been under construction using a similar planning approach.

Plan of Houten - nowhere is more than 2km from the nearest railway station
Plan of Houten – nowhere is more than 2km from the nearest railway station (c/ Google Maps)

The map shows the layout of Houten and the main roads. You can see the main railway line bisecting the city north-south through the middle. The red circles show the locations of the two railway stations where the new town centres are also based. The purple lines show the road crossings under the railway line; apart from a small local road to the north, the only road accesses from east to west are on the periphery ring road and the one road through the middle.

Bikes can get under the railway line here (even when it's being cleaned) but cars can't
Bikes can get under the railway line here (even when it’s being cleaned) but cars can’t

Meanwhile there are additional bike (and pedestrian) links elsewhere across the train line (shown by green lines), including access through the town centres. And of course there are also heaps of cycle paths connecting all this across the city. Note too that they are invariably separated from pedestrians, who have their own paths.

A nice waterside pathway out in the 'burbs
A nice waterside pathway out in the ‘burbs

Path vs road interactions are usually either priority crossings for bikes when it is a local street, or an underpass when it is a busier road (including a completely separated multi-level roundabout). Or the road is so quiet that it doesn’t actually matter.

A busy roundabout up top - but a separate walk/bike roundabout below
A busy roundabout up top – but a separate walk/bike roundabout below

The upshot of all this is that it is generally far more convenient to get somewhere by bike in Houten than it is to drive, which usually requires driving out to the ring road and around to your destination (plus of course, the local streets are designed for 30km/h environments). Nowhere is further than 2km from the railway stations, so you can see that it is quite a compact city (yet, away from the town centres, I generally didn’t see housing more than three storeys high).

Car vs bike - bike wins here
Car vs bike – bike wins here

Not surprisingly therefore, over 40% of trips in Houten are made by bike (and 60% of people travelling by train bike to/from the stations, hence the big bike parking areas there). This is a key part of why Houten was crowned Netherland’s champion “Bicycle Town” in 2008, a much sought after honour.

Again I’ll leave you with a few more photos to drool over:

Getting priority on the bike pathway
Getting priority on the bike pathway
Oh the horror, they're riding three abreast...
Oh the horror, they’re riding three abreast…
Another fietsstraat ("bicycle street") in Houten
Another fietsstraat (“bicycle street”) in Houten
Now that's what I call a school zone...
Now that’s what I call a school zone…
A Houten special - speed bumps on the path before approaching a multi-pathway intersection
A Houten special – speed bumps on the path before approaching a multi-pathway intersection

So are there takeaway lessons for Christchurch? I think the key one for starters is to remember that Christchurch is essentially a collection of villages (Halswell, New Brighton, Papanui, etc) and it is worth the effort to make it easier for people to bike the short trips from their home to local destinations like shops and schools. Then we can tie that in to longer journeys using the Major Cycleway network and our bus system. And certainly we should think a little bit harder about how we plan our new subdivisions to make cycling a more convenient option – it’s a lot easier than trying to retrofit things later.

Could we do similar planning treatments in Christchurch?

3 thoughts on “Cycling in Houten – a triumph in Planning”

  1. It is all so simple really isn’t it Glen? It just takes a desire to create a better city and save some money along the way.

    Christchurch could so easily take back its mantle as one of the world’s great cycle cities.

  2. Awesome article, thank you Glen. I wonder also how the Dutch don’t allow the landowners outside the city to subdivide their (tulip!) fields to sell as car-dependent sprawl!? A completely different resource management system I suppose…

    1. In the Netherlands, there are strict zoning rules. Those fields would have an agricultural designation, and no building permit would be granted for building residential housing there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *