Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.
-Albert Einstein (more great quotes on bicycles here)
When it comes to urban and regional planning, the ease in which pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders safely and efficiently navigate rural areas is my litmus test for great planning. So after my three weeks in the Netherlands, I say with 100% certainty that the Dutch are experts when it comes to national planning policy. This comes as no surprise since they have been making the highest and best use of their land at least since the 1600s, when planners in Amsterdam implemented a comprehensive plan of four concentric half-circle canals that make up the beloved city core we know today. About an eighth of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and half of the country lies practically at sea level, so sustainable and efficient planning has always been at the forefront of Dutch planning policy.
Before cars existed, Dutch planning mostly focused on developing land for farming and residences by creating extensive networks of dams, dykes, and dunes by draining swampland and lakes. Once cars started to take over the world in the 1950s and 1960s, Dutch planning policy shifted in the 1970s to encourage walking, cycling, and pubic transit as "a reaction to the increasingly harmful environmental, energy and safety impacts of rising car use." Their foresight paid off in droves, and and the Netherlands today is the world's prime example of planning for people (and the environment) over cars.
Public transit in the Netherlands is the best I have ever experienced, and everywhere I went was well-connected by reliable systems of buses, trains, and/or trams. In many cases, it is actually faster to travel by bike or transit, and certainly cheaper: not only are cars more expensive in the Netherlands but gas prices are not ridiculously subsidized (the true price of gasoline is roughly $15/gallon, not the rock bottom $2.30/gallon U.S. drivers currently pay, leaving the burden of maintaining aging roads and infrastructure to tax payers, but I digress). Dutch cyclists are treated with respect and well-provided for with protected lanes, generous parking facilities, and more; cyclists almost take priority over pedestrians.
Beyond providing adequately for transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians, Dutch traffic safely policy is a huge contributor to creating safe spaces for the car-free:
In the Netherlands, the sustainable safety approach [...] acknowledges that in the majority of accidents humans are to blame, and that roads should be designed to be "self-explaining" thus reducing the likelihood of crashes. Self-explaining roads are easy to use and navigate, it being self-evident to road users where they should be and how they should behave. The Dutch also prevent dangerous differences in mass, speeds and/or directions from mixing. Roundabouts create crossings on an otherwise 50 or 70 km/h road that are slow enough, 30 km/h, to permit pedestrians and cyclists to cross in safety. Mopeds, cyclists and pedestrians are kept away from cars on separate paths above 30 km/h in the built up area. Buses are also often given dedicated lanes, preventing their large mass from conflicting with low mass ordinary cars. (Wikipedia)
It's rare to see a cyclist with a bike helmet in the Netherlands, partially because bikes there are designed to be ridden sitting upright (thus decreasing the possibility of flipping over the handlebars) but mainly because separated bike lanes, educated drivers, and traffic calming techniques create extremely safe spaces for cyclists. Even babies and children buckled into bike seats forego wearing helmets in the Netherlands.
In my short time in the Netherlands, I didn't get to explore every far-flung corner of the country but I did get a taste of rural planning when I visited Edam. From there, Mango and I rented a cargo bike unique to the Netherlands (check that off my bucket list) and spent a few days riding around the countryside. Wow, I can't even begin to describe how magical it was to ride a bike through the picturesque countryside safely and breathe in clean air. The narrow pathways along the dykes were open to vehicles as well but I only encountered a few. Most roads had just a single lane for cars, meaning cars approaching from different directions had to perform a slow and delicate dance to get around each other. At one point I was riding along a two-lane road with cars passing at higher speeds and I felt a bit nervous with just a painted stripe to protect me, but very few cars passed and those that did were accustomed to seeing cyclists anyways. Even the small towns we passed through were quiet and almost car-free, thus making this the most relaxing bike journey I've ever had.
So kudos to the Netherlands for their urban development policies that allow everyone, be it a pedestrian, cyclist, transit user, or driver, to navigate the beautiful country safely and efficiently. Visiting the country and experiencing their planning from different perspectives was enlightening, and should be a requirement for anyone interested in how sustainable and inclusive planning truly works.
Droogmakerij de Beemster (Beemster Polder)
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a prime example of reclaimed land in the Netherlands "laid out in accordance with classical and Renaissance planning principles." Beemster Polder dates back to the 17th century and its orderly fields, roads, canals, dykes, and settlements have remained intact over time. This unique system was created in 1612 by draining Lake Beemster for agricultural and residential purposes, as well as a deterrent for future flooding in this low-lying region. This is a great post on the site, although admiring the tidy Dutch homes surrounded by water and petite moats without knowing the backstory is perfectly acceptable.
Stelling van Amsterdam (Defence Line of Amsterdam)
Amsterdam is a big deal. And hundreds of years ago it was a Really Big Deal. So big that a 135 km long ring of protective fortifications was built around it between 1883 and 1920. Consisting of 45 armed forts, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is "the only example of a fortification based on the principle of controlling the waters" in the lowlands. According to the Defence Line's Wikipedia page, the flooding was designed so that large tracts of land around Amsterdam would be inundated with water, preventing the enemy from advancing if the city were to be attacked by an enemy. Unfortunately, the invention of the airplane and tank made the fortresses immediately obsolete upon completion. I managed to visit about five or eight of the forts, and they were all well-marked (although in Dutch). Many are closed to the public or used for private businesses, so I didn't enter any of the buildings. Many, actually, were hard to find because they were overgrown and blended into the landscape, but were hard to miss once you spotted each fort's trademark ring of water and wooden guard house.
At a distance of 17 km from Edam, this quaint little Dutch village and former island made the perfect stop for lunch. This port town was founded before the 1600s and has some of North Holland's oldest wooden houses, and a wee population of 4,000 residents.