Visiting Houten feels a little too perfect. Like you’re being watched in the Truman Show in a quiet suburb. Of course, it didn’t just happen this way by chance. Houten is a planned community just southeast of Utrecht that is known for being an ideal bicycle town. Let’s delve into a bit of the history of Houten and its development to see why this is the case. This also begs the question, is it really all that perfect?
History of Houten
Houten started as a village around 1900 with a few churches and mostly housing. It expanded through two growth phases. The first occurred from 1964-74 when the village’s population grew from 3,000 people to about 25,000. A regional housing shortage led to the development of 6,000 new houses, 30 percent of which was social housing. As a response to the peak in traffic deaths in the Netherlands (1971) and the oil crisis (1973), Houten’s government decided to design the expansion to be human-scale and to prioritize the bicycle in its transportation network.
The planners wanted to make a place where the most important thing is the people of the town, especially the children. As a result, Houten designed a network of green space and non-motorized traffic paths to be the direct, convenient routes through the city. Living streets or woonerfs created low-speed, low-traffic streets within neighborhoods. This makes for incredibly safe, comfortable riding even when mixing with car traffic no matter your age or physical ability.
The first expansion also included moving the new city heart away from the old village to where the train station was located. Around the train station grew a commerical center. Housing developed separate from the commerical center. To separate faster motor traffic from the neighborhoods, a ringroad was established. To prevent auto traffic from cutting through neighborhoods, the neighborhoods do not connect and each neighborhood has one entrance from the ringroad. The one downside to this is that this makes bus service within the neighborhoods inefficient, which is one reason that service was cut completely and only regional bus connections are currently available.
In the 1990s, the second expansion of Houten developed a second railway station around a new southern city center and commercial district. The growth mirrored the northern part of the city, including expanding housing (20 percent social housing) and the ringroad. In the southeast corner, a manmade lake was created and bicycle bridges were constructed to connect the city’s network of bike routes. These are definitely impressive to ride across and really add to the beauty of this part of the city.
Houten’s hopes for its industrial and employment corridors did not pan out according to plan. Because of this, the city does not have enough jobs for its population and two-thirds of residents commute outside of Houten for work. As a result, Houten is struggling with a shrinking economy. While Houten’s separation of land uses has made it easy to have quiet residential streets, it has prevented the growth of small businesses within the neighborhoods. This was potentially overlooked because the city is so small that riding a bike to the nearest commercial or employment center from anywhere in a neighborhood is expected to take 15 minutes or less.
Kind of a Bore
While quiet residential streets are great for raising children, they do not do much for creating a lively atmosphere–the town is kind of a bore for young adults and teenagers. Luckily, Utrecht is a short train ride or bike ride away!