Spending a week touring The Netherlands by train and bicycle sounded good to me. On my one previous trip to Amsterdam, I had borrowed a friend’s bicycle to get around, including sightseeing as well as mundane tasks like cycling to business meetings. While roaming the streets that flank the canals is a wonderful thing, I was struck by the sheer bicycle usage and the infrastructure dedicated to it. It seemed to me at the time that the Dutch were pretty good urbanists, and any chance to explore how they design their buildings and cities was one I was not going to miss.
And so I found myself on a four day intensive exploration of urban and suburban development. Three of the four days were on bicycle. I’d rise in Utrecht, take a quick walk along the canal by my hotel, grab breakfast and meet the group at the train station. On our first day, in Almere, a new “suburb” of Amsterdam, we rented bikes at the train station at a bike rental shop that must have had thousands of bikes. Next to the Amsterdam Central Station is a multilevel bicycle parking ramp with a mind-boggling amount of bikes parked there.
Everywhere we went, there were bike trails. In the states, we think of bike trails as completely separate from other transportation – often in parks or on an abandoned rail line. You load your bike on your car and start biking when you get to the trail. There, the trail starts at the train station (why would anyone want to do that!?) and you can go just about anywhere. Major suburban arterial streets in the states have two or three lanes in each direction with a median and left turn lanes and speed limits of 40 or 50 miles per hour. Sidewalks, if they exist, are often immediately adjacent to the street and don’t provide a suitable environment for pedestrians or bicycles. In Dutch suburbs, the road is largely the same, but has a separate bicycle lane divided by curbing or a median, with its own bike traffic signals (the green, yellow and red lights are simply in the shape of a bicycle) and its own pavement coloring. It is so painfully easy to bike over there that people do it for everyday trips.
When new development occurs here, roads get built. In the Netherlands, roads get built, too. But so do bike trails and bus stops and rail lines. The former shipping docks in Amsterdam were redeveloped over the past 20 years, with tram service to the island and a bike trail running right down the middle with access to all the homes. At the very edge of Almere, where new housing and a school is being built, there is frequent bus service and a separate bike right-of-way, even before most of the homes are built. This was staggering to me.
And goddamn, everything is made out of brick. The buildings, the streets, the squares, the hash, everything. I’ve never seen so much brick in my life. There were a few exceptions, but what is noteworthy about the buildings is they certainly didn’t look the same despite sharing common materials. I’ll give the Dutch credit, they are willing to experiment with building design. Some buildings bowed out, looked like Transformers, appeared likely to tip over, had sloping roof lines and trees growing out of the basements. With names like “The Whale,” “The Wave” and “The Boomerang,” you start to get the picture. It was all quite mad. Yes, at times a certain cohesion was lost in the urban fabric, with all the buildings seeming to be shouting for attention, but oftentimes these experimental designs were quite graceful and worthy of their surroundings.
The thing is, the Dutch obviously care about architecture. They preserve legendary districts like central Amsterdam and design new buildings with extensive natural lighting, whereas in the states we build new lofts with windowless bedrooms. But it is just so easy to get around! You can travel so seamlessly, as I found, by air, rail, train, tram, bicycle and on foot, that travel in The Netherlands is a real treat. As a result, the urban experience is wonderful.
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