So Americans bedeviled by $4-plus-a-gallon gas want more transportation choices? They have no idea of what real choices are.
For a taste of our necessary future – driven by rapid energy cost inflation and climate emergencies – check the streets of Amsterdam.
Sure, cars still function here. But by our standards, their numbers are remarkably modest. Especially on center city streets, another king reigns: the bicycle.
Bikes, indeed, swarm around by the thousands. With reserved lanes on practically every street, they’re ridden by passengers of both sexes, virtually all ages, from necktied gents and highheeled ladies to jeans-clad youth and uniformed police officers.
And what the busy Amsterdamers accomplish on their two-wheelers defies imagination. They read maps, talk on cell phones, window shop. They “walk” their dogs, carry kids or canines in baskets great or small. Still rolling, they text message, eat ice cream, drink coffee, carry huge packages and musical instruments, sometimes a second rider. I even saw lovers on two bikes, holding hands as they cruised the streets.
Bikes, overall, account for 37 percent of Amsterdam transport. Public transit comes in second, at 22 percent of trips. On top of regular and high-speed rail, there’s a massive light-rail network – 50 miles of tramlines, with many stops, dense in the center city, radiating out to neighborhoods and suburbs with crossconnecting lines too. Recently, freight tramcars began running through the city, cutting truck use (and pollution). And Amsterdam has added three new subway lines since its first in 1976.
So what’s the Amsterdam game plan? For decades it’s been to nurture the “compact city,” slowing a middle-class exodus and preserving the open landscape by dense development, recycling old industrial areas and intermingling uses. Reducing auto use – now just 41 percent of trips compared to 90 percentplus in most U.S. cities – is the heart of the plan.
Helped along by the Netherlands’ high gas taxes (per gallon costs are now over $9), the Amsterdam approach not only cuts energy use but provides a starting point for dramatic carbon reduction. But its genius, so rarely discussed in America, is smart land use and curbing the auto use that so easily overwhelms modern world cities.
Example: Thousands of new housing units have recently been built on harbor islands on Amsterdam’s northern flank. But the city obliged the private developers to finance a five-mile stretch of ahead of the new housing so that residents wouldn’t become accustomed to car commuting.
The imaginative, compact, transit-centered city isn’t just an Amsterdam goal. In Arnhem, a principal city on the Netherlands’ eastern flank, over 1 billion euros are being invested in a massive new central train, local and regional bus transit center with major new office buildings, 150 units of housing, large parking garages, substantial retail and cafes. Nearby auto lanes were put underground just to keep the new station area free for unfettered public transit.
Why all this bother? “We’re on the high-speed rail line from Amsterdam to Frankfurt,” explains Gert Zwaal, Arnhem’s director of development strategy. The city is bordered by an exquisite green setting of natural wood and heather areas that can’t be violated. And even if rail is expensive, notes Zwaal, “there’s never a way to accommodate – or build the roads – for everyone in private cars.”
There is a heavy hand of government in this compactness strategy. To keep its downtown shopping area dominant and vibrant, for example, Arnhem limits peripheral shopping malls and won’t even let them rent to highend retailers it covets for the center city.
But Arnhem has also scored near-heroic success in restoring polluted industrial sites for new businesses. Amsterdam, in its Westerpark neighborhood, has converted a dangerously polluted 19th-century gasworks into a globally recognized park, conference and arts center.
The Dutch projects also feature cutting-edge energy- and carbon-saving features such as district heating systems, burgeoning windmill farms, and major underground reservoirs that store heat in summer, cold air in winter, for reuse in the opposite season.
And no one’s forgetting transit. In Amsterdam, I discovered a “Mediagilde” project of resourceful young professionals. They’re trying to adapt new GPS navigation systems to data feeds that give commuters transit options in real time – bus, tram and rail runs, routes and preferred connections by the minute, customized to the user’s location on mobile phone display.
The goal: making transit intensely user-friendly, expanding its market share against cars. The project, pushed by Rick Batelaan, senior transit policy adviser for Amsterdam, is linked to Cisco-backed “Connected Urban Development” projects in Seoul and San Francisco as part of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Against the target of a carbonneutral future, are such efforts sufficient? No. But are they dramatic markers for us to emulate? Answer for yourself.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2008 Washington Post Writers