August 12, 2022

A Fine Place To Be

I moved a lot over the last decade, which made me appreciate decent infrastructure, city planning, and relaxing places, to the point that they excite me. I went to the Netherlands this summer, and I had plenty of materials to be excited about. Here is what I especially liked:


Transportation Made Easy

Before enjoying a place, I need to get there. But in the Netherlands, the act of getting somewhere was enjoyable too. It's because there are multiple choices of mobility methods that work well. One can safely walk or cycle to nearby places or use reliable public transit if they need to go further. If they want to drive, the roads are in fab shape. None of this is given. Chances are that you visited a place where the streets were full of potholes, or the public transportation was a pain. Good cycling paths are scarcer than not, and even walking sucks in some cities. Now imagine it all working together.

Local buses weren't getting stuck in traffic, thanks to dedicated lanes and many traffic lights with sensors that gave them a priority, letting the most people through the fastest. Still, they aren't as quick and independent of traffic as the trains are.

A Dutch InterRegio train crosses the Rhine.

All the rides I experienced were nice and on time, and the connections were relatively frequent, too. I also saw people in suits; you know something's well with the public transit when someone for who the money isn't an issue goes by train instead of driving.

Speaking of money and driving... The Dutch public transportation is on the pricier end of Europe, yet it's still cheaper than if I'd rent and use a car here. A diversified transit portfolio feels great when the world's turmoil goes from one challenge to another, the oil supply drops, and companies use it to maximize shareholders' profits. Furthermore, while I used public transportation, I got better comfort and views as a bonus.

Then, it is the integration. One can use one pre-paid card for all trains, trams, and buses. It is like the Oyster in London, only here it works everywhere across the country. Changing from one connection to another is often without long layovers, thanks to synced public transportation schedules. And if one combines public transit with a bike, they can park almost on the platform.

Leiden train station with an integrated parking garage for bikes, captured from a pedestrian-friendly bus stop.

Normally, I am not too eager to cycle in cities because navigating between cars and walkers isn't fun. I also never saw an appeal in road cycling until I tried it in Brittany, where the roads were in decent shape, with minimal traffic and considerate drivers. I couldn't believe how cool it was! Still, the Netherlands pushed it to a whole new level, and bikes are a piece of the Dutch infrastructure puzzle that profoundly aids its convenience.

I already wrote about how the Dutch cycling system benefits the cities and makes cycling so effortless and safe that many people who don't really care about cycling or bikes still cycle. But what if you care? What if you are keen on bikes? Um, it feels like...


Cycling Heaven

Having an environment that supports cycling in cities means I can have fun on a bike while I commute. Yes, I enjoyed commuting on a bicycle elsewhere, but it always took extra time and dedication. Not in the Netherlands; it is often the fastest and most suitable way to reach places here. And besides the excellent paths themselves, it's their surroundings. As you ride, you pass pleasant nature and architecture, and cute animals.

It isn't hard to score a peaceful path like this within city limits.

Then, many little perks improve Dutch cycling. For example, dedicated trash cans.

Trash can for bikers, so one can bin things without stopping.

But do you even need that? Well. It isn't just the bike roads are super comfortable; many of the city bikes are too. They have relaxed geometry, making cycling so easygoing experience that one can make a sandwich while cycling. Then, a bin can come in handy.

These bikes are for moving in comfort, not so much for sport. If you want, you can still push the muscles on and get somewhere quick, but other times, it doesn't even need to feel like you are cycling at all. It is like riding a couch. Here's me, riding to a beach one evening, laying on the handlebars as if it was a bar. While taking a selfie.

Cycling probably won't get more casual than this.

I smiled a lot while I cycled, as having all this combined made me surprisingly emotional. And when I encountered others, they smiled back. So good! It was like we shared the happiness of the space and the moment. When I got to my destination, I was joyful and refreshed without spending extra time on the journey. How many places can say that about their commuters?

And I am not done yet. The Netherlands surprised me with beautiful woodlands, and they also have smooth cycling paths.

However, they also have off-road trails. It's not proper mountain biking, but that's to be expected; the Netherlands is flat as a stroopwafel, after all. Perhaps that is why it felt ever so grand to discover that they cater to mountain bikers.

MTB in the Netherlands

That's a way to go grocery shopping! Happy days!

The only reminder that I am not in actual heaven came with a flat tire. Physics in the Netherlands still work as they do elsewhere on Earth. Oh well. I still take it.

Moving on; we are getting to the places themselves. How are they?


Cities for People

Of course, who else should they be for? While cities all over the world house people, some make their stay more pleasant than others. Finding appealing architecture is easy here...

Cunerakerk tower in Rhenen, dating to the late 15th century.

...But it isn't what keeps the locals in. The city centers compose of mixed developments that increase the population density to establish a more compact layout, aiding accessibility to services such as shops, healthcare, and education. Arguably, they are also nicer.

Arnhem downtown

What contributes to this is that many streets have restricted car access, so one doesn't need to listen to revving engines and breathe dust while being there.

It wasn't always this way. Earlier in the 20th century, the Netherlands constructed city streets for cars, like many countries at that time. Look at this main street in Veenendaal, captured in 1935; it looks like it could be a postcard from North America.

Source: Utrechts Archief.

As the number of automobiles increased, people in both Europe and America realized that living by a thoroughfare was miserable. The difference is that American cities upheld the car as the ultimate form of transportation and ditched mixed developments for single-family housing. It led to building distant suburbs with dead ends, circled by big-box retail centers where everyone can (and have to) drive. As a result, many cities basically killed their high streets, damage that would be pricey to undone.

On the other hand, the Netherlands invested in the transportation I described above and prioritized walking and biking in their downtowns. So they thrive. This is how the high street in Veenendaal looks nowadays, captured during the evening, past business hours.

Despite most shops being already closed, I saw a decent number of people still around. There go the "limiting cars in cities prevents people from going in" argument I heard in the past. If the city is designed well, people want to be there. And I would insist that replacing cars with trees, as Veenendaal did, make people want to be there more. It is safer and more comfortable, and the slowed traffic helps businesses, too – people are more likely to be attracted by some storefront and stop by than if they'd drive. It is all by design.

It is not an isolated case either; I saw it in every Dutch downtown I visited. Even a town of under 10,000 people had a cool, lively city center. Big cities are then a story on their own:

The Hague (pictured), and other Dutch cities I saw, do a good job designing and upkeeping places that invite folks to spend time there.

Now, it isn't hard to find cities shifting towards pedestrians elsewhere, including the US. What makes the Netherlands special is that they started some 40 years ago, so they have addressed early issues already, and it shows in every newly built project.

When I visited China, I felt like I had a glimpse into the future of technology. In the Netherlands, I felt like I had entered the future of people-focused civil and transport engineering. That should be the bottom line, but there's much more to unfold.

Street art in the Hague

Another thing the Dutch cities do well is that there are loads of public artwork. In cities or smaller towns, outdoor sculptures are all over the place and range in size and shape; thus, chances are that many will find some they are fond of.

Wageningen

Even if someone dislikes art, they can't deny its positive impact on the economy. It is these unusual additions in an urban landscape that get people interested. Besides bringing tourists, they make good meeting spots and orientation points.

Ede

Ede

The same can be said for other landmarks I was happy to see; the Netherlands fixed many industrial structures to decorate the cities and raise awareness about its past.

Watertower Lauwerhof

This former water tower in Utrecht contains fancy offices and flats now; another one is turned into a restaurant.

One of many Dutch windmills. This one is in Amerongen.

A smokestack of a former synthetic fibers factory decorates a new residential neighborhood in Ede.

It appears to be a pattern; locals don't let many old buildings for decay. I saw less than five abandoned buildings while traveling through the country. Impressive.

Then, even big cities don't feel like concrete jungles; they still have a human scale. And they offset the buildings with frequent public greenery.

Utrecht's Griftpark

The parks here are clean, trimmed, accessible free of charge, and you can sit or play on the grass. I wish I wouldn't have to highlight these as noteworthy features but having them is the same as having decent transportation.

Dutch parks might lose the edge to France's flower-richness but are still splendid on that front. And they made up for it with outdoor play fields and gym equipment for all ages.

Excitement isn't running high in the cities only, because only a short bike ride away is...


Nature

..And it delivers. The mentioned forests are terrific without a bike, too.

It gets better; they can be full of tasty, healthy snacks.

A definition of happiness from small, simple things in one picture.

Woods or not...

...The paths that go through local nature are lovely...

Texel Dunes

...And can take you to magical places...

Such as..


The Sea

The Netherlands has no mountains. But it has sea, which is a pretty sweet alternative. Salty, in fact, but you know.

Swimming in the sea always felt special to me, and it was no different here. The Dutch beaches are more crowded than I was used to in Scotland, but one can find a spot with enough room for themselves.

The higher water temp means that one can swim for longer, and instead of getting into a jacket afterward, one can have a snack at one of the many cafes the beaches have.


Singled out, neither of the things I wrote about here is exclusive to the Netherlands – Maybe except for the biking infrastructure; that's quite special. But having them together is unique, and it makes for a fine place to be. I am grateful for being able to witness it.



If you liked this article, you might enjoy reading about other places I found exciting, such as:

DouarnenezDouarnenez

   Athens    Athens

Alternatively, browse my Blog Archives for more topics and categories. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories

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