‘A rebalanced community’

A veritable paradise for the suburban cyclist, Houten offers a glimpse of what kind of peace unveils itself when the wrath of the car loses hold and bicycles flood the streets. An uncanny quiet envelopes this sleepy commuter settlement, and musical church bells penetrate the silence left behind by motorcars, which are confined to slow speeds on a ring road at the outskirts. This vacancy, this emptiness, allows life to return to the town centre; creating an intimate, family-friendly place in which children can return to play, and in which animals can timidly return to occupy public spaces.

A town of around 40,000, Houten represents a model for the successful segregation of bicycles and cars in a suburban commuter settlement. This is achieved through the relegation of cars to a ring road, which then branches into neighbourhoods around the centre to provide vehicular access. The centre then consists only of parkland, public spaces, and cycle paths, the largest of which forming an avenue that runs from east to west across the town, linking most of the schools and important public buildings. Car access is possible to some areas of the centre, but is confined to convoluted routes, not given priority and restricted to a low speed limit of 18mph. The allure of Houten, therefore, is its ability to accommodate the car but not let it dominate. For residents, this means cars are still available for longer journeys, and yet the town can retain a gentle, campus-like feel. This is achieved through the same policy that was put into place at Groningen, the term being originally coined by academic Steve Melia: ‘Filtered permeability’1



Houten town centre, with railway tracks passing over the central bicycle avenue / Image from argu.com


An example of a ‘filtered permeability’ approach in Richmond, UK / Image from argu.com


Figures showing the majority of travel in Houten conducted by bicycle / Image from ITDP Europe


Map showing relation of different types of routes in Houten / Image from ITDP Europe

As Houten was originally a small settlement that was recognised post-war as an area ripe to accommodate population growth, this makes it an interesting case study for comparison with 20th Century British New Towns like Stevenage, which was also built with its own complete network of cycle paths, and proclaimed as a shining example of cycle-friendliness. Designed by utility cyclist Eric Claxton, and largely inspired by Dutch design, Stevenage was provided with safe, protected cycle paths.  But critically, it was not designed in such a way that made it any more convenient to walk and cycle rather than drive. As it also accommodated an influx of people from London, it catered to the ‘American dream’ of owning a car and all the associated freedoms, so as well as being designed to make cycling a viable choice, it was also intended to be highly convenient for motorists, in fact having only one set of traffic lights in the town.

This meant that despite the energy crisis of the seventies, and the rise in the cost of motoring 2, people still chose to drive rather than use this network of cycle paths, even for short journeys of two miles or less. Since then the network has faded from significance, and now serves as little more than a reminder that more is required to facilitate cycling than merely the creation of paths.  Statistically, cycling rates in Stevenage today remain similar to the rest of the UK3. Carlton Reid, author of the book ‘Roads Were not Built for Cars’, supports the view that in order to facilitate greater cycling rates, we must restrain the car:


If we make it super convenient for all, it will be the motorists who win, so we must stop designing for motorists. 

– Carlton Reid


1. Melia, S. (2012) Filtered and unfiltered permeability: The European and Anglo-Saxon approaches. Project, 4. pp. 6-9. ISSN 2042-7654
2. Parish, David. (2009). The 1973 – 1975 Energy Crisis and Its Impact on Transport. Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring .(1), 4.
3. They built it and they didn’t come; the lesson of Milton Keynes
[Accessed 14 July 2016].
4. Roads Were Not Built for Cars 4