Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Big Four Bridge is rather Dutch, as we all should be.

Given the level of equity afforded multiple transportation modes on Dutch streets, the Netherlands is often used by NAC and many others as an example of more sensible urban planning and design. Just as often, even those who recognize the practical value of such planning and design lament that, though it's a good idea, it just can't be done here. It's as if we believe the Dutch are somehow inherently superior and thus managed to avoid the negative impact of car-centric design altogether via some sort of secret, a priori knowledge passed genetically from mother to daughter. That sort of "can't do it here" pronouncement, however, says far more about us than it ever did about the Dutch.

Indeed, the Netherlands, like cities and countries around the world and certainly our own, initially pursued auto-centric design in its recovery and rebuilding from World War II. Below is a 1960s street scene from Assen, a small city of 67,000 in the northeastern Netherlands. It may as well be New Albany.

It was around the time of this photo that the Dutch began comprehending the problems they had inadvertently created for themselves, the same problems encountered in New Albany and the Louisville metro every day. What started as localized response in several towns and cities - they moved household furniture into the streets to reclaim them for people in some places - in the 70s became a national movement perhaps best exemplified by the name of a prominent activist group: Stop the Child Murder.

By the time I first visited some 20 years later in the mid-90s, the Netherlands to which we now point had largely already been coaxed from what some there, too, had believed to be streets too far gone. Below is a shot of the same street in 2007, where approximately 9,000 bicycles per day pass through.

I was reminded of this very recent history as a practical rather than miraculous matter while strolling with a childhood friend (and hundreds of others) across the Big Four Bridge last Thursday. It's arguably the most significant piece of public infrastructure in our metro area in decades, again proving that if you simply provide people a reasonable pedestrian and cycling alternative, they will use it here just like in the Netherlands and pretty much everywhere else. Safer, more sustainable, and more vibrant streets and street life - and stronger, more resilient communities - are possible and even probable if we would just approach transportation pragmatically. Acknowledge mistakes and move on.

Though there are design gems aplenty owing to a few decades of experience, the Netherlands is best used not as an example of a very specific planning strategy but as a more general mindset. The infrastructure in the latter photo is more functional, less expensive, and easier to build and maintain than that of the earlier one and, as always, thinking is free. We have more than enough talent and money. We just have to decide that people deserve a chance to adapt and thrive.

More comparison photos and information about "Assen Verandert - Oude en Nieuwe Stadsgezichten" (translates as "Assen Changes - Old and New City Sights"), the book from which they were taken, can be found here.


Iamhoosier said...

Nice to see you posting, Jeff. We(the readers)either need to get Roger out of town more often or convince you to post more often.

Jeff Gillenwater said...

Thanks. If you can help figure out how to get me out of town more often, we can probably cut some sort of deal. But then, that's Roger's campaign slogan, isn't it? We're going to have to do 10' signs to make that legible in the neighborhood at 45 mph.