Jerom Theunissen Photography


June 24-28

City in Context

Utrecht is located in the east of the Randstad region, and is a mid-sized city that currently is home to 330,000 residents. The city’s streets are already seeing heavy congestion in terms of bicycle, car, and train traffic. Around 70% of all rush-hour traffic in the city is within 15 kilometers of the city center, where 37% take the bike, 12% with public transit, and 51% by private automobile. Utrecht has a worldwide leading position in bicycle use today, competing with big names like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Growth numbers are impressive: the number of cyclists has increased as much as 10% per year in certain portions of the city. Growth in bicycle use has been coupled with a decline in automobile traffic all over the city, especially in the city center. But with the city expected to grow more than any other city in the Netherlands, more must be done to create a new balance between traffic and available space to ensure a livable city.

Gemeente Utrecht recognizes walking as the most sustainable form of mobility, and that every trip begins and ends as a pedestrian. It is healthy, environmentally friendly, space-efficient, strengthens social cohesion and safety on the street, and foot-traffic is the main driver of the success of commerce. Utrecht is improving pedestrian accessibility not only in the city center but also around stations, shopping centers, schools, recreation centers and parking spots. The city will also improve connectivity in walking routes, ensuring safety, space, attractiveness. Together, this will ensure that residents and visitors can easily get around the city on foot.

In terms of trips by bicycle, the city’s existing network is at capacity. During rush-hour, bike lanes are stuffed to the brim and cyclists often enter the roadway. Yet, the city also realizes its potential to become a world class cycling city. The city has the impressive cycling infrastructure already. The “fietsstraat” (bicycle boulevard) network is 6 km and is the longest among any city the Netherlands. The uniquely designed Dafne Schippersbrug bridge is another example. Also, incorporation of long-distance routes that link with regional cycle networks captures trips taken by electric bikes (e-bikes). Their expanded range of mobility has the potential to further displace travel by private automobile as far as 20 km from the city center. Expansion of these routes are accompanied by “green-waves” in which signals allow cyclists to continue cycling with synchronized traffic lights. Finally, the city is also expanding bicycle parking to accompany the growth of traffic. At Utrecht Central Station, one can find the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, boasting capacity for 33,000 bikes upon completion in 2020.

Public transport services the city in several ways. The local public transport operator U-OV, a subsidiary of Qbuzz, runs buses and trams linking destinations within Utrecht and in surrounding towns. The national rail provider Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) links the city with regional, inter-regional, and international destinations via rail. Utrecht Central Station is a major hub and is the busiest train station in the country. Analyses by the province and the national government indicate that the central station will reach capacity as soon as 2020. To overcome this, the city is lobbying the regional and national government to develop more public transport nodes at stations like Leische Rijm to the west and Vaartsche Rijn to the east. 

What’s more, higher frequency trains between between Randstad cities from 4 to 6 times per hour can ensure reliability and a seat during rush hour, making a heavy rail network seem like a Randstad-sized metro system!

Utrecht’s view on emerging technologies in the transport sector is positive, given their potential to improve quality of life. Solar panels in bike lanes, dynamic LED street markings, streetlights that double as charging points for electric vehicles, and more innovations were cited by Utrecht as potential applications of technology. Like Amsterdam, the municipality is taking the stance of experimentation and evaluation of new technologies before widespread implementation.

Altogether, mobility serves as a medium through which quality of life can be improved in the city. The above graph from Utrecht’s Sustainable Mobility Plan (SUMP) succinctly depicts how mobility initiatives are tools to achieve a livable city. This framework will serve me well as I further continue my travels!

Not Your Typical Suburb - A Visit to Houten

At first glance, the sleepy municipality of Houten seem just like any other small suburb in the Netherlands: quiet, flanked by farmland, and a small central business district surrounded by family homes. But upon closer inspection, Houten is unique in its approach to mobility. The city center is only accessible by bicycle or on foot. Car traffic is limited to a figure-eight “Rondweg” ring road. Within the ring road, limited access roads have a low speed limit of 30 km/h primarily used for driveways. To get from one end of the town to the other, travel by bike is simply the fastest way to get around. Altogether, transport by cycling and walking account for 55% of all travel in Houten, and another 11% with public transit. This is a remarkable achievement for a suburb, where one would normally see the majority of trips made by car.

However, this idyllic model for suburban transportation does not necessarily make for a more livable city. I felt as though Houten lacked a certain vivacity, with the city center largely empty and few people about. I was not alone. UC Boulder transport scholar Kevin Krizek called Houten a Truman Show-style city: “The typical American suburbs are critiqued for being overly auto-dependent but also sterile. Yet, Houten had a slightly different flavor. Here you find a balanced transport system but little else. It is here were you question the degree of vitality and liveliness that multiple modes might provide to an urban fabric.” Upon my visit to Houten, I learned an important lesson: Mobility alone cannot make a city a more liveable, likeable, and loveable place, and there needs to be reasons to go from A to B. Mobility should not be achieved just for mobilty’s sake. A more integrated approach to creating livable cities, where mobility is a means to an end, shows more promise. Houten ranks highly in regards to promoting sustainable transport, but otherwise is just like any other Dutch suburb.

The city center of Houten, featuring the train station and an arterial bike path.

A typical bike path in Houten, with markings clearly indication right-of-way to cyclists when intersecting with a road.

Interviews at Nederlandse Spoorwegen and ProRail - National Public Transport

It is fitting that the busiest rail station in the Netherlands, Utrecht Centraal, is also where the headquarters of national rail operator, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, are located. I visited the company to get the perspective of a national public transport provider, and what they are doing to improve the lives of the million passengers they move every day. I was invited by a good family friend, Marian Spiertz, who is based in the commercial department. I also visited ProRail, which is a government enterprise charged with infrastructure management and maintenance, capacity distribution, and traffic control.

NS' role in urban mobility

The national mainline rail network, consisting of Intercity trains, express trains and stopping trains, is the backbone of the Dutch public transport system. The network is operated by a single operator, NS, which ensures good coordination between main lines without the need for government intervention. It is a quasi-governmental organization, similarly to Amtrak in the United States, where the government is the majority shareholder. The challenge is to make the train even more attractive to a greater number of passengers. To this end, the national Railway Action Plan has been created, consisting of specific measures to enable more people to travel between major cities quickly, in comfort and with high frequency.

Important passenger transport quality standards are included in the transport concession for the mainline rail network: a reasonable chance of a seat, good passenger information, clean trains and stations as well as the percentage of trains that depart and arrive on time. The performance of NS is monitored by several performance indicators. These are social and actual safety of staff and passengers, punctuality, seat availability, passenger-service, and travel-information. 

According to the Dutch government, on-time performance (defined as the percentage of trains delayed for no more than three minutes at destinations and interchanges) improved from 80% in 2000 to 87% in 2008. The general customer satisfaction rating has risen; communication with passengers during service disruptions has improved through information screens, the presence of information providers on larger stations and the provision of up-to-date travel information via (mobile) internet. On smaller stations service pillars have been installed, which passengers can use to seek assistance and information. Despite these improvements, passengers still mention the availability and reliability of travel information during service disruptions as the main area for improvement.

OV Chipkaart - Marian Spiertz, Piero Witmer, Rana Roesink

There have been many times throughout my life where I have worried about getting  tickets for every leg of your journey. Thankfully, has taken steps over the years for better ticket and fare integration in public transport. Recently a new step has been taken to improve the ease of payment: the introduction of the public transport chip card (OV Chipkaart). This card carried journey balances and transport rights (single journeys, season tickets, etc) which can be loaded for all public transport in the Netherlands. The card is designed for contactless reading according to the Check-In, Check-Out principle. The card can be loaded either in a shop, in a ticket vending machine, and on the web. The technology is being managed by Trans Link Systema, a joint-venture between NL's largest public transport providers. The public transport chip card has already been introduced in many regions and is designated to replace the national ticket and fare systems on trains, buses, trams, and water buses. During my travel in the Netherlands, this card was my lifeline!

Kees Miedema- NS Stations, Bike Concepts

I was curious to hear about the development of the OV-fiets program, which has seen staggering popularity since its introduction over ten years ago. The OV-fiets is a rental service primarily for public transport users.  They can easily and quickly rent a bicycle at a railway station or bus stop to cover the last miles of their journey. Following registration with their OV-chipkaart, people can rent a bicycle for a maximum of 24 hours for approximately €3. It is also possible to return the bicycle at a different rental point, ensuring flexibility in case users want to return the bike to a different train station within the same city. In 2016, over 2.4 million journeys were made by OV-fiets, and the number of rental points is now at 300 throughout the country. Kees pointed out that the OV-fiets is surprisingly popular among business passengers, who make up half of the customers using the service.

Kees and I also spoke about the development of world-class bicycle parking facilities at stations. NS has recognized that 45% of people go to stations by train, and many rely on safe and efficient ways to store their bikes securely. He emphasized an integral approach between government (national, provincial, and local), public transport operators, and travelers was vital to building bicycle parking facilities that benefit travelers and residents alike. Kees also outlined the 24h free parking policy, which used the OV-chipkaart to check-in and check-out bicycles. This manner stimulates turnover and efficient use of the garage to avoid bikes being left at the station for weeks on end. All in all, Kees and his team's steps to deliver more seamless door to door mobility improves the lives of thousands of travelers daily. 

Sustainability of Dutch Rail Travel-  Michiel van Deerenberg, ProRail

While NS is the railway operator, the government retains responsibility for the infrastructure. I spoke with Michiel about what the firm is doing to sustainably develop and manage one of the busiest rail networks in the world. The first thing he mentioned was that 100% of electrified track in the Netherlands is supplied using wind power to ensure that travel remains carbon-neutral within the country. On tracks that are not electrified, Michiel has been busy with trials that are testing trains powered with hydrogen fuels, a cleaner and more environmentally friendly alternative to diesel.

Michiel also pointed out that the existing use of the railway network is not yet fully optimized, and that a "Triple A" strategy can allow for capacity of the Netherland's rail network to be raised by 50%. Ultimately, this is necessary because NS and ProRail are seeking minimize delay and disruption while simultaneously provide timetable-less services on the busiest routes in the Randstad region. On some lines, such as the A2 Corridor, this has meant increasing the frequency of trains from 4 to 6 times per hour. The rail system then becomes more like a giant metro network, and seamless access and egress travel by public transport is made more attractive by improved coordination of the regional public transport systems and the rail network. However, on some routes infrastructure expansion is needed to operate with these metro frequencies, but Michiel is confident that more can be done using the Triple A strategy to minimize the need to build more. With frequency of trains on busy routes increasing, travelers will begin to see various public transport systems at national, regional and urban levels, coalesce into a single, distributed and multimodal transport system.

Innovation at NS - Joost van der Made

In order to ensure high quality service for its customers, NS does extensive research into the desires of the traveler. I spoke with Joost van der Made, who is the head of concept development, to learn about what NS is doing to make the journeys of their customers as seamless as possible. Joost first pointed to research done recently to understand the emotions of travelers during nine distinct phases of train travel and to survey what travelers would like to experience. The research found three core needs: the feelings of control, appreciation, and freedom. The three core needs then each received three design principles for NS to develop new concepts like comprehensive travel guide apps, innovative train cabin layouts, and station amenities you typically find in open-office layouts. Joost underscored the need to understand the emotional drivers of the traveler to ensure public transport remains an attractive option, especially given the development of autonomous vehicles. Human-centered design in practice!

The three core needs of travelers linked with nine distinct phases of train journeys. Stars represent acupuncture points for innovation in services offered by NS.

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