What Ireland can learn from Dutch street design

What Ireland can learn from Dutch street design

For centuries, streets have been a place to be with each other, to live, talk, shop, play and move. Only in the last century has it become a space for traffic: a place to drive through and away from as quickly and efficiently as possible. People on the street have become subordinate to the car. Most people do not realize this, because we all became accustomed to thinking about the street in traffic logic. For example: we say that a street is “closed” for a trade fair or a sporting event. Closed, for whom? For motorists. But really, the street is open to people.

Here’s another example: we’re talking about ‘vulnerable road users’. But they have been made vulnerable by heavy and fast traffic. Why do not we call those fast, heavy road users “dangerous road users”?

Cars have been on our streets for over a hundred years now, but traffic logic only took over the streets of Europe in the 1950s and 60s. This did not just happen. Through the post-war Marshall Plan, Dutch engineers were paid by Americans to attend events of the International Road Federation (IRF). Irish engineers in the 1960s also received scholarships from the IRF. This sounds neutral, but the IRF was a trade union founded in 1948 – the same year the Marshall Plan started – by a number of oil companies, the Association of American Car Manufacturers and Car Tire Manufacturers.

From the IRF, European engineers learned about the profession of traffic engineer, and that’s how we got traffic engineers here as well. Their logic became crucial to thinking about the street. It gave us the street design we now find normal – with pedestrian crossings, traffic lights and lines everywhere along the way. Children who previously only played on the street were pushed into their own space, on playgrounds. With cars dominating the street, all this became a necessity. Nowadays, traffic engineers are often the only professional group that municipalities ask to sit around the table when it comes to designing a street or a neighborhood. And yet people do or could do much more here than drive a car.

The fact that the Netherlands has 37,000 kilometers of cycle path is due to a popular uprising, led by groups such as Provo (abbreviation for Provocation), ENWB (abbreviation for First, Only, Honest or Real Dutch Cycling Association) and STOP the Child Murder, which rebelled against the car of the 1970s with its white bicycle plan, the ringing of the Prime Minister’s door and pretending to be dead on the street. They took back space for the cyclist and the regular hiker.

These clubs were professionally organized and found a wide audience in all walks of life. They then switched from action groups to discussion partners who thought along and collaborated on the new layout of the cities and the country. This is how the Dutch got their relatively human-friendly residential areas and the world’s most fine-meshed network of cycle paths, which as an unexpected side effect means that the Netherlands also one of the best countries to drive. It has shaped our country, literally, even beyond the bike paths. Thanks to the bike we can take the train easier and thanks to the train we can ride easier. And that combination in turn shapes our urban layout.

In the 1970s, the Dutch transport economist Geurt Hupkes researched how often, how far and at what speed people move around the world every day. He discovered: if they lived in Peru or Singapore, the Netherlands or the Soviet Union, and if they had a car, a bicycle or just a walkway: the majority of people were always found to spend 70 to 80 minutes a day on the road, if counts all trips to friends and family, to work and to the store. This is called the travel time constant.

Because the travel time is constant, if we build a new motorway section, it will not save time, but will make us take longer distances. Around new infrastructure, people will start building new houses, offices and premises, located at longer distances. As a result, your work and your family are often no longer within walking or cycling distance, as they were before the 1950s.

For many people in the world, even the supermarket is no longer within walking distance, and it is too dangerous to walk there with all that car traffic. And then you have to take the car to do that too, and that’s why the traffic jams are coming back.

Why do we continue to build highways anyway, even though we have known the time travel constant for decades? Because we use traffic models that predict at what time in the future highways will be congested. These models now govern political decisions and appear neutral. But they are not: political choices are reinforced in these models, as the idea of ​​minimizing travel time losses. Which also means that travel is seen as something of negative value.

Politicians leave decisions about the street, including decisions about life or death, to role models of technical professionals. Moral choices, such as whether or not to raise a speed limit or what type of schoolyard you want, are converted into risk calculations. As a result, no one currently bears the political responsibility for the human costs of our mobility system. And these are very large. Think, for example, of the long-term impact that many traffic accidents have on a large circle of people involved.

As a society, we have become dependent on a mobility system that is focused on maximizing traffic flow, which can only be achieved by designing our streets and land for machines. We believe that we accept it as a society. But many want it to be different. It starts with breaking free from traffic logic.

How to avoid the assumption that everything must be designed just to get from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible? Many professionals and citizens try to sort this out, for example by focusing on children’s independence, equality, health and happiness. They learn how we can begin to see mobility as something that belongs to ourselves again, instead of a service provided by companies.

In recent decades, the Dutch have become world famous for their segregated cycle paths, which greatly benefit both motorists and cyclists. But they are also a product of traffic technology, which segregates people in a safe way along their mode of transport rather than creating a common public space that can be used by society for a variety of uses.

And that is perhaps the most valuable lesson to learn from the Netherlands: mobility is much more than just a technical problem for which engineers work out solutions. It is something political, which we ourselves can be involved in shaping.

Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet are the authors of Movement: how to take back our streets and transform our lives, published on June 2 by Scribe UK

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