Welcome to cycle heaven: why we moved our family to the Netherlands

When Kylie van Dam went in search of a cycle-friendly city she found the nearly car-free suburbium of Houten. Its a model more cities could copy, she writes

Before I’m out of bed, our 15 -year-old slams the door and leaps on her bike, heading for school and session friends along the way.

Last week, our eight and 13 -year-olds attended four parties between them. They scoffed the obligatory birthday sugar, went bowling, shooting lasers, played mini-golf and patted sheep- travelling to and from all of these activities by motorcycle. There wasn’t a helmet or scrap of hi-vis between them.

This is daily life in Houten, a suburbium of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Spend any time here and you’ll soon find hordes of children riding their motorcycles to gym lessons, parties, after-school care or sports activities through breeze, rain or shine. One of my favourite Dutch express is Jij bent niet van suiker gemaakt “ (” You’re not made of sugar “), meaning you won’t dissolve in the rain- so get on your bike.

This lifestyle drew us to the Netherlands from Britain. After 15 years of dreaming- via Sydney, London and Norwich- we ran in search of a more cycle-friendly city.

Map
To move between neighbourhoods in Houten, vehicles must take the figure 8-shaped ring road. This leaves interior streets largely the conserve of pedestrians and cyclists.

Now we’re Houtenaars, citizens of a world-renowned cycling suburbium studied by future town planners around the globe. Houten has been on the map since Roman days, but modern development began in the late 1960 s as an overspill for fast-growing Utrecht.

Architect Rob Derks designed Houten to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over motorists. A ring road circles the suburb, and residential districts within are only accessible to autoes through these roads on the leading edge of township. Instead, there is an extensive network of routes and cycle lanes connecting these areas.

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Sharp bends and low speed limits mean roads are intentionally difficult to navigate by motor vehicle: in Houten, vehicles are somewhat unwelcome guests. Unlike drivers, cyclists and walkers can travel direct, making a two-minute stroll or ride a 10 -minute trip by vehicle, for example.

It works: an estimated 98% of Houten households own at least one bike, with an average of 3.4 motorcycles per household. While many work journeys are made by car- especially journeys out of the city- cycling is by far the most popular mode of transport. A report by the ITDP received 53% of residents travel to the grocery shop by motorcycle or on foot. This rises to 79% for errands like visiting the bank or get a haircut, and for visiting friends and family in Houten.

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A cycle route and a footpath in a residential area of Houten. Photograph: Alamy

Residents do own vehicles- although rarely more than one, and some prefer to use a car-share company. Children ride bikes as soon as they can walk, people with disabilities move freely and independently, elderly people cycle everywhere and if they start to feel unsafe on two wheels, they swap them for three. Immigrants who’ve never had a bicycle are taught to ride.

Every now and again we get a strange sense of guilt about loving this perfectly schemed life. We watch guests’ first anxious sense that they’ve fallen into the Truman Show rapidly disappear as they realise just how upside-down their perception of a “normal” city is.

Here, good public space and architecture is for everyone. There’s a large amount of social housing in Houten but you’d be hard-pressed to pick it out because there’s little written into these builds to declare who has money and who doesn’t. The shared architecture and wonderful functionality frees people to be who they are. Far from being claustrophobic, it’s liberating.

My family were lucky- we had the Dutch passport my father-in-law handed down to his Australian-born children when his own family left post-war Holland.

Our daughters were old enough to know what they were leaving behind in Norwich. They may have hated us the day we fell them into a local Dutch school with no language, but they survived. They missed their friends at first but now they love their freedom, the clean air and Houten’s close community. On visits to family in London and Australia, all three kids are astounded at how much day they have to expend in the car, how noisy everything is and how dependent children are on their parents.

Not everyone has the chance to stimulate the choices we did. But none of what Houten stands for is radical or alternative. This Dutch city’s selection to move away from the car, to clear the air, to invest in healthy someones, is not an unreachable ideal.

Houten is the future many of us trapped in car-focused societies dream of, but it’s happening here and now. Nothing is stopping other cities from building the same decisions.

Kylie van Dam lives in Houten with her family, and teaches English through music .

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