Monday, October 21, 2013

Pedestrianising city centers.

A few weeks ago I was on vacation in the Netherlands - the place where I grew up as a kid. The nearest big city to where I grew up is the Hague and when I was a kid, the center of the Hague was a giant fiasco of cars, mopeds, motorbikes, pedestrians, trams and buses. One intersection in particular was notoriously hairy. The city council put a long-term plan in place to solve the problem for once and for all by pedestrianising the center. In most cities this simply involves banning cars from the city center but continuing to allow everything else - like Oxford in the UK. This doesn't really work because it doesn't really solve the problem. In the Hague they went for it big-time. They dug two huge tunnels - one for the trams, leading from the central station, under the main shopping street and out the other side. And one for the cars, that circumvented the center completely. Bear in mind that most of the city is already below sea level so digging transportation tunnels in these conditions is sketchy at the best of times because the water table is basically at ground level to start with. But they persevered and the results - as we found out during our trip - are very impressive. It's worth noting that in general, the pecking order for transportation in the Netherlands is public transport, then bikes, then mopeds, then pedestrians, and at the bottom of the list, cars. So the new city center has a vast expanse of pedestrian-only access above ground, with a pair of large, well-appointed tram stations below the ground. Only a single, crossing tram route, was retained above ground and it can only enter the central crossroads via a controlled gate system that keeps all other forms of transport out. From a pedestrian point of view, this central area is a wonderful place to be now. No cars, the odd tram, one or two buses, dozens of bikes and hundreds of pedestrians. People loiter around chatting, wandering aimlessly through the area without a care in the world. The nearest street with cars is so far away that you can't even hear them so the center is also void of that constant background hum of internal combustion engines. I love my car, but when pedestrianisation is done properly, like it has been done in the Hague, it's a wonderful place to be without your car.