Note: this was originally written in mid-July during my recent trip to the Netherlands.
It is hard to adequately describe just how far ahead the Netherlands is compared to Australia when it comes to transport. It would be like trying to compare dial up and T3 internet speeds.
Not just bicycles
Lots of people talk about the Dutch transport network through the lens of bicycles. This is undoubtedly one of the areas in which the country excels. However, it is also important to take a step back and have a look at the transport system as a whole.
Take Rotterdam Central Station as an example. Yes, it has thousands of bikes right next to the entrances, terrific infrastructure and plenty of sheltered bicycle parking spaces (still not enough). But you have to look beyond the bikes and look at how the Station operates as a major transport hub, public space and architectural feature.
For a start, its integration with the surrounding neighbourhood is seamless. The huge pedestrian plaza outside its southern entrance provides great visual lines down the canal and the main station building is large enough without being imposing. Inside, the wooden ceilings and well-designed shelters create a nice public space in which people can go about their daily business.
This excellent design has a huge effect on its operations as a transport hub. Its multiple entrances and exits on three sides of the building mean that it is easy to transfer between modes. The tram and bus interchanges are right next to the doors leading into the railway station and are well-signed. Bicycle parking is also conveniently located in similar places (mostly under shelter too).
Moving around easily makes it a much less stressful environment than badly-designed stations in Melbourne. It is able to function as a public space because people are inclined to hang around an area in which they feel comfortable, safe and interested. Rotterdam Central Station ticks all of these boxes.
Planner’s Dutch Syndrome
Melbourne could and should learn a lot from the Dutch transport system. Comparing it to, say, Southern Cross Station would be an exercise in futility given the degree to which we are behind. However, I am well aware of ‘Planner’s Dutch Syndrome’ (nothing to do with tulips) that plagues the urban planning and public policy professions.
It has almost become a joke within these disciplines when fresh young graduates travel to Denmark and the Netherlands and come back bursting with great ideas to implement in their home city. These are then unceremoniously shot down in flames as the painful and complex systems that are built to resist change drag the young planners back into the reality of Australian incrementalism.
How to cure this disease? It is about finding ways to actually implement all of these terrific ideas that people have proposed. This aspect of policy design and practical implementation is something that I believe has been neglected by the Australian urban planning discipline and hope to do more work on in the future.
Thinking about how different places tackle urban issues is nonetheless a useful habit. It makes us think critically about the status quo, especially in our own cities. This is essential to effecting change, no matter how small and incremental.
After all that, what can we learn? The most important idea to take away from the Dutch transport system is the importance of integration. If you can design infrastructure and services that makes it as seamless as possible to transfer between different modes, everything else falls into place. Pedestrian access, bicycle parking and all of the other things that you need to create a transport network that is designed for efficiency and effectiveness of moving people comes as a result of meeting this goal.