It is often genuinely believed that Dutch towns were built with wider streets and that there is therefore more space here than in other countries. Of course, that's not true at all. If you look around an older city like Assen (over 750 years old) then you find many narrow streets just as you would with any older city in another country. Newer wider streets in the Netherlands are also similar in width to newer wider streets elsewhere. It's the modern day usage of the space which is different, not the width of the streets themselves.
Take a good look at the photo above which shows one of the streets in Assen in 2014. Quite clearly there's "not enough space" here now to accommodate motor vehicles. When people see streets like this then they often guess that there was never enough room and that therefore this street was always much as it is today.
However, that's not actually the case. Look back to 1957 and we find that this same street was completely different. There was an asphalt through road in this location, and it was quite a busy road which could accommodate large vehicles in both directions. While the gap between those buildings looks small, it is in fact just enough to accommodate this traffic so long as you don't mind that pedestrians must cross only at certain places and can walk safely only on one side of the street. Note that no separate space at all was allocated for safe cycling. Cyclists had to use the road along with trucks, buses and cars.
|1970s city centre street in Assen. No room for cycle-paths here either. Traffic lights were required to deal with the cars in this location.|
|The same location in 2014. We don't need traffic lights any more because cars are no longer driven through here|
|1960s. Pedestrians squeezed to the edge while a lone cyclist waits with drivers for a traffic light|
|Now: Pedestrianized with good cycle access|
|1960s: Main through routes for motor vehicles and cyclists alike|
|Now: Still accessible by motor vehicle but very much a downgraded route. Still a busy through route by bicycle, which no longer has traffic lights around the corner.|
|1940s: Major intersection, in this case busier than usual due to an event. Traffic stopped at a junction.|
|Now: A pleasant place to sit and have a drink. Bicycles flow freely here.|
|1974: Assen city centre was a car park. The car park was often full.|
|Now: Assen city centre is a square with cycle parking and where events are held. There's no longer any need to have the streets leading to this area dominated by cars. Note that small children are free to cycle even in the city centre.|
Streets where cyclists and pedestrians needed to go were transformed to exclude through motor traffic.
When ring roads were built, old main roads became pleasant routes for bicycles and crossings were nearly always grade separated.
When a new route was required to take cyclists to the centre of a city from a new suburb, the original direct route was turned over to cyclists and the driving route took a required detour to traffic lights.
Drivers are now kept away from the city centre by a special type of one-way system leaving what were once the busiest city centre streets to cyclists and pedestrians. A similar network of one-way streets is used in residential areas.
Shops cater for cyclists with parking by the door, while car parks are by necessity larger and more remote.
|Residential streets were treated in a|
similar way, even the narrowest now
serving as bidirectional through routes
for bicycles while being made useful
for access only by car.
Of course it's not just Assen but every Dutch city which has done this and they have all been successful. Nothing stops other countries from making similar changes. There is no better time for other countries to start a similar transformation than today.
See the result of the transformation for yourself. We visit these locations on our study tours.