Netherlands: A Country Built for People, Not Cars

When I first arrived in the Netherlands, I was in for a shock. I am originally from NYC, so observing the stark difference between the space given to vehicles and pedestrians was peculiar—the streets for vehicles were narrow, but the sidewalks and bike paths were wide and in abundance. Everywhere I turned, there were parked bicycles, and there seemed to be more cyclists on the road than there were cars.

The bike paths were almost as wide as the roads, and all throughout The Hague there were WAY more cyclists than there were car drivers. It was quite a sight to see!

I had taken a course during my graduate school career on the Global Environment and Public Health, and we had a lecture discussing the built environment and how the US was built for vehicles and not for people. The majority of the country is not considered “walkable” with the exception of some cities like NYC, which feature select neighborhoods that allow for essential errands such as shopping for groceries, dining, and living on foot.

In many countries in Europe, you could find large plazas such as this one where people would spend their time. The closest place I can think of that resembles this type of open space in NYC is Union Square.

After visiting some countries in Europe such as the Netherlands and France, I’ve seen some cities within these countries that make it very evident that the people are the focus and their quality of living is the priority. I stayed in the Zaandam neighborhood outside of Amsterdam and the Marais neighborhood in Paris, and both were extremely people-centered in comparison to the general cities I’ve seen in the US. In NYC, if you live in the outer boroughs, you will find that many neighborhoods are residential, and you either need a personal vehicle, access to public transportation, or resources to pay for car service to go shopping, buy groceries, or dine with friends. When I stayed in the Netherlands, France, and Spain, I felt like essential activities were accessible by walking and didn’t necessarily require another mode of transportation.

I truly miss how punctual these Dutch trams were!

Additionally, I see that other countries are leading the way in their public transportation and harnessing the power of electricity! Trams exist everywhere in the Netherlands and I have to say, they are SO convenient! Faster than buses and on time in comparison to the MTA system in NYC, I was thoroughly impressed by the comprehensive network of trams and lines that decorated the sky. NYC Mayor de Blasio announced that we are moving toward renewables and clean energy on a mission to become a zero emissions city by 2030 starting with net zero building emissions, but we definitely need to think creatively and innovate when it comes to our public transportation infrastructures, keeping our underserved communities in mind. Other cities such as Washington, DC, Barcelona, and Taipei, just to name a few, are doing amazingly when it comes to faster, more efficient public transportation methods in the form of trains and subways.

Now that I’m back in NYC, I can definitely feel the difference in what it means to live here in the US versus in another country outside of the Americas. I am optimistic though that we are moving in the right directions in all of our major cities to make them more human-centered and catered toward us rather than our vehicles!

Which country do you live in? How is the built environment there? Share some insight as to what your city and country is doing well, or what could use a little work.