Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Greetings from Tram-sterdam

Just got back from a 4-day weekend in Amsterdam, which was absolutely amazing. What an incredible city. What an incredible test tube for urbanism. It's hard not to be interested in the trams from an American standpoint at this point in time, with so many cities wanting to adopt modern streetcar, and it's so easy to be quickly overwhelmed by the size and scope of some of these European transit systems. Amsterdam's trams..just wow. Unfortunately my camera died on my second day, but here's one photo:

Keep in mind, that Amsterdam is possibly one of the world's most famous cities for transit, but it's not the trams that earned it that reputation: it's bicycles. The city is the most bicycle-friendly place in the world, and it goes without saying you haven't experiences Amsterdam until you've spent an entire day on bike.

The tram system actually reminds me of a significantly enhanced version of the Toronto streetcar, with an intense network of mostly linear tram lines:

[Might have to open the pic in a new window to get to see it] So it's amazing that a city of about 800,000 people has all of these tram lines (granted at any given time tourists clearly outnumber locals). It's also amazing that it supports this in addition to a highly-developed underground metro system, commuter trains to other close-in regional cities, elevated rail similar to Chicago (they call theirs "the tube"), the bicycle-centric focus, and even the canals and River Amstel serve a transit function. It's truly a transit city. Not to mention so many areas in the Centre Ring are pedestrian-only.

I think perhaps all of these modes of transit have grown up around each other. At first it might appear to be a lot of competition for ridership--are the Dutch really that "on the move"? But then you realize, the simple fact is that having a car in Amsterdam is a nightmare! I saw it first-hand several times in the Centre Ring, and never more than when I saw a taxi trying to squeeze in with the bicycles and pedestrians through a crowded bridge a block from a busy weekend market in De Jordaan. Cars in Amsterdam simply go against the laws of physics.

Now obviously, this is not the case in any American city except perhaps NYC, and even NYC is packed full of too many cars. But the point still stands: there is no competition for ridership in a true transit-centered environment, as long as the different modes of transit each serve a real purpose. If Amsterdam was not the bicycle haven that it is, would the tram system be as well-used? Probably not. Would the commuter trains or even the inter-city trains to Den Haag and Utrecht be as heavily-utilized? Probably not.

Lesson that OKC can take from Amsterdam: In order for big-time streetcar utilization to work successfully, grow as many different complementary modes at once. This is why Project 180 coinciding with the streetcar timeline is actually an enormous opportunity, not a duplication of efforts. The city needs to do a lot to expand basic walkability and human access, including a real bicycle strategy that doesn't just involve the system of scenic park trails. That's not really what we need...

I see no reason OKC couldn't use a system of bicycle roads. Bicycle-only intersections, even bicycle round-abouts. Special bicycle lights at each intersection, some busier intersections even with dedicated bicycle left-turn lanes. Or at the very least, sidewalks on every street, that are actually usable. That would be a good start, even if it's just in the inner city! Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself here and forgetting just how many 100s of years OKC is behind other cities in terms of basic sidewalk infrastructure. It is beyond embarrassing.

One great phrase you will never hear in OKC: Lekker fietstocht!


Mark said...

According to Wikipedia, Amesterdam has a population density of 9,080.5 per sq mi while OKC's is 923.1/sq mi. I'm not knocking the value of public transit, I'd love to see more of it, but it's really an apples to oranges comparison in my book. If you're in the area bounded by I-40/I-44/I-235, and maybe in I-40/I-35/I-240/I-44 area as well at least the northern part of it, then densities are enough that mass transit costs might be reasonable. But outside of those areas you're not going to get mass transit unless people are willing to do some pretty good subsidies. Given how reluctant everyone seems to be to pay for even the most basic of services (fire, sanitation, etc.) I can't see us expanding our transport system in the next couple of decades. :(

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Mark. To create the current Dutch Transit Utopia, they started in the 70s and they wanted to do this. Not simply have a secondary system but a primary one. Sorry of I sound a bit negative but if OKC builds alternate transportation infrastructure I will ise it!

Sid Burgess said...

A lesson that can be learned from their model is the simplicity. Notice how logical and simple that system is, despite how massive it is.

Compare that to our bus routes.

NR said...

A few points in response, to ponder..

Mark--I'm not sure what the 923 people per sq mi is including, but I am sure you must realize OKC's density numbers aren't going to tell a whole lot. Most of OKC's 600+ sq mi's are virtually undeveloped. But I wasn't making the argument that OKC and Amsterdam are similar cities. If you wish to read any kind of comparison into the post, someone who truly understands transit and planning might be led to suggest that OKC could become more like Amsterdam if the infrastructure in place was similar. For instance, rail-based transit is rarely a debate of whether it is needed now, because that's a chicken-egg scenario that decent infrastructure investments will always lose no matter what mode. Many cities in the U.S. are adding streetcar and light rail because they have the likelihood of bringing up the density around the lines, which would make the transit modes well-supported. That is the transit oriented development, which the entire city of Amsterdam could practically qualify as.

Furthermore, I'm not sure what you are talking about in the last part of your post when you make definitive statements about what will happen with rail transit in OKC. Are you aware that the voters already passed modern streetcar? 6 miles of it. And that we are going to apply for federal matching funds which could potentially make available even more funds? Thirdly, there is also a regional transit plan (the Fixed Guideway Study) that outlines how the region's transit planning will evolve.

So I'm not sure what you mean by not seeing OKC expanding its transit system in the next couple of decades. It's already a done deal. It is going to happen. I believe we're now in the process of studying pertinent examples of case study cities, and in the case of Amsterdam, the sky is the limit--OKC once had the nation's largest streetcar network actually.

OKC will need to look at what works in other cities for reforming its current system, including the introduction of fixed guideway transit and the current bus system, because as it is there is nothing worth keeping in the current OKC transit strategy. There is nothing that works well in OKC's approach to transportation because the city has sunk so incredibly low in the folly of pursuing the absolute lowest peak-time freeway congestion patterns, a strategy that has failed so miserably that now there is even peak-time freeway congestion. Imagine that, a system designed with only one good thing in mind doesn't even have that anymore.

A lot of my post was actually about streetscape improvements, in particular, integrating a usable bicycle network with other modes of transit. I'm not sure what that in particular has to do with density or Okies and their hatred of government services, which I presume must include infrastructure.

P.S. When you talk about residential density levels, the southern half of the inner south side (ie., from 44th to I-240) is actually the densest area of OKC. Interestingly enough..