Rumination on a compact, car-free, manually operated mega-scale city

Here’s a sobering fact. The conurbation of Randstad comprising Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, is roughly the same size as Dallas-Fort Worth and has roughly the same population. This explains how my publisher who works in Rotterdam and lives in The Hague came to hear me speak in Amsterdam. It explains why Rotterdam has no red light district—their johns can use Amsterdam’s. It explains how residents of Dutch “cities” that are only the size of regional towns have the access to specialised jobs and educations that you would associate with cities of a few million. It explains why every major train station has 4 times more bikes chained outside than are coming and going throughout the day: basically every Dutch person has a bike at every train station. As conurbations go, it is relatively non-reliant on cars, having lots of train services to make up for a patchy network of roads (red lines indicate all of their 4 lane divided expressways)…


with frequent traffic jams (as represented by the next set of red lines).


I once spent 4 days in Dallas-Fort Worth, where they’ve said “to hell with great trains” and gone crazy with divided expressways.

map_dallasfortworthAs for 2×2 divided highways, forget it. In Texas they build highways like these:


In terms of connecting markets (labour markets especially) how can the Randstad conurbation ever compete? It tries to by swapping the inconvenience of buying and maintaing a car, for the inconvenience of inter-city trains and chaining a bike in each city. But after my 4 days in Fort Worth with a hire car in 2004, I have to say that connection speeds to the six millionth Texan in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex is a lot faster than it is to the six millionth Dutchman in Randstad. You don’t have to go to a train station, buy a ticket then wait for a train. You just point and shoot.


There are two other urban areas of 6-7 million people where I have lived: Singapore and New York. Reaching the six millionth farthest person in either of these could take nearly two hours on local trains (that is, once you factor in walking, waiting and transfers). However, due to their compactness, both are small enough that I have criss-crossed them by bike (I happen as well to have ridden from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, but it took me all day). New York is especially manageable on a bike due to its super compactness. Riding at 15kph (the speed a bike goes with no more effort than walking) it takes one hour to ride from 156th Street to the Southern tip of Manhattan, a distance of 15km. At the same speed you could go from one side of the following map to the other in an hour as well.

Newyork (1)

What is interesting about this map is that if all of Brooklyn and Queens had Manhattan’s average population density (30K per square kilometre), it would be home to six million people. If it were as dense as the Upper West Side where I lived (up to 80K per square kilometre), it would be home to fifteen million people!

Imagine the access to markets if such a city were completely car free and had a permeable street grid more suited to bicycle transport! You will gather from this blog post that what fascinates me more than bike friendly medieval town centres, is the idea of a compact, car-free, manually operated, mega-size city. It provides a far stronger basis for arguing the merits of bicycle transport.


  1. nikdow says:

    So Dallas/Fort Worth has no traffic jams?

    • Steven says:

      Of course there are blockages—capacity has induced insane demand. But rail lines also get blocked. Funnelling machines, of any kind, is a problem. But pedestrian and bike traffic on permeable street grids: that doesn’t get blocked. Don’t you love it! Not enough people do 🙂

  2. nikdow says:

    Rail lines can have accidents, malfunctions but these can be kept to a minimum. Freeways get blocked routinely because of demand. High demand doesn’t slow down rail lines, it make them financially efficient and pays for more rail services. Your statement was “connection speeds to the six millionth Texan in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex is a lot faster than it is to the six millionth Dutchman in Randstad”, I’m querying whether this is a fact in the average case, especially with a bike trip to the railway station at the start, and maybe an OV fiets at the end.

    • Steven says:

      Okay, gotcha. It’s 40 minutes on the fast (20+ euro) train from Amsterdam to Rotterdam. I think they run half hourly at peak times, and hourly at others. Let’s split the difference and say 20 minutes wait time on average. The bike to the station would be 15 minutes. We’re up to an hour and 15. Picking up an OV fiets at the other end and getting to your destination brings you up to an hour and a half. But that’s assuming you’re going between two major centres. For the millions living in regional towns, the trip time might be close two hours. Hate to say, but Texas is faster 🙂

  3. nikdow says:

    Another thing about Randstat. I friend who lived in AMS for 8 years told me about all the bicycles you see locked to fences in the rural areas surrounding the city. These puzzled her until she realised that people were parking their cars outside the city, and riding their bikes between the free but inconvenient car parking and their home. I’m quite sure those people would kill for free car parking in their apartment block, and the streets of the part of AMS where I stayed were full of parked cars. Tokyo (all of Japan?) is even stricter, I’m told that to register a car you have to show that you have off-street parking for it. I’d love that law for my city. Those people in AMS were driving to work because for their particular trip it was faster than public transport.

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