Once I had my transit chipcard (easily purchased at Schiphol airport after landing), I effectively had a debit card that gave me freedom of movement thoughout the country, whether I was going from block to block or city to city, using any form of transit from bus or tram to heavy rail.
The OV-chipkaart is a swipable smartcard that was the collaborative result of five large public transport operators in the Netherlands – similar to what we will have in the TransLink service area as the Compass card is rolled out this fall. It is also a metaphor for the Dutch way of doing business: public and private actors, working together to achieve collaboration and coordination.
Now just a hunch: I bet they also disagree, argue and screw up, and I’m sure there are lots of illustrative examples, few of which were shared with me. But there’s also plenty of evidence of how they’ve institutionalized collaborative processes, particularly in what they call platforms – formalized and neutral grounds where it’s safe to talk without your competitors gaining an unfair advantage, places to develop the trust needed for coordination to occur without losing the imperative to compete. The platform is funded by the members, it’s separate from government, but the civil servants are around the table. A kind of civic polderization.
I was introduced to two of the coordinators for the Rail Platform, established after the dominant carrier was split up (with not-so successful results) and concessions were allocated to various operators. I confess that I never did quite understand distinctions among all the carriers, even when it came to Metro systems, trams and buses – but it didn’t matter. I had my chipcard. The challenge of the Rail Platform is to make all the different modes as seamless as the method of payment. The rail sector still needs what is referred to as ‘stabilization,’ but rail in the Netherlands seems to being rejuvenated. (For instance, if a shipper or producer wants new land for moving goods, 40 percent of the freight must go by train or, if appropriate, by sea.)
Most heartening was the deliberative involvement and cultivation of the younger workforce – the Young Changers, under 35, numbering about 500. They have their own network, reflecting the distributed loyality of that generation: loyal to the company only if it doesn’t obstruct their own development. even changing the structures of the companies in which they work – more independent, more creative.
When discussion turned to the role of ‘light rail,’ it was immediately clear that no one really has a strict definition. Could be a surface tram in a mixed right-of-way, could be grade-separated, could be urban, could be surburban – or all of the above. Generally, though, it’s seen as suitable for passenger capacity up to a million. Below that, the bus is good up to 300,000; metro rail for one million-plus.
But it’s clear that once the systems are in place, particularly with underground components in and through the city centres, the car is moved out and the people move in. Hence the growing, more affluent population in their increasingly expensive centres. Oh, and a lot more bicycles. Sound familiar?
It seemed that every major inner-city transportation terminal or station was in the process of being rebuilt or had just been expanded, from the Centraal in Amsterdam to the massive new structure in The Hague.
It’s taking years, costing billions, but it’s reflective of the Dutch commitment to multi-modal transportation in a country-wide network.
On the ground, in the compact, narrow historic centres, where there’s not a lot of room for separation, light rail is integrated in a way that so far seems unacceptable in the North American context, where we’re fearful of any large piece of machinery without its own right-of-way.
So how do they do it in the Netherlands?
Or where they do have room, it can look like this:
“I wonder if it could be a reality in Vancouver or Surrey.”
The obvious place it might be: Robson Square. As Jarrett Walker has argued:
If Vancouver can’t contemplate a public square with transit running through it, then it’s limiting the effectiveness and future ridership potential of transit service through some of its densest neighbourhoods. But, more broadly, if cities, urbanists, planners, architects and others don’t understand transit, then we’ll continue to be speaking different languages.
Could be that right language is Dutch.