Brick, Tunnels and Values

Posted on November 28, 2010 by


In Utrecht, the network of bike paths was incredible, comprehensive, seemingly unending and…pretty. By pretty, I don’t just mean scenic. I mean that the paving material used was aesthetically pleasing. It was brick and/or some sort of cobblestone, something that adds personality to a city while making the riding/walking experience enjoyable and interesting. Function AND form.

Unique paving materials were everywhere, stimulating a conversation amongst our delegation about why we, in the Bay Area, don’t make our walkways and bike paths more visually exciting. The list of reasons was lengthy ranging from cost of maintenance to the subsequent complications when PG&E needs to dig under the sidewalk.

I asked our hosts – how is it they manage to have so much brick everywhere even though it’s more expensive. I pointed out that in the US, we use concrete and although it gets the job done, there clearly is a difference in the look and feel of concrete versus brick. Her response was simple and to the point. “Concrete looks cheap and is cheap.”

This message was repeated daily throughout the trip. Programs, infrastructure, buildings, policies that for us would be cost prohibitive are no-brainers to them. The dollar amount is a consideration but it does not trump all else. Quite the contrary. Things like the environment, community and quality design are equally weighted making brick and cobblestone common place, even though it’s much more expensive. The end result is an attractive city that we try to emulate in places like Santana Row, a place where, if you look down, you’ll notice diversity in the paving materials.

One of my favorite examples this different view of “costs” was in the notion of bike tunnels versus bridges. In a country full of canals, bike bridges and tunnels are commonplace. To be clear, these are bridges and tunnels for only bikes – no cars allowed – so already we’re talking about something we rarely do in the US because of the cost. In Rotterdam, we travelled under one of the rivers in a very long bike tunnel. An escalator goes down and up on each side and people ride their bikes under the river. Our host said to us one evening, “notice how we prefer bike tunnels to bike bridges. Do you know why?” I had no idea. Her answer was that although tunneling is much more expensive than a bridge, with a tunnel, the cyclist goes downhill first and can use momentum to propel the bike up the other side making a tunnel a more convenient option for a bike. I’m still blown away that convenience to the cyclist would trump cost, especially since for us, we’d have to fight just to get a ped/bike only bridge let alone have a debate over whether a tunnel or bridge would be a better option.

Ironically, as cities struggle to create great destinations that draw people and their wallets, our focus on the cheap route can result in lackluster design and ultimately hurt our overall economic development goals. In the Netherlands, they view things very differently and although the tax rates are very different than here, bottom line costs are only one factor in many community building considerations. Indeed, the up front costs associated with environmental protection, bike infrastructure and quality design are not “costs” per se but essential ingredients for the ultimate goal of creating a great place to live, work and play.