Almere, Netherlands as Bus-Oriented Development

The remarkable busway network of Almere, Netherlands is impressive from the ground, as we saw in Richard Lenthall’s post, but it’s even more remarkable on Google Earth:

Aimere centre

Here is the commercial core of Almere.  (You can easily find this yourself on Google Earth or Google Maps.  Just search for “Almere, FL, NL.”)

The entire image is a mile (1.6 km) wide.  Across the top of the image you can see the main intercity rail line, running east-west, with frequent electric trains to Amsterdam, Schiphol Airport (AMS) and other major towns of the country.  The station is right in the middle.

Directly south of the station is the densest part of the core, on a short axis extending south from the station to the main lake, just visible on the south edge of the image.  As you can see, a busway runs right down the middle, going underground at the station and again at the major commercial/employment center on the lake.

Directly east of the commercial/employment center is a distinctive district with a half-circle pattern of streets.  The northern edge of the half-circle is an east-west busway.  It goes right under the commercial center and emerges on the other (west) side.  Some bus routes run east-west across this segment, but most come from the two sides and turn northward to run under the station.

Let’s pan southeastward a bit, at the same scale:

Aimere SE

The half-circle district is now in the northwest corner, where this image overlaps the previous one.  The busway branches right at the center of the half-circle.  One branch heads south, while the other continues east and then turns south near the east edge of the image.  The little Google bus stop symbols indicate the busway path, but note that not all of the bus stops appear at this scale.

As you can see, the busway is reasonably central to all of the development, because both were designed together.  At the points furthest from the busway, you have open space and a high-capacity road.  The busway brings you to central points of the community, while the road network delivers you only to the edges of it.  You can see the same pattern in the commercial core above: high-capacity roads form a ring around the core, delivering you to parking on these outer edges.  But if you come by bus, you arrive at a core location where there’s very little traffic, where the walking distances to everything are optimal, and where all the infrastructure welcomes you as a pedestrian.

North Americans try hard to do “transit-oriented development” (TOD), but the Dutch are doing it on a massive scale.  Even more heretically, they do it with buses!  All of Almere is transit-oriented, and the transit is all in the form of busways.  These aren’t the long-haul rapid-transit busways of Brisbane, though the Dutch do those too.  Almere’s busways are designed to be the local coverage for the entire town; there’s no need for additional meandering local buses getting stuck in traffic on local streets, or slowing down for the traffic-calming measures aimed at cars, such as you see all the time in North American and Australian suburbs.

Just because service is locally oriented doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be as fast and reliable as possible.  Remember: average speed determines a route’s cycle time, which (combined with frequency) determines operating cost.  A service that’s faster and more reliable requires fewer buses to cycle, so it can be run more frequently at the same cost.

The Almere busway moves at moderate speeds and stops relatively often, but still the stop spacing has been placed as wide as possible (rarely less than 500m) and the urban form works with that spacing.  The busway intersects minor streets, but it’s grade separated where it crosses a major highway (such as the top-center of the second image).  Buses are able to cycle the whole system with near-perfect reliabiilty.  The only source of delay is a problem with passengers boarding and alighting.

The urban structure here is repeated all over the residential parts of Almere.  Explore it yourself.  Yes, you could have done this whole structure with streetcars on grass track, but for a variety of reasons, probably partly due to the ease of phasing service in, they chose to do busways instead.  You can argue over the environmental and sustainability issues of that choice.

But don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t build a dense and transit-oriented suburb using buses!  As always, what matters is not the technology but the mobility it’s designed to provide.  That’s a matter of walking distance, separation from car impacts, stop spacing, and exclusive right-of-way.  Optimize all of these, as Almere has done, and you’ve got an almost perfect transit system, properly located to form the primary circulation system for the community.

31 Responses to Almere, Netherlands as Bus-Oriented Development

  1. Tom West October 29, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    I remember doing work for a city based on a very rectangular grid with the short side (E/W roads) being 800m and the long side (N/S roads) about 2km. It was great for coverage, because everyone was within 400m of an E/W grid road, so that’s where most of teh buses ran. However, most of the *trips* went N/S along one particular route. The city thought that providing transit priority for that one route woudl be sufficient. We had a big job convincing them that 90% of the population would spend a significant proporion of their trip on a feeder route, and that therefore these needed transit priority as well.
    Because buses stop for people and cars don’t, the only way buses can time-competitive with cars is if they have some means of catching up/over-taking. This means eitehr transit priority at intersections (to allow queue-jumping) and/or seperate RoW (to allow faster speeds than cars and/or avoid traffic).

  2. David M October 29, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Thanks Jarrett for this. There are some videos on YouTube showing how the system works. Watch the rural crossing video and the video from on-board – the system runs like an LRT line with signals for the buses clearing to green just in time so the bus doesn’t need to slow down. Really nice.
    Suburban junction
    View from inside the bus-watch how the pre-signal activates and then the signal clear for the bus.
    Wish we had this kind of thing in Canada. Even when we build busways, we insist on making the buses wait at traffic lights so the almighty car isn’t slowed down.

  3. David in Ottawa October 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    It’s Almere, not Aimere. That’s an ‘L’, not an ‘I’.
    Almere’s population is 186,000. Very few people would be arguing to put an internal LRT system into a city of that size, but even so it still has *five* railway stations, with what looks to be a sixth on the way at the ‘Almere Poort’ to the west.
    So the first thing to note is the population being served is relatively small and second is that there is integration of BRT into a hierarchy that uses rail.
    I note that both bus traffic and cross street traffic is relatively light in the videos in the other post. The cross streets are also all two-lane roads, not multi-lane divided arterials, so it doesn’t take the buses long to get across and therefore the duration of blockage is minimal. Grade separation has been kept to an absolute minimum because neither the bus volumes nor the cross street traffic volumes are enough to justify it. These really are bus-only roads, not bus-only highways like Ottawa’s busways. It’s a workable system for the context in which it was implemented.
    Unlike the BRT obsessives who designed Ottawa’s BRT system, the Dutch planners of Almere understood that BRT was to be used as a *complement* to a larger rail system, not instead of one. Ottawa has suburbs that are approaching Almere’s population and are located about as far from the centre as Almere is from Amsterdam, but it’ll be a tropical day in January before Ottawa sees anything like a radially-oriented rail line and feeder-like at-grade busways in those suburbs. Instead, we get overpriced grade-separated busways hauling passenger volumes for which any Dutch planner would long ago have installed a rail system to serve.
    Besides that, what is far more interesting than bus-only roads is the land use planning in what is by Dutch standards a low density city but by North American standards a high density suburb. It’s notable how minimal the road network is in Almere. Multi-lane arterials are few and far between, whereas any North American suburb of this size if full of them. By North American standards, density is quite high, but it still has a lot of green and openspace. One is hard-pressed to find any large surface parking lots in Almere. It even has a discernible centre, complete with tall buildings. Not only is the central railway station associated with an office district, so too are the other railway stations, which are fed by busways. In effect, the planners of Almere have created actual activity nodes at the railway-busway interchange stations.
    There’s a lot to learn here, but what it isn’t is some kind of BRT triumph. It isn’t a “bus-oriented development”. It’s an example of the proper application of each part of the transportation hierarchy (including bicycles, which we completely ignore in North America and which is ignored in this post) towards an overall master plan. If you were to come along and tell the planners of Almere that their central rail spine should be a grade-separated busway into Amsterdam – as many BRT obsessives in North America, particularly in Ottawa, would – you’d be rightly laughed out of the room. There’s arguably as much rail-oriented development here as bus-oriented, but what it really is is transit-oriented.

  4. Jarrett October 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    @David. As you know, I think Ottawa’s busways would work fine if buses had proper space and priority through downtown on Albert and Slater Streets, along the lines of what we did in Minneapolis …
    But we don’t disagree on the big picture of what Almere represents.
    Almere is an integrated planning achievement, not just a transit achievement. It shows what can be done of you actually decide to build a new city around sustainable transport options. You’re right, of course, that there’s also a complete separated bicycle network, as there is in most Dutch cities except for the oldest cores.
    You’re right, also, that the busway is scaled to the nature of its demand, which is fundamentally local. I explicitly discourage comparisons with Brisbane, and hence also, implicitly, with Ottawa.

  5. anonymouse October 29, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    Yeah, I think the key point here is that while the bus seems to work great at the local level, in the grander scheme of things, the town is still served by fast, frequent electric trains, and I bet a lot of people commute to Amsterdam on those. And the bus is very well integrated with the rail system: the heart of the busway network is the main rail station, where you can transfer from bus to rail just by walking up or down a set of stairs. And looking at the busway network some more, it really looks like they designed it like a tram system, but decided to build it as busways because the traffic levels just didn’t justify the expense of trams.
    But the really interesting thing about Almere is that it really is transit-oriented, in that the geography and structure of the place is built around and defined by the busways, rather than the roads, and the busways form their own network, more or less independent from the road network. That can lead to very effective transit, if the transit can provide a shortcut not available to cars. In North America especially, it’s often the buses (or even light rail) that have to go out of their way to accommodate the existing auto-oriented geography. Here, it’s almost the other way around.

  6. Erik W October 29, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    I think you’ve actually made entirely the wrong argument in this post, Jarrett. Almere is not proof that you can build bus TOD. Virtually none of the town is what we have come to understand as characteristic of TOD: high density & mixed use. The city center is relatively high density, but appears to be primarily office and retail space and is pocked with parking garages and surface lots. Meanwhile, outside of the center suddenly you have medium-low density residential areas, the layout of which are remarkably similar to many American and Australian “faux urban” suburbs which are routinely derided in planning circles. These areas have cul de sacs and other disconnected “loop roads” and the busway in many places actually bisects the neighborhood, leaving crossing points only ever 500 meters or so.
    So, no I would not use Almere as proof that TOD can be accomplished around buses, because I don’t think it has. Fundamentally, what TOD characteristics it does have are mainly centered on the railway station, further eviscerating this as an example of bus-based TOD.
    Still, Almere has accomplished something we haven’t managed in the new world, particularly the US. It’s created high quality, high capacity bus transit in a relatively small, relatively low-density, segregated land use, suburban town. That’s the accomplishment.
    I guess, though, to some extent, it’s a semantic difference, if you want to define TOD differently based on predetermined density and land use segregation.

  7. Jarrett at October 29, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    @Erik.  Look closer.  The half-circle district is mostly attached housing, townhouses or terraces, as are many of the neighborhoods southeast of there.  Actually, all over Almere I see attached housing on small lots, especially near the busway.  See also an area where it looks like the surplus parking area for a series of attached units has been pushed out next to the highway, increasing potential massing against the busway:,+FL,+The+Netherlands&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=33.710275,61.611328&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Almere,+Flevoland,+The+Netherlands&ll=52.3731,5.210674&spn=0.001585,0.00376&t=h&z=18
    This is clearly much denser than a lot of what gets called TOD in North America, especially in comparable greenfield settings!  It differs in that the emphasis is on a medium density over a large area served by busways, rather than just massing around a station with low-density fringes.  But given tolerances for large-scale massing in North America, and the need for more medium-density transit-orientation options, I think it's a very instructive example.

  8. Brisbane October 29, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    “Unlike the BRT obsessives who designed Ottawa’s BRT system, the Dutch planners of Almere understood that BRT was to be used as a *complement* to a larger rail system, not instead of one.”
    @ David in Ottawa, I think you hit the nail on the head here. We are building *transit systems* and *transit networks*. This busway system vs LRT system is just an extension of the “bus vs LRT vehice-which one is better” argument and tends to overlook that if we were truly mode-blind you would simply choose the right tool for the right corridor and job.
    A truly mode-blind large city would probably have both Alere-style BRT and LRT and maybe even heavy rail.
    Almere looks like they have done this- buses at the local level which converge at rail stations to achieve very high point concentrations of passengers at rail stations to support rail travel.
    Almere has BRT-to-Rail, and proper integration, which is such a good idea. This is an good example showcasing for *Integrated Transit Networks* with a logical hierarchy, not “BRT success over or LRT or Heavy rail.”

  9. anonymouse October 29, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    I’m not seeing the crossings every 500 meters problem, at least in the bits I looked at. It looks more like every 500 feet, which is pretty good by US suburban standards, where you might get a crossing every half mile in some areas, including on big commercial streets like El Camino Real in the San Jose area. Also, the busways generally have pedestrian paths alongside, so while cars do have to go out of the way to follow the busways, pedestrians don’t. Also notable by North American standards is how narrow the streets are. A passenger car is only about 6 feet wide, so a street doesn’t need to be much wider than about 12 or 15 feet if you just care about them being able to get by. America, meanwhile, designs even its suburban streets for two full size firetrucks being able to pass each other at 60 mph.

  10. K October 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    The cul de sacs are also treated a little differently. They tend to be permeable to pedestrians and cyclist, just not cars.,+FL,+The+Netherlands&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=33.710275,61.611328&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Almere,+Flevoland,+The+Netherlands&t=h&ll=52.383904,5.209365&spn=0.006797,0.013797&z=16&layer=c&cbll=52.38394,5.209013&panoid=HRGU0NWSgRJsVL1lv2vkNQ&cbp=12,153.34,,0,5
    It reduces the attractiveness of driving while encouraging cycling, walking and transit.

  11. Brisbane October 29, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    A question- how were the developments constructed/financed? Were the done as a private thing or under control of a government directive such as a masterplan?
    I’m asking because some of our Brisbane TODs have come about when the government set up an authority over public land and said ‘we are putting a TOD here’.

  12. Jarrett October 29, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    @Brisbane. My impression is that all Dutch “new towns” are master-planned. They all show an integrated view of land use, transport, and other infrastructure. Even the architecture is harmonised to a great degree — sometimes to the point of eerieness.

  13. Tobias October 30, 2010 at 2:30 am #

    @ David in Ottawa
    Almere’s population is 186,000. Very few people would be arguing to put an internal LRT system into a city of that size, but even so it still has *five* railway stations, with what looks to be a sixth on the way at the ‘Almere Poort’ to the west.
    I strongly disagree with this perception. Towns and cities half the size of Almere run trams successfully. Almere is by all means of the right size for a tram network.
    The decision in favour of buses was made in the 1970s or 80s when buses were regarded superior to trams. This has changed, however. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if the bus-ways were replaced or added by tracks in the future.

  14. TransitPlannerMunich October 30, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    What is the ridership of Almere’s public transit system?
    I wonder how the system is accepted.

  15. Matt Fisher October 30, 2010 at 5:10 am #

    I believe that the population levels do not justify LRT in Almere, but then again, that was the same argument used by John Bonsall and other BRT proponents in Ottawa used to push for the Transitway over light rail: “We don’t have the population”.

  16. Matt Fisher October 30, 2010 at 5:18 am #

    By the way, the population levels in Almere are just over that of the metropolitan area of my home of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (population: over 175,000). Almere seems to look like Kanata, and I would like to see LRT there replace BRT, but given the reality in Ottawa, it will take infinity for it to happen.

  17. Mike H October 30, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    I agree with Tobias. There are plenty of towns in Europe about the size of Almere or smaller that run trams successfully. Granted, many of them have operated tram systems continuously since the beginning of the 20th century. Examples that come to mind: Basel, Switzerland (pop. 166,173); Ludwigshafen, Germany (163,340); Norrköping, Sweden (83,561). Ludwigshafen’s system is connected to a larger urban area, but they have internal lines, too. Bergen, Norway (259,500) just opened a new LRT line after having killed a streetcar system in the 1960s.
    Obviously, it’s not about the size of the city, but about the level of service that is to be provided on for a given line. Very small systems can have their problems, such as reliability of the rolling stock if there are only a handful of trams, but at least in Europe, more or less standard replacement trams can always be leased from somewhere on a reasonable notice.

  18. M1EK October 30, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    We generally don’t tolerate the level of governmental oversight required for this level of master-planning; TOD here is assumed to be the result of the private sector willingly (with possible help from incentives) responding to loosening (a few cases tightening) of zoning near transit stations.

  19. EngineerScotty October 30, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    One important point which needs reminder: A lot of how successful a transit system will be depends on how much competition it has from the automobile. In places with lots of cheap (or free) parking, low density, and auto-optimized roads (highways or freeways), transit will generally perform poorly.
    If parking is expensive, density is higher, and the road network isn’t optimized for massive amounts of traffic, transit will do quite well.
    While the Netherlands has an elaborate system of motorways, like much of Western Europe, there are many parts of the country which are difficult or expensive to drive in.

  20. anonymouse October 30, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    I think the American way tolerates less government oversight, but not necessarily less government intervention. TOD is built thanks to government incentives, but it’s all done piecemeal and not as part of an integrated transit and land use strategy planned on a regional level. And often the government will interfere in both directions: mandate high amounts of parking, then subsidize TOD.

  21. TransitPlannerMunich October 31, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    German cities with below 200,000 inhabitants and trams/light rail:
    Mainz, Kassel, Mülheim, Saarbrücken, Ludwigshafen, Potsdam, Neuss
    Below 150,000: Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Würzburg, Heilbronn, Ulm, Offenbach, Jena, Cottbus
    Below even 100,000:
    Brandenburg, Frankfurt (Oder), Schwerin, Görlitz, Plauen, Zwickau, Dessau, Halberstadt, Merseburg, Naumburg, Gero, Gotha, Nordhausen

  22. David in Ottawa October 31, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    See… this is what happens when you live in a city in which the BRT lobby runs the show: even erstwhile advocates of introducing rail can fall into a bus trap mentality.
    Still, I would think that in a CANZUS context, a city with a population of less than 200,000 is unlikely to get an internally-oriented* light rail line, nevermind an entire network of lines like Almere’s busways.
    *i.e. one that is not a radially-oriented line part of a larger metropolitan region (like Almere’s rail connection to Amsterdam)

  23. Daniel October 31, 2010 at 10:12 pm #

    What I’m left wondering is what the service levels are like. Anybody got a link to the timetables?

  24. Ed O November 1, 2010 at 4:57 am #

    Link to Almere bus timetables

  25. Tobias November 1, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    David in Ottawa:
    Still, I would think that in a CANZUS context, a city with a population of less than 200,000 is unlikely to get an internally-oriented* light rail line, nevermind an entire network of lines like Almere’s busways.
    Cities like Le Mans (144’000) and Mulhouse (111’000) contradict your assumption that they were too small for trams which both re-introduced in recent years.
    I don’t know what you mean by CANZUS though.
    As for Almere, most of their bus network is served by 8 pairs of buses per hour or more, some branches even by 16. Considered that trams attract more users than buses and that the town keeps growing the introduction of trams seemed to me a rather sensible move.

  26. David in Ottawa November 1, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    CANZUS is short hand for the “Anglosphere” outside the UK, i.e. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States. While there are some significant differences between them, they all have an English political and legal inheritance, a history of being settler societies that resulted in relatively spread-out patterns of settlement (i.e. compared to Europe), and, of course, a post-war history of relatively car-centric suburban growth.
    It’s far easier to make a case that something that is done in one of these countries can be done in the others than it is to apply European (or Asian, or other) examples because of this commonality.

  27. Beige November 1, 2010 at 11:39 am #

    Again I take my USA perspective to this and boggle at all this in a small city of under 200,000 people. I’m used to thinking 500,000 is *nowhere* *near* big enough to contemplate *a* bus lane, let alone a bus road, never mind a network of them. It’s just a different world.

  28. Daniel November 7, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    I couldn’t find an actual timetable, but I did find this summary (I’ve put it through Google Translate):
    “Maxx runs regularly and quickly. In cases must on weekdays and on Saturdays four times per hour. At night and on Sunday is that twice per hour.”
    Not exactly an outstanding level of service, and not the sort of frequency that would get me willingly giving up my car.

  29. Ed O November 7, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    Daniel, the link I provided above goes to a page showing routes 1-10. Click on a route number and it goes to another page – you have to wait a moment or two for the timetable to display. You can change the day and direction. Some of the routes have higher frequencies Mon-Fri.

  30. Pete (UK) September 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Here is an interesting film of the Almere busway in action, best viewed from 3:55 onwards:
    On another google video of the Almere busway someone had posted ‘the buses run like clockwork’ – fine praise indeed.