Train at my front door

Shopping downtown last Saturday I was accosted by someone handing out some sort of paper. Usually I avoid these people like a week-old sandwich, but before I could break eye contact and ignore her, she said the magic words “RijnGouweLijn.” I took one of the papers. It was a folded A3-size newsletter with some utterly forgettable but sharp-looking graphic design.

The RijnGouweLijn (English, Dutch), complete with asinine StudlyCaps, is a light rail system, not built yet, which is supposed to go from the city of Gouda, through Leiden, where I live, to the coast towns of Katwijk and Noordwijk. The part of the track I’m interested in was originally planned to go through Breestraat, where I live, down to Leiden Central Station, and stop at Leiden Bio Science Park, where I work, before continuing on to Katwijk. A train that picks me up at my front door, and lets me off again at work? Sign me up! I don’t even care that it won’t be completed until long after I’ve finished my PhD and will probably live and work somewhere else: I think it’s a good idea on its own, even without pandering to my laziness.

That’s because Breestraat is an utter mess. A large number of the bus routes in Leiden run over its entire length. Despite its name meaning “Broad Street,” it’s hardly wide enough for two buses to pass in opposite directions. Add to that supply trucks that serve the many shops located there, and after store hours it gets worse when cars are allowed in and start speeding through it. There’s only one(!) crosswalk with a traffic light, and nobody, not even pedestrians, pays any attention to it whatsoever. So buses are lining up and passing each other, cars are speeding, pedestrians are dashing across the road at arbitrary points, which means I pretty much take my life into my hands every time I ride my bicycle down the street. If they built train tracks there, they’d have to reroute the buses and hopefully reduce the number of them, since the light rail would now serve some of the bus passengers.

Alas, it was all a dream. The Leiden city government held a plebiscite in 2007 in which the populace voted against having the track pass through Leiden at all, but the county was overridden by the provincial government. To placate the citizens, who were understandably disgruntled at having their vote rejected out of hand, they agreed to reroute the proposed track so it didn’t pass through Breestraat anymore, nearly doubling the projected expense of the Leiden portion of the construction, from 50 million to 90 million euros. I can only imagine what a public relations nightmare this was for the city.

So who caused the most damage in this situation? The voters with their knee-jerk NIMBY reaction? The county government who abdicated their responsibility and decided to leave to voters the decision on the public transport improvements this city so desperately needs? The provincial government, who chickened out and agreed to spend 40 million extra when, as long as they were overriding the referendum anyway, they could have just done whatever the hell they wanted? I honestly don’t know.

All this happened before I even moved here. Why am I writing this now? That brings me back to the newsletter pressed into my eager paw last Saturday. I read it, but it’s a trite piece of gosh-don’t-y’all-think-we’re-just-the-absolute-greatest propaganda, paid for by the RijnGouweLijn Project Organization, a consortium of relevant parties. On the front page they even included a little dig at the referendum, with the sneering sentence “In Leiden, they’re also eager about [the plans], evidenced by the reactions from the Chamber of Commerce and Leiden Bio Science Park.” I may not think it was wise to vote against the plans, but it did occur to me (and you’d think it might occur to the copywriters) that this isn’t the best way to convince people to rally round the plans that are now being forced down their throats.

Of course this is going to be seized on in the upcoming city council elections. I’ve seen campaign posters for D66 (a social-liberal party advocating direct democracy) with the slogan “RGL — Didn’t you say no?” This takes things to a whole new level of irresponsibility, since as I understand it there isn’t anything the local government can do about it anymore. But then again, the Dutch government haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in responsible decisions this week, have they now?