Video: a “core sample” of Grongingen’s transportation system

Queuing for a drawbridge in Groningen from Ted Sweeney on Vimeo.

We spent part of today in Groningen, where my handlebar cam captured this clip. As people were stopped by the drawbridge, a sort of “core sample” of the transportation system was evident.  We can see the distribution of modes (perhaps slightly skewed, but hot damn, lookadembikez!!!) as the road opens up again.

In all, we were underwhelmed by Groningen.  This city which has been called the most bicycle friendly in the world had strange twists of bicycle unfriendliness by our observations. For one, our tour guides for our ride around town both wore orange reflective vests.  We haven’t seen anyone in the Netherlands ride with an orange cycling vest, let alone people working for the government and showing us around. When we asked them why they had the vests they explained “We are cycling, therefore we are vulnerable.”  What?!  In no country on Earth is it this safe to cycle, and part of the policy that has made it that way has been an active choice to not emphasize the risks inherent in the activity.  Hence why no Dutch people wear helmets and why the government thinks that’s a great thing (I agree).  These guys had it backwards in a way that seemed, hell, American.  The Groningen folks also seemed to see bicycle parking as a problem in a different way than Utrecht or Amsterdam.  They seemed to really feel that, on some level, the parked bikes had no place on their streets.  This was more of an impression that I got from the way they explained things and the measures they have taken rather than anything explicit that was said.

But, a lot of folks ride bikes in Groningen.  They count that 60% of all trips that originate in the city are made by bicycle.  Globally, that comes in behind only Houten, Netherlands, a master planned community designed specifically to be bicycle-accessible.  We visited Houten yesterday, and found it to be too quite, uniform, and creepy.  Nice bikeways though.

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1 among 350,000: Bicycling in Amsterdam by the numbers, and how those numbers don’t phase the Dutch.

On Monday we sat down at Amsterdam’s Infrastructure, Traffic, and Transport office and had some of the following numbers shared with us.

  • Out of a total population of 765,000, 350,000 people ride bikes in Amsterdam every day.
  • Those people cycle a total of 2.2 million km every day.
  • 75% of the total population of Amsterdam owns a bike (550,000 bikes) (37% own a car).
  • Amsterdam boasts 400km of separated bikeways (cycletracks).
  • 90% of all streets in Amsterdam are bicycle friendly.
  • 45% of bicycle trips are made by men, 55% by women.
  • The government estimates that they save 2 billion Euro per year because so many people cycle in the Netherlands.

Oddly and remarkably, none of this phases the Dutch.  The average person on the street is not agog over this only-one-like-it-in-the-world bicycle network.

Yesterday I went to a bike shop to get advice for my upcoming tour to Copenhagen.  I arrived during lunch, and so was immediately invited to sit down for a cup of tea.  I got around to explaining why I was in Amsterdam, and I told the two women and one man that I was studying the bicycle network.  They laughed at me.  “Seriously?” they asked.  I assured them that I was, and eventually, thinking about it, they agreed that it would be worth studying, especially for a country as foolish about transportation as the USA (the Dutch are [rightfully] fond of stories that go when I was visiting the United States everyone would drive for everything even if it was just 100 meters and I rode a bike and I was the only one and everyone stared).

Even the bicycle professionals we have spoken with, at the government of Amsterdam, and at Fietsersbond, the national bike advocacy group, gave no impression of the boastful glee I would expect from the curators of a system that is so boldly different and inspiringly functional.

Bicycling is just totally normal in the Netherlands.  It’s about as controversial here as using the bathroom.  Everyone does it.  Everyone’s need to do it is provided for.  That’s it.  A girl on the train back from Utrecht today told me that she had to leave the Netherlands (to go to grad school in London) to understand how special the Dutch bicycle policy is.

Their policy, by the way, has two cornerstones: Fun and Perceived Safety. I’m not making this up. They go for Fun because riding a bicycle is joyful, and joy is desirable for many reasons.  For example, it can get you tied for 4th happiest country in the world. Perceived Safety means that people feel safe bicycling.  Note that it is not just important that people are safe, but that they feel safe.  Perhaps it is safe to cycle on the road with cars, but people don’t feel safe doing it, so that infrastructure design isn’t enough under the Dutch model.  It is safer to wear helmets when cycling, but when people are told they need to strap on a protective device, they feel less safe (if you are visiting a friend in a new town and you are walking down the street and they say Oh, here, you should put this on and hand you a bullet-proof vest, how do you think your feelings will change about the neighborhood you’re walking in?).

The Dutch have achieved something important for the world in their bicycle system.  We do not have to wonder how to make cycling attractive; it has been done in the Netherlands, and it works.  The numbers prove it.  The challenge is translating these solutions to other countries, and finding the political will to make them happen.  I am certain what the wrong way to do it is, at least as far as making change in the US is concerned.  The wrong way would be to go out and be like “Look at the Netherlands! The 4th happiest country on Earth!  Let’s copy their bicycle system!  Let’s build separated fietspads on American roads!  Lets create woonerfs in our neighborhoods!  Let’s all import bicycles from the Netherlands, eat more herring, and learn to love mayonnaise more!”

We can’t overtly copy the Dutch, because that would be un-American. People in the USA are wary of foreign ideas.  In presenting Dutch bicycle solutions, we have to be cagey, and smart, and we have to show people, on terms they want to understand, what is possible.  Luckily, though, we can look to Amsterdam to affirm our belief that the ideas work and that it is worth doing if we want to create vibrant communities.

Amsterdam: They really do all ride bikes

You know how you’ve heard that all Dutch people ride bikes to get around and that it’s no big deal for them, and you know how you were like “that’s absurd, bicycling is an innately fringe activity, a hard sell, nearly impossible to do in modern cities in the 21st century, and, above all, only really works for people who are young and beautiful and stupidly fearless, not the general population”?

Well, I can confirm that the Dutch do ride.  All of them.  Around the canals and magnificent crooked row houses and upon the cobblestones of Amsterdam, the birthplace of global capitalism, rolls the world’s greatest collection of everyday bicyclists.  Their bikes are simple and effective, their clothing is unremarkable, their heads are unhelmeted, their children are stuffed into bike boxes or perched on seats, and their city is, incredibly, designed to give them the greatest possible degree of priority on the road.

I rolled into this wonderland severely jetlagged and hungry.  I arrived at Schiphol Airport, slapped my bicycle together, and made for town.  I left the airport with a fellow from Spain who was touring back that way through Belgium and France.  Together we experienced, for the first time, the bicycle network of the Netherlands, which is perfect.  By perfect I mean that I can not see how it could be improved or made more complete.  At one point our bike path towards Amsterdam was blocked for constructions, and we were diverted… onto the freeway!  Which, of course, had been entirely shut down so that bikes could use it.  As we roared through a four lane freeway tunnel by our two-wheeled selves, we finally got it.  The Dutch are not kidding around when it comes to bikes.

Soon my Spanish friend’s GPS told him to go a different way than the signs were telling to to go, so we parted.  I could not for the life of me understand his name when he told me, but I still wish him well on his journey.

The secret sauce that makes the bike magic happen here in Amsterdam is the use of separated facilities.  Not this kind, but rather bicycle paths that run alongside every street, between the sidewalk and vehicle travel lanes, usually with a strip of planter or parking separating the bikes and cars.  In the bike planning nerd world, this facility is called a “cycle track.”  We have a handful to fawn over in the states, but in Amsterdam, they have them on most streets, going every direction.

As my tired self rode in that first day, I wheeled the cycle tracks at random, not even sure where I was staying.  I was simply exalting in the experience of the place.  It became clear that for once, everyone was paying as much attention to everyone else on the road as I always do as a vulnerable cyclist. You know how you always hear that cyclists can see and hear better than drivers and react more quickly?  Well, I think that’s probably true, but based on my experience in Amsterdam, American drivers just aren’t trying hard enough.  More importantly, the American road space is designed to relax and beguile American drivers, whereas Amsterdam is designed to slow Dutch drivers down and make them alert.  And they are.  They yield, they wait, they don’t get angry, they know to watch for you when they turn, all of it. It’s great.  I can honestly say that I feel safe around the cars and know that they are watching out for me.

The road just feels different.  It is full of activity, but it is completely calm.  There is no sense of a war zone, no sense of conflict and hatred when different users come close together.  People weave in and out, take opportunities to move forward, yield, brake, and do what they need to do to move through this city that has no stop signs.  When the separated facilities give way to traffic mixed on tight streets between canals, there is just a sense of respect and live-and-let-live, of people finding their way through without hating everyone else.  For those who have driven or bicycled in the USA, this will seem foreign and weird, and it is.  It is also great.

It is impossible to overstate the presence of bicycles on Amsterdam’s streets.  They are piled on every corner, around every tree, against every wall, racked, kickstanded (kickstood?).

I want to give you the experience of traveling through Amsterdam on a bike, and so I have attached a camera to my bicycle and taken some rides.  I’m making a video but it is not yet finished.  You’ll be the first to know, I promise.

Yes, there’s more than bikes here in Amsterdam.  I feel a little sorry for a city that is associated with drugs so completely.  Yes, there are little divey shops here where one can purchase marijuana to smoke.  There are classier shops where one can purchase psychadelics and more.  There is a sex trade.  These are parts of a whole that includes a bunch of stupendously beautiful canals (more than venice), and a completely unique kind of public space characterized by this incredible transportation system.  I can really only help you understand the last bit, and I will try my best to do it.  What a place.

Transportation in the US of A; Observing Eugene’s Intersections

Intersection observations were undertaken at two contrasting locations in Eugene, OR on a sunny June evening.  I counted pedestrians and bicyclists, and made general behavioral observations on all users.  The findings are below.

13th and Hilyard observation: 5 pm to 6 pm, Friday, June 17th

13th and Hilyard, looking North from Hilyard st.

One-way northbound Hilyard st. crosses one-way westbound 13th ave about five blocks from the University of Oregon campus and in front of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene.  At the intersection, Hilyard has three lanes of auto traffic and a bike lane on East side of the street.  13th goes from three auto lanes to one through the intersection, as the two lanes on the North side of the street turn left onto Hilyard towards Franklin avenue and the Ferry St. bridge over the Willamette river.  13th has a bike lane on the South side of the street that continues through the intersection.  On the East side of the intersection, bike traffic is two-way; a contraflow bike lane takes cyclists West to the intersection of 13th and Hilyard, but does not continue to the other side of Hilyard.  Both Hilyard and 13th have sidewalks that continue, with crosswalks, on both sides of the intersection.  The intersection is regulated by stoplights, which split right-of-way roughly evenly between traffic moving along 13th and Hilyard.

The silence of the intersection struck me during my hour of observation.  While a general humming roar of car engines filled the space, it was noticeably free of voices, laughter, and other human noise.  This was despite a constant stream of automobile, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic.  Seldom did any road user verbally acknowledge another.  Even pedestrians walking together or people driving with passengers did not appear to be conversing.

The signal lights served to direct all traffic.  Drivers and pedestrians were strictly observant of the signals, with the exception of a few drivers who took a free left-on-red onto Hilyard while pedestrians had the right-of-way in the crosswalk.  Drivers stopped at lights would, with noteworthy regularity, come to a full stop and then look down into their vehicle and/or touch their face.

Most bicyclists strictly obeyed traffic signals.  Both 13th and Hilyard were busy with automobile traffic during the observation period, and there were very few opportunities for bicyclists to cross against a red during “gaps” in oncoming traffic.  The few bicyclists who did cross in such a manner did not do so in a way that appeared to cause oncoming traffic to slow; these cyclists appeared to treat the stop light as a stop sign.

About a third of the bicyclists that passed through the intersection either came from or entered the sidewalk rather than a bike lane.  For bicyclists attempting to continue on from the Westbound contraflow bike lane on 13th, the sidewalk is the only option on the West side of Hilyard.  Others seemed to choose the sidewalk instead of an adjacent bike lane traveling in the same direction.  There seemed to be a desire to travel in both directions on both 13th avenue and Hilyard street, based on the observed use of the sidewalks by bicyclists.

Two of the three people on skateboards who passed through the intersection during the observation period did so in a way inconsistent with the design of the street and difficult to defend logically.  One, wearing headphones and carrying a full laundry basket, crossed Hilyard about fifteen yards from the light at 13th in front of oncoming traffic, causing a car to slam its brakes.  This individual proceeded onto 13th going Westbound in the Eastbound-only bicycle lane.  Another person on a skateboard passed through the intersection riding against traffic on Hilyard.

Pedestrians moved through the intersection cautiously, waiting for pedestrian signals and using sidewalks.  Two pedestrians during the hour conflicted with cars turning left onto Hilyard without yielding.  In one instance the pedestrian shouted criticisms and swearwords at the driver.

Pedestrian Count (includes skateboarders): 165

Bicyclist Count: 113

8th and Monroe observation, 6:15 pm to 7:15 pm, Friday, June 17th

8th and Monroe, looking North on Monroe St.

For contrast with the stop-lighted, one-way intersection observation above, I observed at 8th and Monroe, a four-way stop at an intersection of two way streets.  Both eighth and Monroe have sidewalks but no bike lanes, though 8th has a residential character and Monroe is a designated part of Eugene’s bicycle network, and has speed bumps to the South of this intersection.  A small strip commercial development with a parking lot sits on the Northwest corner of the intersection, there is a church on the Southwest, and businesses with small parking areas occupy the other two corners.

No users of any mode came to a full stop at the stop signs unless there was traffic through the intersection.  All users used the stop signs as yield signs, reducing their speed, checking for oncoming traffic, and proceeding through the intersection.  Bicyclists would apply their brakes, look both ways, and roll through the intersection.  Drivers would slow, roll through the sign, look left, roll into the immediate crossing lane, look right, and then accelerate through the intersection.  Pedestrians would look both ways some distance before the curb and then step off it looking straight ahead without wavering, unless a car rolled up to a stop next to them, in which case peds would often give “the glance,” the one that says you will NOT hit me with that vehicle, sir/madam.

There was noise and interaction at 8th and Monroe.  Pedestrians talked and joked with one another, and even with me as I stood and made my observations, which had not happened at 13th and Hilyard.  Bicyclists conversed.  There were observable nonverbal interactions between people, as glances and gestures helped regulate movement through the space.  Commonly, when one car would proceed through the intersection right after another one going the opposite direction, the second driver would watch the first car all the way through the intersection, even diverting their gaze from the road ahead to watch the other car pass.  People played our car stereos, asked for directions, etc.

In the parking lot across the street, a little girl in a pink dress cut like a sailor’s uniform went in circles on a pink bicycle, lit with late-day light.

Drivers seemed to accelerate as stress relief or to erase embarrassment.  Sometimes, when a bicycle turned in an unexpected way, drivers would hit the gas harder than they otherwise might have after the bicycle cleared the intersection.  At times when two cars arrived simultaneously and had a momentary indecision about who should go, the one that ended up going would hit the gas unusually hard.

One man who had run past me during my observation at 13th and Hilyard ran past me again at 8th and Monroe.  Another man passed me singing “this is a song that never ends…”

Pedestrians: 105

Bikes: 94

The Bicycle Pilgrimage

ABSTRACT: Ted will be doing a study abroad class about bicycling in amsterdam.  Bicycling in Amsterdam is better than bicycling in Eugene, or so Ted has always heard.  After the class, Ted will be riding his bike to Copenhagen, to really do the whole bike-advocate-Euro-pilgrimage thing to death.  He is extremely excited.

The whole American bicycling movement has a holy land.  Jeff Mapes calls the pilgrimage to Amsterdam “almost a religious affirmation” (Pedaling Revolution, 2009).  Such bated-breath statements of the greatness of the bicycle system in the Netherlands are quite common in the bike advocacy world.  The sermons tell of separated facilities, no need or want of helmets, inter-generational participation, and, most importantly, dominant mode shares.  Amsterdam is the Big Rock Candy Mountain of bicycle transportation people everywhere.

And good thing, too, because when I get the odd “get a car, faggott” tossed at me on the mean streets of America, it’s nice to think positive thoughts about the dream, the promise of Dutch bike infrastructure.

As luck would have it, I am about to visit the holy land.  A group of mostly University of Oregon and Portland State University students will be traveling to Amsterdam with Professorial escort to not only bask in the true holy light of, essentially, ostensibly, our dream transportation system, but also to bring back concrete observations on how that system might be established in America.

We will be cycling around the city, learning directly from transportation planners and government folk, and doing observation and analysis.  I will use this blog to document the experience, and I expect you all to pay rapt attention.

After the class, I will be riding my bike to Copenhagen.  My partner Katy and I will be following the North Sea Cycle Route, going through Groningen, Hamburg, and a host of other fine places as we wheel our way towards the other great object of bike-folk wonderment, Copenhagen.  From bike-mecca to bike-mecca by bike.  That’s how we roll.

This journey will be documented with words, pictures, and videos (how will I use my helmet cam if the dutch don’t wear helmets?) right here on this blog.