Tour ends in Copenhagen! Observations of this cycling city.

*for an update on how my face is healing from my crash last week, go to the end of this post.

After several short, wet, nasty riding days, our tour arrived, triumphant if frazzled, in Copenhagen.  Here’s our route: it’s not exact, but it’s close.

Gmaps puts it at 999km, and I’m okay with that.  It doesn’t reflect how much we got lost, so the total actual kilometerage is probably closer to 14 trillion.

We’ve been here in Copenhagen for four nights, and I can therefore offer you some Copenhagen cycling observations in no particular order:

*No bicycle wayfinding signs of ANY kind.  None.  No “Centrum” signs, no pointers towards “ideal” bike routes, no “Nørrebro, 2km ->,” nothing (that I have seen).

*Almost no bicycle parking.  This is the most striking difference from Amsterdam.  Copenhagen has a small number of racks that clutch the front wheel of the bike.  I have seen zero racks that accommodate locking the frame to the rack.  Most blocks are bike rack free.  Many of the supermarkets have no bike racks or bike parking places, and the same is true of the major cultural sites.  People warned us about theft here, and then elaborated saying that what we needed were the rear wheel locks.  That is genuinely all that is used here, even at night.  They talk about a bike theft problem but no precautions are taken beyond those rear wheel locks.

*Feels like a big, car-oriented city.  The roads are exceptionally wide and the auto-traffic is not impeded in the same way that it was in Amsterdam.  There is a greater sense of stress on the road; the zen of the dance is not present in Copenhagen.  But I still feel safe enough, much safer than the US. Cars expect bikes and do not cross a cycle-track without yielding.

*The bikes are different.  There are a good number of Dutch bikes around, mostly from Batavus and a Danish brand called Kildemoes.  But there are a lot more sporty, road, or flat-bar commuter bikes.  The upright riding position is much less common here.  Bikes are also less likely to have racks and even fenders.  And as I mentioned, the bikes aren’t locked.  This is an American bike thief’s dream.  I have seen so many full carbon mountain bikes locked just to themselves with the kind of cable lock you can get at Hiron’s for $4.95.  But rumors that “all the bikes are nice” are inaccurate.  They are nicer and newer and higher-tech as a set than the collected Amsterdam fleet, but there are still plenty of clunkers, spray-painted bikes, etc.  All that said, I strongly desire to import one of these.  The fixed gear aesthetic is a much bigger deal here than in Amsterdam.

*Helmets are common.  This was a relief to me, actually, because I’ve been wearing my helmet since my accident and I was concerned I would look out of place.  I don’t.  It’s certainly not a majority of people but it’s probably 10% of people.  There are bike racing-style helmets, skate-style urban helmets, etc.  A similar mix to what you see in Eugene.  Males wearing helmets seem to be among the faster riders on the road.  I have not observed the same with females.

*Sidewalks are very narrow.  I’m trying to make this a list of observations rather than judgements, but I am tempted to call Copenhagen a bad city for pedestrians.  Blocks are long, roads are frighteningly wide (four car lanes, a bus lane and wide cycle tracks on each side is a common configuration) and the sidewalks are narrow even before shops put out signs and chairs and tables; with those, the sidewalks barely accommodate two people walking next to each other.  Bikes ignore pedestrian striping but cars seem to be pretty good about observing it.

*The cycle tracks are great.  They are wide, they are on just about every street, they are orderly (people follow the rules and clearly signal their intentions), and they keep things flowing well.  I quickly got used to the two point left turn and I like it pretty well.  I like how consistent the bike network is in Copenhagen.  The cycletrack is uniform on every street.  It’s the same color, the same pavement type (asphalt-yessssss), starts and stops in a consistent fashion at intersections, and is signalized with clear, uniform lights.  Germany had a mishmash of different pavers, shared-sidewalk, sudden dumps into the road, etc.  Even Amsterdam would put you on cobblestoned canal streets or make you learn to figure out new turning arrangements.  It just feels more clear here in Copenhagen.

*Signals.  Just before they go green, both the red and yellow spots light up to let you know it’s about to turn.  People use that signal to mount and start that first slow pedal stroke, so that by the time the light is green they are proceeding through the intersection.  This system seems to keep traffic flowing really nicely.  I also appreciate that there are absolutely NO bicycle or pedestrian demand buttons at intersections.  Nowhere do you have to declare your intention to cross in order to get a signal.  All the signals are automatic.  This simplifies things and helps me feel like a legitimate user of the road, not one who is always requesting exceptions with the use of special buttons.  Finally, these signals are much easier to read than those in Amsterdam.  There are usually about five places you can look in the intersection to see your signal; every signal light lights up on all sides, so you can look across the intersection to see your signal, you can look next to you (like in amsterdam), and you can even look at the master signal hanging above the very middle of the intersection.  The bike right-of-way corresponds with the car right of way in all but a few very clear cases, and so you have plenty of assurance about what your status is.

That’s probably good for now.  On to the Face Update. This part is a bit disgusting, so don’t read it if you aren’t into scabs, etc.

My face is healing nicely after my nasty crash last week.  My wounds have completely scabbed over, and the scabs have chipped away to the point where I have a nice, neat goatee-shaped scab on my chin and a nice, neat Hitler-stache shaped scab on my upper lip.  In fact, I can see people mistake the scabs for facial hair when they look at me.  It’s all in their face.  At first glance they’re like “oh, my, what a pleasant and orderly goatee this fine young American is sporting, a tasteful soulpatch if ever I saw one.”  And then their eyes narrow and then widen a bit and then narrow again and they are clearly like “oh wait, oh… oh no, that’s… that’s flesh.  What on Earth… no, no..”  It’s a fun silent exchange to have.  I’ve taken to calling the scab my meatbeard.  It’s okay, you don’t have to like it. Katy calls me Pangaea-face, because the scab is breaking apart and flaking off just like that bygone Paleozoic supercontinent.

That’s it for now. We are trying to mail or bikes back to the USA and guess how much fun that process is? We will leave Copenhagen either today or tomorrow.

VERY SPECIAL THANKS to the good folks at Ben Ben Cykler for helping me out with advice and with bike boxes for us to get rid of these bikes.  They build beautiful custom rigid mountain bikes.


Tour Update #2: Face-Plants and Danish Ambulance Rides, or Don’t Read This Mom

WARNING: Blog post is pretty long and contains gory details of my bike crash yesterday.  You will be warned when they are coming on.  I recommend that you read them, though.  You can handle it.  And I know you’re curioussssss…

Katy and I have arrived in Denmark.  We cycled from Hamburg to Lübeck (which is quite beautiful) and the next day from Lübeck to Kiel.  Those two days of riding were absolutely gorgeous, a sunny roll through idyllic pastoral scenes of rolling hills, wheat fields, and flashes of lakes between trees.

Unfortunately, my rage at the incompetent German cycle wayfinding signs grew to a point where I missed some of the enjoyment of the rides.  I was busy composing letters in my head that I would send to the German Department of Pretending We’ve Got a Good Long DIstance Cycle Signage Network.  That’s unfair, but seriously, we continued to be pointed in the wrong direction repeatedly.  The signs stopped corresponding with my maps of German cycle routes (the expensive ones sold at all the Tourist Informations), so we basically winged it and got lost many times. I’m glad I have my compass.

We were headed to Kiel to catch the ferry we’d heard about from there to Denmark;  Upon arriving in Kiel, we learned that this ferry does not exist.  With a little more research online, we found that it ceased to exist eight years ago.  After grousing for a bit, we got on a train back to Lübeck and then another one out to Puttgarden, which does have a Ferry connection to Denmark.  Not only did we lose two days, but our arrival point in Denmark made it very inconvenient for us to access Aerø, the Danish island paradise that Rick Steves told us about.

We pedaled north from the creepily dead and uncharacteristically impoverished town of Rødby (our first night of camping in Denmark right off the Ferry, where Danish teens revved their motorbikes in the woods behind our tent, hooting and hollering such that I could only imagine a chainsaw-horror situation).  We had an absolutely gorgeous night of camping on Avnø fjord, where we shared some Danish camping shelters with two families of Danes. One of those families was on a bike tour from Copenhagen with their two tween and one toddler daughters.  The camping was free and right on the water, which meant an exceptional sunset view and a very large number of mosquitoes.

 WARNING Okay, here’s where it gets gory.  The next bit is not for the easily-nausiated.  Executive summary for those folks:  I’m totally fine, just a little scarier looking. Now for the insatiably curious…

Just as we entered the town of Naestved after leaving our wonderful camping spot, I suffered a pretty awful bicycle crash.  Here’s what happened: we were riding along the nice Danish cycle path when a strap that I had lashed down on top of my front rack got loose and found its way into my front wheel.  I heard a wrenching and popping, and the front of my bike stopped dead.  I realized immediately what had happened, and was just starting to curse myself for not attaching that friggen strap better as I was hurled forward and over the handlebars.

It was a face-plant.  I threw my hand out to halt the oncoming asphalt, but it was no use.  I landed, essentially, on my mouth, sliding a bit forward on my face like any good Wiley E. Coyote moment or video.

It pays to have a wonderful partner who acts like a pro under pressure.  Katy was right there with the towel and the deep-breathing recommendations.  For my part, I sat cross legged on the ground spitting out blood and wailing.  I could move my toes and I clearly hadn’t broken any bones, so I was mostly worried about my facial injuries and, yes, my poor teeth.  Ma and pa paid so much to have those teeth perfected (ma always wished she had had braces) so I was concerned that I had wrecked a good investment with a little bit of Danish cyclepath face-loofah.

Now I know I have complained about mixing cycletracks with sidewalks, but you know what’s great about that?  People are right there if you faceplant on your bike. One man was there immediately helping us, but he did not speak any English.  Then our savior for the day showed up.  This woman spoke perfect english, called the ambulance for us, arranged to have the first man take our bikes to his nearby home and hold onto them for the day, and gave us all the information to get back in touch with her and him.  Like any good American conscious of his light coin-pouch and the awful dollar-kroner conversion, I wondered whether the ambulance was necessary, but Katy, chillingly, assured me that it was.

The ambulance showed up, and for the first time in my life I was loaded inside.  The attendant helped me staunch the flow of blood from my face and gave me an icepack to take the swelling down.  I told him I was worried about my teeth and he took a look and said “the teeth look OK.  They went right through.  You have a hole.”  Well.  A hole.  Glorious. “Well, good,” I said sheepishly, trying to act cooool.

The ambulance ride was about thirty minutes.  The attendant told me this was because Denmark is having to cut costs and close hospitals, relying on fewer spread further apart.  The topic of cost broached, I asked him about what the ambulance ride would cost me.  “Cost? Ambulance service is free in Denmark. Sometimes people call just when they are lonely.”

Well, it was really happening.  I was getting my first free, high-quality European medical care.  We rolled into the emergency room and a doctor surmised that I had no significant neck injury and probably no concussion.  He told me that one or two stitches would close up the hole that my teeth had gouged in my lower lip, “but I can’t stitch the top.  The substance is gone.”  Well.  Substance gone.  Glorious.

A Danish med student stitched my lip, carefully and fully explaining all the mistakes she was making and the difficulties she was having in that charming Euro-English (“oh no, I touched the table and I must get new gloves…”).

I was outta there in an hour, folks. Katy asked about payment and, I shit you not, got laughed at.  However,  I have to get the stitches out in five days.  When I told the doctor and nurses that I would be in Copenhagen then (godwillin….) they argued a bit and warned me that I would probably have to wait eight hours or more in a  public hospital for something as trivial as stitch-removal, and that I should probably look for a private practice and cough up the kroner to have it done fast.  So I may yet get to see both sides of the socialized medicine coin.

Was I wearing a helmet?  Yes.  We’ve had them on most of the time since our frustrating ride to Hamburg last week.  I’m not sure how much the helmet helped me in this crash.  My teeth and lips took the fall, but looking at the helmet later, it was clear that the forehead part was crushed in.  It’s not cracked, but I think I would at least have more facial abrasion if not a banged-up brain if it weren’t for that funny hat.  Will this experience make me an insufferable helmet advocate?  I am not sure.  I will say that every time I’ve fallen off my bike, I’ve been awfully glad to have one on.

The bandages are not flattering.  I look like a cross between a nutcracker and a bird with my awkward bandaid-beak.  While all the talk of holes and lost substance makes it sound pretty awful, as does Katy’s analysis that it looks like I got “cheesegrated,”  these wounds are going to heal up fine.  The hole is closed and already looks much better, and the upper lip gouge will probably just leave a badass facial scar.  My freaky mug has already terrified and enthralled many a Danish child on the street and in our hostel. While my front teeth initially had that loose, punched-in-the-face feeling, they have steadied and are really just fine minus some very small chips at the edge, incredible given that they broke my fall.


Here’s the silver lining of the whole situation: that woman who helped us out initially continued to completely save our asses.  When we got back to Naestved, she was at the station to pick us up.  She took us to the hostel and expedited our booking a room there, as she knew the hostess.  She took us to her home, where she had a glorious chicken dinner prepared.  We ate on her beautiful enclosed back porch with her husband, who had built the house himself and who barely spoke a word of English.  His wife brought out a big container of Heinz Ketchup and asked “all Americans need Ketchup, correct?”  I worked like a champ to politely shove chicken bits through my bandage hole.  After the meal,  she and her husband hitched up their trailer to their little Peugeot and we drove over to get our bikes from the man who had stored them.  After that they took us to the hostel.  Imagining the logistics of doing all of this without her help is scarier to me than another face-plant.  We are totally humbled by her kindness and generosity.

So, what does all of this mean for our bicycle tour (we had planned to arrive in Copenhagen today, Friday, before the fall) and our lengthy Euro-trip thereafter?  Very little.  We are taking a rest-day in Naestved, in this hostel that used to be a convent.  It is just as well, because it is pouring rain and we haven’t done laundry in about twelve days.  We will otherwise continue on as before, though I may do a few more Phantom of the Opera street performances than originally planned in order to make some dough.  Europe, especially Scandinavia, is quite a spendy place. My bike’s front fork is toasted, but I should be able to find one easily here in town.

Stay tuned for news of our triumphant ride, at last, into Copenhagen.  Good health to all those reading, and please, keep the fucking rubber side down.

Bike Tour Update #1: Problems with the German Cycle Network or The Ungrateful Bastard

Some thoughts about bicycling from my tour so far (this was written when we were in Hamburg last Sunday):

*Netherlands outside of Amsterdam: not as bike friendly as I was lead to believe.  In Hoorn and Harlingen, for example, we were very hard pressed to find the bike routes through town.  Harlingen seemed to have a few token bits of separated path through it’s center, but mostly shared roads that felt awfully car-oriented.  Still, people rode there.  Children alone, mothers with children, all of it.  But they weren’t there in the same numbers.  In Hoorn we got badly lost because the bikeway atop the dijk was closed. “turn around and follow the detour signs” was the instruction, and those detour signs were difficult to locate.  I learned later from one of my hosts that the dijk path in Hoorn had been closed for three years. A far cry from my experience cycling into Amsterdam from Schiphol, where a whole side of the freeway had been given over to bikes because the bike-specific tunnel was undergoing maintenance.  All that said, my second visit to Groningen left me much more pleased with the bicycling experience.  The core is very well served by bike lanes and bike streets fanning outwards.
*Saw a moped critical mass in Groningen.  Thirty mopeds, taking over the paths, riding slow, bleeting their awful little horns.  Among the worst things I have ever seen.  To be fair, I don’t think it was actually a politically motivated group, but the association was clear in my mind.
*”Bike touring” is relative and my trip is no big deal: Sure, Katy and I entertained the notion that just maybe we were sorta hot shit for riding our bikes from Amsterdam to Copenhagen.  Then, our very first night, we stayed with a family through warmshowers who had cycled from Amsterdam to Bangkok.  Our first night in Germany we stayed with a couple who had cycled for two years in South America and Central America.  Sheesh.  It is serious business.  We are now incredibly humble to the point of apologizing about our little pedal through the three most bike friendly countries in the world.  Except that…
*Northern Germany; bit of a let down cycling-wise.  The German cycling infrastructure is simple.  They turn part of the sidewalk a different color by using a different paver or different colored brick, and bikes are to travel along that path.  Intersections feature a variety of treatments; at least, they have a striped crossing slightly distinct from, and next to, the ped crossing.  Sometimes they are red thermoplastic.  Sometimes the red thermoplastic has a bike symbol.  The crossing lights sometimes have a bike underneath the ped symbol, probably about 50% of the time on bike routes I’ve been on in Hamburg, Oldenburg, and smaller towns I’ve passed through on the way.
*Dutch pastries and German beer are extremely agreeable, and good fuel for bicycle-operatin’.
*I mentioned hosts and warmshowers above.  We have received great hospitality so far on our ride, with people graciously having us into their homes, preparing delicious meals for us, giving us rooms to sleep in, staying up with us and feeding us beer and conversation until late, and having breakfast ready for us in the morning.  It has changed my understanding of hospitality and I am very grateful. Having the bike-tourist thing in common with folks is a great way to overcome the barriers of stranger-ness.
*Long distance bike wayfinding: awesome, until it’s not.  Both the Netherlands and Germany have very complete and commendable bike signage networks, including major long distance routes denoted by special signs and symbols in addition to the signs indicating the bike direction to the next town.  In the Netherlands, we occasionally lost the “LF” routes we were trying to following, usually in towns.  We suffered minor inconvenience locating them again.  In Germany, we followed the HH/HB from Bremen to Hamburg.  It’s a great, beautiful route and the signs are great… except for when they inexplicably became impossible to follow, contradictory, and then non-existent.  We got turned around, routed right onto freeway off-ramps, and pointed in bizarre directions several times.  I’m grousing, obviously, but I think the point is that it’s essential that long distance routes are done right.
*Reasons I’ve heard that the Dutch like to ride bikes: I’ve been asking everyone (finally getting my class interviews done, hey hey).  First reason given is always that the Netherlands are flat.  Second reason tends to be something about the practicality of cycling (it’s the fastest).  Third reason tends to be the observation that it’s very inconvenient to drive, especially if you also want to stop and park.  Fourth reason usually has to do with the Dutch cultural mindset (my favorite: my host in Groningen told me that the Dutch are stingy, and they will always save a euro or two by cycling, or having their children cycle rather than putting them on public transit.  I’ve also heard it attributed to the flat social hierarchy, the fact that everyone learned as a kid, and one curious observation that, according to the person who shared it with me is a common statement about the Dutch; they are a culture of “6”s, referring to mediocre-but-passing scores (6/10) on schoolwork and exams.  It is meant to imply that the Dutch are not strivers, and are happy to settle for “adequate”).
*Great things I’ve seen:  I was very impressed by the Afsluitdijk, the view from Groningen’s Martinitoren, Bremen’s main square as well as the Böttcherstraße (proof that we can choose to make all of our public space exceptional and unique if we want, no ifs ands or buts), and by the World Triathlon Championships we got to watch today in Hamburg.  Australia took it in a sprint finish.
*Got stung by a bee… in the armpit. Little jerk got through my jacket and my shirt.
*Finally put my helmet on on day 9 of the tour, when the HH/HB to Hamburg took us over some rough cobblestone descents and single track in the rain.  Felt bad about, it was starting to become a whole thing and I was imagining being able to say “yup, carried my helmet with me through three countries and never felt like I needed to put it on.”  Alas, Germany wouldn’t let me get away with it.  The harrowing last few kms into Hamburg would have made the difference if the cobblestones had not.

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.

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