Bringing it all back home
September 03, 2010
During a period of unprecedented momentum for urban bicycling in the U.S., the Bikes Belong Foundation is leading a fact-finding trip to the Netherlands to bring home European transportation best practices. Eleven city leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area will spend a week in four Dutch cities between August 29 and September 4. This trip is part of Bikes Belong's Bicycling Design Best Practices Project.
Transportation writer and editor Jay Walljasper is accompanying the delegation on the trip to the Netherlands to chronicle the events, observations, and inspirations gained by the tour. The BIkes Belong newsfeed will feature his blog posts this week.
After five days of biking around Dutch cities, the Bay Area delegation was fired up about the potential of bicycling to improve life in American cities. On our last day, after a lengthy jaunt through Amsterdam—covering medieval and modern neighborhoods, rich and poor ones, all full of bikers—we dismounted for one last discussion at an outdoor café overlooking the waterfront. The next day most of us would be headed back to our homes and jobs and cars in the U.S., where most people would dismiss the idea of bikes making up a quarter percent of urban traffic as “science fiction.”
One question popping up all over the group was how we reconcile our amazing experience of biking in the Netherlands with the auto-choked streets of San Francisco, San Jose, and Marin County. But as Hillie Talens of C.R.O.W. (a transportation organization focusing on infrastructure and public space) reminded us, it took the Dutch 35 years to construct the ambitious bicycle system we were now enjoying. In the mid-1970s biking was at a low point in the country and declining fast. Even Amsterdam turned to an American for a plan to rip an expressway through its beautiful central city. But the oil crises of that time convinced the country that they needed to lessen their dependence on imported oil.
The Dutch gradually turned things around by embracing a different vision for their cities. While the country’s wealth, population and levels of car ownership have continued to grow through the decades, the share of trips made by cars has not. We could accomplish something similar in the United States, by enacting new plans to make urban cycling safer, easier and more convenient.
Following the Dutch model will make biking mainstream in America. The morning and evening rush hour of cyclists you see on the streets in the Netherlands are not all the young, white, male ultrafit athletes in spandex we are accustomed to seeing in the U.S.—people of all ages and income levels use bikes for everyday transportation, with women biking more than men.
Of course, we won’t do everything the same as the Dutch— there are considerable differences between the two countries geographically, politically, and culturally. This was reflected in the questions our team posed to the numerous transportation experts we met during the week. Where did you find the money to do that? How did you overcome the opposition of motorists, merchants, developers, etc.?
And, inevitably, American ingenuity will envision solutions the Dutch, the Danish, the Germans, or the Chinese never thought of.
But the Netherlands does offer plenty of practical ideas to get started, as well as the inspiration of seeing a place where bikes have gained their rightful role as a form of transportation. Sitting in the sunshine with a chilly breeze blowing off the harbor (this was the first day we were not rained upon at least once while biking—one advantage most American cities have over Dutch ones), each member of the group shared thoughts of what they’d learned. Here is a selection of the comments:
David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (city council):
“It’s one thing to read statistics about the Dutch biking at ten times the rate we do in the U.S. It’s another thing to see it happening; not just for hard-core bicyclists but as an everyday way of life for the majority of citizens."
“There is actually a road map of do-able public policies we can adopt to get us where the Dutch are today.”
Sam Liccardo, San Jose City Council:
“We can start by identifying a few corridors that serve many workplaces and have a high transit-dependent population and build them out with bicycle infrastructure."
“We can brand biking as cool, make it hip—and get the bicycling community coming out to meetings to support these improvements.”
Shiloh Ballard, vice-president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (a business and civic organization):
“What we can immediately take back home is their general planning for bikes; for instance, all the visual clues that tell motorists to look for bicycles.”
Ricardo Olea, chief traffic engineer, city of San Francisco:
“I understand better all the passion people have about biking—people who want to see a bike system like the Netherlands in their lifetime.”
Manuel Pineda, deputy director for the San Jose Department of Transportation:
“I realized that politics is the same everywhere you go; they faced some of the same issues here that we do."
“We can concentrate on two or three corridors that can be a showcase that gets people excited, to get thing going, to show what’s possible.”
Ed Reiskin, director of public works, City of San Francisco
“They don’t just think about bikes, every presentation we heard tied things together—public transit, parking, cars, streets. The Dutch sense that people are going to do what’s easiest. If we think about how to improve the quality of biking, more people will bike.”
Bridget Smith, director of Livable Streets Program, city of San Francisco:
I see what can be accomplished with a vision. All I’ve learned here will infuse my work for a long time.”
Damon Connolly, vice-mayor of San Rafael:
“What I will be thinking about when I get home is how closely related land use planning is to transportation planning—they are almost the same thing.”
Bob Ravasio, city council member in Corte Madera:
“The low-hanging fruit is getting people start with short trips—to the store, not commuting all the way from Marin County to San Francisco.“
Bill Gamlen, senior rail engineer, Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit:
“We need to build the infrastructure, get quality bike routes going like the Star Routes in Rotterdam.”
Ian Dewar, advocacy manager for Specialized Bicycles, based in San Jose:
“I was really, really surprised by the low number of bike accidents they have here. The education they do really pays off.”
Zach Vanderkooy, program coordinator for Bikes Belong:
“The Dutch are not somehow exceptional people when it comes to biking. Everything we see here is the result of a deliberate decision to improve biking here. Even little things, like paint on the street, adds up.”
Kate Scheider, research analyst and communications coordinator for Bikes Belong:
“I see the importance of more investment in research and data on bicycling at the national level.”
Bruno Maier, vice-president of Bikes Belong:
“Imagine if all the bikes we saw in the Netherlands were single-occupancy vehicles. It would not be the same place.”
Photo by Amsterdamize under a Creative Commons license