Why The Netherlands?

Hello, fellow traveler!

This blog will serve as an online repository for thoughts, photos, writings, and course materials related to my trip to The Netherlands as part of a study abroad course with Portland State University.

About Me

My name is Bryan Blanc and I have just finished my first year of graduate school in the M.S. in Transportation Engineering program at Portland State University (Portland, OR). I’m originally from Connecticut and came into graduate school just after finishing my undergraduate schooling (B.S. in Civil Engineering) at the University of Connecticut (Storrs Mansfield, CT). While at UConn, I worked as an engineering intern for the Town of Mansfield for two years, and worked on-and-off on research related to urban parking economics and land consumption under Dr. Norman Garrick, Dr. Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Dr. Christopher McCahill. I always knew I wanted to work with the built environment (hence my choice to pursue civil engineering), but these two extracurricular experiences inspired me to specifically pursue transportation within the broad field of civil engineering.

In addition to my graduate coursework, I currently work as a research assistant under Dr. Miguel Figliozzi. My research focuses on assessing the compatibility of bicyclists and infrastructure in Oregon using smartphone applications. I plan to obtain a full-time position as a transportation engineer next summer, with hopes to stick around in Portland!

Outside of academics, I enjoy reading (especially anything related to A Song of Ice and Fire), playing the guitar, exploring on my bicycle, and sampling the many micro-breweries and beer festivals Portland has to offer.

Trip Purpose

Yes, that is supposed to be a transportation wonk pun.

You may be wondering why I’m going on this trip to The Netherlands (beyond just the desire to see/experience a foreign country). I’m interested in The Netherlands in particular because of the country’s unique experience with bicycle transportation. In general, The Netherlands has many feats of civil  and transportation engineering to learn from. To name one: 20% of the Netherlands is below sea level, and 50% is less than one meter above sea level!  Dutch engineers are world-renowned for the technical skills needed to safely reclaim land and control flooding. Though I’m not an advocate for building these sorts of developments, Dutch engineers were some of the star players in the iconic construction of The Palms in Dubai .

But make no mistake, I’m going there for the bikes! Cities in the Netherlands have some of the highest bicycle mode shares in the world; and that didn’t happen by chance. Deliberate steps were taken in policy and infrastructure that contributed to safe, comfortable, and convenient bicycle transportation for all citizens.

After World War II, The Netherlands had initially begun to follow America’s lead in retrofitting (which is putting it lightly) cities that had been designed before the automobile had been conceived of. Buildings were torn down to make room for wider roads and parking facilities. Bicycle infrastructure already in place was removed in favor of serving the growing demand for automobile travel.

But this accommodation of automobile travel had unintended consequences. Deaths due to automobile crashes were rising rapidly. Walking and biking were becoming considerably less safe, and the deaths of many child pedestrians and bicyclists motivated protests of the expanding automobile infrastructure. The oil crisis of 1973 served as the catalyst for changing transportation priorities. Transportation alternatives that lessened dependence on foreign oil and improved quality of life were given emphasis over providing for the automobile.

Annual Traffic Deaths in the Netherlands between 1950 and 2010. Source: http://bicycledutch.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/traffic-deaths-nl-1950-2010.jpg

All this isn’t to say that the Dutch don’t drive. They do. They just don’t depend on it like we do in America. I plan to learn more about the history of cycling in The Netherlands, and what specific policy measures were taken to change their transportation funding and design priorities. I also aim to study the innovative designs of bicycle infrastructure in their cities and countryside. I count myself lucky to live in one of the most bicycle friendly cities in America (Portland, OR), but we still have a lot to learn about policy and infrastructure supporting bikeable communities. I’m hoping to bring some of that knowledge and experience home with me, so that I may be a part of improving the bikeability of American communities.

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