Welkom bij de Nederlandse

The first few days oriented the group to the geography of The Netherlands (especially around Delft) and exposed us to cycling in both urban and rural areas. We also gained some insight into the culture and lifestyle of Delft.

From AMS to Delft

Taking a 10-hour flight from PDX to AMS left me a bit tired, since 8:30 AM on arrival felt like bedtime (11:30 PM) to me and I had only managed to get maybe an hour of sleep on the plane, but our first day was a relatively full one. The three of us who had arrived on Friday at 8:30 AM took the train to Delft with the help of Prof. Bertini. The trains were clean and comfortable, and the ride was about 40 minutes from AMS to Deft central station.

Mandia, Todd, and I on the train from Schipol (AMS) to Delft

Mandia, Todd, and I on the train from Schipol (AMS) to Delft

 

We saw our first windmills and some of the Dutch countryside. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the bicycle parking at the train station, which easily exceeded anything I had ever seen in America. I’m sure the bicycle parking at the Amsterdam train stations exceed those in the smaller towns like Delft (population ~ 100k).

Cycling Tour with WSTLUR

After dropping our bags at the hostel, we picked up our bicycles from TU Delft. The bicycles came from Brick-Fit, which employs the handicapped to refurbish abandoned bikes. I picked the most American looking bike I could find from among the group, complete with flat top tube and flat handlebars. All the bikes use coaster brakes, which are common in the Netherlands, but I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with.

The tour was a great time, allowing us our first look at both the urban and rural cycling environments and infrastructure within The Netherlands around Delft. The route took us through quaint small towns around Delft and rural areas with fantastic views. A highlight of the trip was using a manual crank ferry to transport 22 people and bikes across a canal (see videos below).

Cycling Trip to The Hague (Den Haag)

After finally being able to sleep for a night (after ~30 hours of being awake) , we took a day trip through The Hague to a beach in Scheveningen. This beach town was sort of like many I’ve been to along the Jersey coast — built up with high-rise apartments and malls; though with a Dutch flair. And of course, it was comfortably accessible by bicycle, which unfortunately is not something New Jersey can boast. We laid out on the beach and reflected on our first few days abroad. One highlight along the way was the grass and tree covered tram-ways — which helped the light rail transit to blend into the surroundings much more.

High rises on the beach

High rises on the beach

Cycling Trip to Rotterdam and The Kinderdikj

On Sunday, we took what will likely be our longest ride on the trip (about 30 km each way). We rode from Delft through Rotterdam to the UNESCO World Heritage Site,  The Kinderdikj. The trip involved crossing the beautiful cable-stayed Erasmus Bridge and a short ferry ride across a large canal just past the Rotterdam port. Seeing The Kinderdikj was like stepping into a postcard: Dutch children played in the grass lined canals while windmills whirred peacefully in the background; bicycles hummed up and down the paths and ducks quacked in rhythm. It was definitely a lifetime experience I’ll always remember from this trip.

First-person view of my southbound crossing of the Erasmus Bridge

First-person view of my southbound crossing of the Erasmus Bridge

The group in front of a postcard

Netherlands vs. Mexico

To make the trip even more of a once in a lifetime experience, The Netherlands  and Mexico were playing in the first round of the World Cup (and won!) while we were in the country. While not transportation related, this experience did give us some insight to the Dutch culture as related to parties and public events. Hup Holland!

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Street party in Delft after Holland win

Cycling Tour of Inner Delft

The Northeastern University students arrived Monday morning, and we were given a tour of inner Delft. This gave everybody a chance to turn their wheels, as some students hadn’t biked in quite some time. We were rolling fairly quickly, and were introduced to some of Peter Furth’s favorite nearby sites, such as the east gate and a petting zoo for children. I’m looking forward to all the knowledge to take in from my teachers and my peers on this trip!

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Thoughts on In the City of Bikes, by Peter Jordan

I’m leaving for The Netherlands from Portland, OR tomorrow, and I just finished In the City of Bikesby Peter Jordan, yesterday. The story is part biography and part history, describing both Peter’s journey to Amsterdam and some of the past 10+ years he has spend there, as well as illuminating some of the finer points of Amsterdam’s (and The Netherlands as a whole) history of bicycle transportation. Peter spent time (biking) in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Portland before eventually moving to Amsterdam in 2002 for a one semester course in urban planning. As he says “11 years, 8 apartments, and 4 bikes later, I’m still here.”  (from Amsterdam Cycle Chic)

It’s wonderful to read about the experience of someone who spent their formative years in American cities and then later became enmeshed in the cycling culture of Amsterdam. Hearing the Dutch perspective on this is just not as profound, as cycling is such a normal part of their culture. There is no Dutch book on the specific history of cycling culture, as cycling is just one among many elements of their history. Peter’s book is a must read for Americans interested in cycling culture, as it represents the perspective of an observer.

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that bicycles played such a pivotal role in the German occupation of The Netherlands during World War II. Before World War II, there were more cyclists on Amsterdam’s streets than there are today. When the Nazis occupied The Netherlands from 1940 through 1945, the cycling culture in The Netherlands was severely damaged. Thousands of bicycles were seized by the Nazis for troop transport, and thousands more were destroyed by the Dutch resistance, who did not want the means of transport to fall into enemy hands. The nose-diving economy and the strict regulations imposed by the Germans also greatly decreased the bicycle traffic. Tires were extremely difficult to get ahold of, as the rubber being produced was being used for military efforts. Many people rode on wooden tires or naked rims.

When the German occupation ended in 1945, it took years to satisfy the pent up demand for functioning bicycles, and the bicycle traffic was never what it had been. As in America and other parts of the developed world, the automobile was taking over the streets as the post-WWII boom economy got up to speed. Not only was existing road space used for automobiles, so too were parks and buildings dismantled to make room for roads and parking lots. Automobile traffic exploded, as it had here.  In the 1970s, after policy makers finally realized that building more capacity for automobile movement and storage did little to improve congestion conditions, the 1973 oil crisis struck, and protesters castigated the environment polluting machines as child murderers, bicycle transportation began to make a comeback.

It was different, as it had to be in a completely different world. Bicycles could no longer ride safely in the middle of the road, as they were no longer the fastest vehicle in traffic. The Dutch became world renowned innovators in developing separated bicycle infrastructure that served bicycles safely, comfortably, and efficiently, and still allowed motor vehicle traffic to operate safely (though it was more heavily managed than before).

As enlightening as the history of the Dutch bicycle experience was, my favorite parts of the book were about Peter’s personal experience. Peter’s wife had come from America with him, and found a place as a bicycle mechanic, eventually running her own bicycle shop in Amsterdam. They had a son, who had ridden a bicycle before he was even born, in his mother’s womb. I loved hearing about how Peter’s son would ride with him through the city for hours; first in a child seat just in front of him, then in the cargo box of a bakfiets, and finally on his own bicycle. I hope to catch a few snaps of kids riding with their parents while I’m over there, as I think there is no better mark of a safe  and fun place to bicycle than when a parent can ride freely with their child.

The A-Word and the P-Word

When talking about how to make conditions better for cycling in American cities, many planners and engineers (and the interested public) often dismiss the environment in Amsterdam (or other cities in The Netherlands, Dennmark, etc.) as completely inapplicable to conditions here. There’s something inherent about the government, or the people, or the cities themselves that is just not reproducible here. A friend told me that at the MPO she used to work for, the A-Word (Amsterdam) and the P-Word (Portland, which even though it is American, is somehow outside the boundaries of transferability) were banned from discussion about bicycle planning. Cities are complex organisms, and certainly there are many forces at work (political, social, economic, environmental, topography, etc.) which make some cities more inherently “bikeable” than others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.  There are cities who have already tested these ideas on the ground and there are many things to learn (even if we can’t create an exact carbon copy). 

The Netherlands hasn’t always been a bicycle paradise, as I previously mentioned, and here is a great video for visualizing examples of the massive changes it has undergone. 

Portland has a nearly identical story to other major American cities up until about the same point in time as The Netherlands changed their tact (1970’s). Here’s a great summary of the factors involved in Portland deciding to be “weird”. 

Maybe it’s the rugged, individualistic, patriotic brand of pride that is so prevalent in the American zeitgeist that makes it tough to learn from the efforts of others. I’m no sociologist, but I think something that is unique to the American culture is part of it. Let’s not reinvent the wheel. It’s okay to learn from the successes (and failures) of other places.

Video Review: Cycling in the U.S. from a Dutch Perspective

 

Mark Wagenbuur is an experienced Dutch cyclist with a strong internet presence. He posts blog entries and videos about cycling culture and infrastructure around the world from a Dutch perspective. The video embedded above is a brief analysis of the American cycling experience. I’ll highlight a few of his main points.

Clothing

The clothes people wear for cycling is one of the most instantly visible differences between Dutch and American cyclists, as highlighted briefly in my previous post. A big part of this is that Dutch cyclists don’t generally consider themselves “cyclists” as we do in America. They are just people. Cycling is a normal way to travel, and so it is not so critical to establish a cyclist identity by wearing specific clothing. The Dutch just wear what they want to wear for their normal daily activities. For women, this can mean  skirts and high heels, and for men, this can mean full suits. Or just a t-shirt and jeans. Whatever is normally worn is fine for cycling.

I participated in “suit cycling” this past January when I was in Washington, DC for the Transportation Research Board annual meeting. Chain guards make a big difference, which are standard for Dutch bicycles.

DC Bike Photo

Me with a Capital Bike Share bike in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC in January 2014.

 

Traffic Stress

Traffic stress can make a huge difference in how and where one chooses to ride their bicycle. It can even effect whether you feel safe bringing vulnerable passengers along on your bike (see below). A woman would likely be ridiculed for transporting her child on a bicycle in most places in America (though I’ve seen it a number of times in Portland!) When traffic speeds are slow and volumes are low, bicycle transportation can be less of a race. Notice the lack of helmets in the picture below.

 

Infrastructure and Cycling Prevalence

My various statistics classes have made me cautious about inferring causality, but it can certainly be said that more bicycle infrastructure doesn’t lower the amount of cyclists on the road. Studies have shown that infrastructure investments and cycling mode share at the very least correlate, if not co-depend.

More cyclists can also help to make cyclists safer, as shown by research into the “Safety in Numbers” idea.

 

Thoughts on “Bicycle Infrastructure for Mass Cycling: A Transatlantic Comparison” by Peter Furth

Mass Cycling

Within Peter Furth’s chapter of City Cycling, he provides an overview of practice and perspectives related to bicycle infrastructure for mass cycling in American and European cities. Furth defines “mass cycling” as the prevalence of cyclists representing a reasonably broad majority an area’s population (often described elsewhere as the 8 to 80 population segment).

Cycling in America has long been the hallmark of middle-aged white males in cycling specific clothing (e.g. lycra, spandex, etc.) and is mostly utilized for recreation and exercise. Meanwhile, in The Netherlands, cycling is an everyday form of transportation for everyone from small children to pregnant women and the elderly. In cities with infrastructure for mass cycling, not only do more people cycle, but broader populations of people cycle. While the lycra folks may be satisfied with wide outside lanes as “bicycle accommodations”, a large majority of the population needs dedicated cycling infrastructure to feel safe and comfortable cycling.

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Seniors cycling casually in The Netherlands
Image Source: http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/elderly-people-on-a-cycle-tour/

 

Bicycle Infrastructure

I will briefly highlight the main categories of bicycle infrastructure, listed by level of traffic separation from greatest to least.

Standalone Paths

Standalone paths run on their own right-of-way and do not follow the alignment of a road for motor vehicles. They do often follow the alignment of existing or abandoned rail corridors, as these offer relatively flat and continuous stretches of land with minimal street crossings. Anecdotally, this is the type of bicycle infrastructure that nearly all cyclists are comfortable riding upon, and offers the highest level of traffic separation. They are often used for recreation, and are generally shared with other non-motorized users such as pedestrians or roller-bladers. However, in urban areas, they can be also see high levels of commuter traffic. I ride a standalone path in a rail corridor  (the Springwater Corridor Trail) along the Willamette River from the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland to Portland State University in downtown Portland nearly every day, as do many other commuters year round.

Spring-water-Corridor

Springwater Corridor Trail in Portland, OR
Image Source: http://sellikengroup.com/files/2010/10/Spring-water-Corridor.jpg

 

Separated Path

Separated paths are very similar to standalone paths except for the fact that they follow the alignment of a road. These are heavily used by recreational and utility riders as well, but offer slightly higher levels of traffic stress, especially since intersections with driveways offer greater potential for conflicts.

Protected Bike Lanes

Protected Bike Lanes are called “Cycle Tracks” by Furth and many others, but this term is a bit colloquial; “protected bike lanes” is the term preferred in most recent technical literature. While protected bike lanes come in many different flavors, the main qualification for a protected bike lane is that there is some physical separation between cyclists and traffic. This differentiated protected bike lanes from buffered bike lanes, which provide more space between cyclists and traffic but no physical barrier.

Mult_lane

Protected bicycle lane along Multnomah Blvd in Portland, OR. See planters and posts used for physical seperation. Car parking is also a common solution for physical protection.
Image Source: http://otrec.us/images/uploads/Mult_lane.jpg

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Buffered bike lane in Twin Cities
Image Source: http://streets.mn/2012/11/01/beyond-park-and-portland/

Bike Lanes

Bicycle lanes are used on many roads to separate bicycles from traffic using painted lines. These can be beneficial in helping cyclists to claim legitimate space on the roadway, and can often be implemented at low cost because  they are primarily constructed using paint (other elements include signage, signaling considerations, etc.). Bicycle lanes can range in width, with four feet being the standard minimum, and more offering greater comfort for cyclists. Most bike lanes greater than six feet are striped with buffer strips (see above), as large bike lanes can be misconstrued as parking or motor vehicle lanes. In some rural areas, paved shoulders of four feet or more can serve as stand-in bike lanes, as long as they are kept clean of debris.

Bike lane in Spokane, Washington   Image Source: http://media.spokesman.com/photos/2011/02/07/Howard_St._Bike_Lane_t470.jpg?84974f3f373deb0dda0f75a22ddd9b7d3a332b26

Bike lane in Spokane, Washington
Image Source: http://www.spokesman.com/tags/spokane/blogposts/

Shared Lanes and Bicycle Boulevards

There are many variants of shared lane treatments (where bicycles and motor vehicles share a single traffic lane) with differing levels of traffic stress inflicted upon the user. In Seattle, many “bicycle facilities” are simply sharrows painted on to arterial roadways, which should not be considered bicycle accommodation (apologies for singling out Seattle, this is where I have most recently experienced frustration with sharrows). Sharrows can be useful in legitimizing bicyclists, especially in cities where bicycling is only beginning to become prevalent, but only on roadways where the prevailing traffic speed is similar to that of a bicycle (15-20 mph).

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Example of sharrow on high traffic roadway
Image Source: http://www.cascade.org/sites/default/files/wp-content/Image-28_alt_sharrow_small.jpg

Sharrows are used as a small piece of the highly successful bicycle boulevards implemented in Portland, OR and other cities (primarily on the west coast). Bicycle boulevards use traffic calming strategies (speed humps, narrow cross sections, etc.) and traffic diverters to keep motor vehicle volumes and speeds low. The primary purpose of the sharrow in this environment is routing for bicyclists, so they may know what streets will best accommodate them on their trip.

sespokanewof13th-lkge-a-020510jpg-31ae5548b0be2d9f

Bicycle boulevard intersection of SE Spokane and 13th in Sellwood (Portland, OR)
Image Source: http://media.oregonlive.com/portland_impact/photo/sespokanewof13th-lkge-a-020510jpg-31ae5548b0be2d9f.jpg

In some cases, lane geometry is the only element manipulated to enhance comfort for bicyclists. This takes two different tacts: lane widening and lane narrowing. A wide outside lane can provide room for both a motor vehicle and a bicyclist to travel side by side, but wide outside lanes also encourage faster vehicle speeds. Narrower lanes require the bicycle to take the lane and discourage fast vehicle speeds, but may increase driver aggression and lead to unsafe passing maneuvers.  In general, more than lane geometry needs to be modified to provide safe and comfortable facilities for cyclists.

No Bicycle Accommodation

The last facility type is “none”, since cyclists can still legally ride on any road (except for most limited access freeways). In some cases, this is all that is available, and so cyclists may be found on this facility type. In the next section, the argument that “no facility” is the best facility will be examined, as it has had a profound effect on American bicycle facility design until recently.

Vehicular Cycling

A huge opponent of infrastructure for mass cycling in America has been the persistent ideology popularized by John Forester known as “Vehicular Cycling”. The basic idea of Vehicular Cycling is that cyclists are safest when they “act and are treated as drivers of vehicles”, and so it supposedly follows that separate bicycle infrastructure detracts from bicyclist safety. Forester’s ideology is not based on any credible empirical evidence (despite the impression that his 800+ page manifesto, Effective Cycling, may give) and is instead based on his anecdotal experience as a long-time bicycle commuter. Forester’s website (which looks to have been designed by someone adhering strictly to the philosophy of “Effective Web Design”) provides essays on various topics related to promoting Vehicular Cycling and serves as a point of contact for those who wish to become a part of the Vehicular Cycling movement.

Forester’s claims that separated bicycle infrastructure detracts from safety run counter to many studies of the success of separated infrastructure around the world (including here in America). Furth highlights several of these studies in his chapter, and many more have recently come out since.  Colleagues at PSU’s Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium have released a multi-year study on the success of six different protected bicycle facilities as part of the Green Lane Project. See the People For Bikes repository for further studies on the successes of separated infrastructure.

This is not to say that separated infrastructure is superior or even necessary in all cases. Design judgements must be made based on the compromise between facility functionality and safety. For example, on many residential streets, shared lane treatments such as bicycle boulevards may be the better choice. But to say that separated infrastructure is inherently unsafe ignores the massive success it has around the world. There are good designs and bad designs for separated infrastructure, and consequently design is where the conversation should be taking place. It should seem intuitive that separating small, slow vehicles without roll cages or crumple zones from motor vehicles is beneficial when there is a significant speed differential, but the idea that cyclists need no separated infrastructure was much easier (and cheaper) for policy makers to swallow. It seems the tide is turning.

Humour

As a relevant bonus, here is one of my favorite twitter parody accounts, Almost John Forester. The twitter regularly offers ironic and wonky jokes about bicycle culture and current events in the transportation field.

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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.