Portlanders find bike nirvana in Amsterdam
Thursday, December 01, 2005
By Jeff Mapes
AMSTERDAM -- Clearly, we are not in Portland.
The Amstel River shimmers in the background as people stream by a crowded outdoor cafe on a welcome sunny Sunday in late fall. A gray-haired couple casually peddle their bicycles along the cobblestoned street and easily turn left onto a busy boulevard that bridges the canal.
Another couple, with a toddler nestled on a small seat in front of the handlebars, glide by. A few moments later, a woman carefully balances a wrapped package of food flat in one hand as she steers her bike over the bridge with the other. A pair of teenage girls, one riding sidesaddle on the back rack of their bicycle, giggle at a shared joke.
With undisguised pleasure, Roger Geller, Portland's bicycle coordinator, watches the intricate street life of a city where bikes account for 40 percent of all trips, whether by car, bike or mass transit.
"You see people operate with extreme skill and confidence," he says about all that the Dutch have done -- from street design to driver education -- to create one of the world's finest cycling cities. "It's a complicated dance, and everybody knows the steps."
At first blush, Amsterdam seems as distant from Portland in miles -- 5,008 as the crow flies -- as in relevance. But among the activists, planners and politicians who want to turn Portland into Biketown USA, Amsterdam and just about any city in the Netherlands prove that a transportation system that takes the bicycle seriously can indeed work.
"You can create an environment," insists Geller, "where 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds can ride and feel comfortable and healthy."
Geller and several other bike advocates from Portland spent a week in the Netherlands last month in search of just that kind of inspiration -- and to fire up city Commissioner Sam Adams, who joined them for part of the trip. Adams heads the city's transportation department and says he wants to see a significant increase in bicycling's share of the traffic load.
Of course, the Dutch are different in some ways. They live in a flat, compact country of 16 million that's a sixth the size of Oregon. And cycling has been a big part of their culture for more than a century.
As a result, the Dutch reacted when rising car use clogged their cities in the 1960s and '70s and increasingly squeezed out bicyclists. They also realized how vulnerable they were to oil shortages (the 1973 Arab oil embargo targeted the United States and the Netherlands).
The Dutch began a determined effort to figure out how to safely move bicyclists through city streets. They wound up rethinking the purpose of a street. Their innovations include separate signal lights for bikes, and bikeways that often run between the sidewalks and parked cars. Imagine transplanting Sunriver Resort's system of bike trails to a bustling European city, and you have a glimpse of Amsterdam.
Through trial and error, the Dutch made it work. And Amsterdam stays remarkably quiet for a major city, thanks to an absence of traffic-choked streets.
That's why Geller and his colleagues stopped at the kind of intersections you wouldn't see in Portland to snap photos and study the traffic flow. Unlike many Amsterdam tourists, they gawked at actual red lights, not the red-light district.
Although Amsterdam is much more densely populated than Portland, the Portlanders think their ideas apply because nearly 40 percent of all trips in the United States are less than two miles -- an easy bicycling distance. And with the rapid growth of downtown condos, Portland's getting denser all the time.
Some of the Dutch experience has been replicated in Portland, which has one of the more extensive bike networks in the nation. For example, the blue bike lanes warning drivers to watch for bicyclists at complicated intersections were inspired by the colored bike lanes in the Netherlands. Portland also plans directional signs for bicyclists, like the ones on Amsterdam bike routes.
The Portland group came back from this latest trip with more ideas you may someday see in your local streetscape:
More bikeways to rail transit stations
Strategies for lowering traffic speeds and for converting low-traffic streets into major thoroughfares for bicyclists
More bicycle-only signal lights
Adams (who made a point of saying he didn't use taxpayers' money to travel to the Netherlands) even mused about someday closing the streets along the Park Blocks to cars after seeing the busy bicycle and pedestrian-only shopping streets in Amsterdam and Delft.
But Adams wasn't ready to talk about imitating the Dutch when it comes to making car travel downright unpalatable in the central city. In Amsterdam, street parking is about $3.50 an hour, and planners say they'd like to do even more to squeeze cars out of the middle of the city.
"If you go at it primarily by attacking the car, which is the sacred tool of mobility for most Portlanders, you're not going to get very far," Adams says. "It's not a question of browbeating single-occupancy drivers into submission. It's developing options that are better."
The bike advocates on the trip needled Adams about that and made it clear they think curbing car travel goes hand-in-hand with a better streetscape.
"What they've decided to do is use their public space -- including their streets -- in a different way," says Evan Manvel, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. "It isn't that they're necessarily out to get the car. It's that the car doesn't have the priority anymore. Would that be a shock to Portland? Yeah."
*** Amsterdam recently opened a three-story parking garage over a canal next to the central train station. Only this one is for bicycles -- as many as 2,500 of them. It shares one feature with an American shopping mall on a busy shopping day: The best way to secure a parking space is to find someone leaving and grab the spot.
While the garage may seem extravagant to American planners more accustomed to springing for little more than a row of racks, Amsterdam spends more than $23 million a year on bicycle projects -- and officials consider it a bargain.
"All things for bicycles are very cheap compared to cars or public transport," says Ria Hilhorst, Amsterdam's top bicycle planner. In total, she says, bicycle projects eat up 5 percent of the city's transportation spending while bikes account for 40 percent of trips -- up from 30 percent in 1990.
"It's fast," Hilhorst says of bicycling, "and you don't have to pay for parking, and you go door to door."
In large part, the city put the roadway on a diet.
Some four-lane boulevards were shrunk to two lanes, with a separated bike path on each side. Bicyclists now often have shortcuts. One path bisects a plaza filled with shops and restaurants -- including the Hard Rock Cafe -- and offers the quickest route between a busy arterial and a large park.
Sometimes, in space-challenged central Amsterdam, it is pedestrians who feel the squeeze. Sliced in half, sidewalks make room for bike lanes, and some pedestrian-only shopping streets -- common in Europe -- feature bikeways down the middle.
To a visitor, it can feel confusing. There are few stop signs. Instead, yield markings on the pavement let riders and motorists know who has the right of way. Unwary tourists often wander into bike lanes.
And, as in Portland, many bicyclists blow through red lights if they think they can do so safely.
Jack Wolters, a traffic safety expert for Amsterdam, shrugs when asked about the city's accident statistics.
"When the speeds are low, the consequences are not severe," he says, noting that the city had a 21 percent reduction in accidents from 1984 to 2001 as it built its bicycle network and reduced speeds. Nationally, traffic fatality and injury rates in the Netherlands are much lower than in the United States, whether for motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists.
Speeding is taken seriously. The country pushed 30 kilometer zones -- less than 19 mph -- in residential and central city areas. They think streets should be designed to make it uncomfortable to speed, and they don't regard speed bumps as a very elegant solution. Better, they say, to do such things as make streets narrower.
Becoming a driver is also harder. Dutch drivers can't get a license until they are 18, and they have to spend thousands of dollars for instruction. They're also assumed to be at fault if they collide with a pedestrian or bicyclist.
Willem Smoorenburg heads an 80-member traffic safety unit in the Utrecht region that has enough resources and high-tech gear to star in a CSI spinoff. For example, the unit is testing a vehicle that has spy cameras capable of instantly processing license plates to see whether a car is stolen or just hasn't had its regular safety equipment checks. Ironically, though, he dismisses attempts to force cyclists to obey traffic rules.
"You can't change that biker behavior," he says, adding that the Dutch focus their resources on motorists because they do the most damage.
Unruly bicyclists are not the only thing that the Dutch have in common with Americans. Their transportation planners also fret over an increase of jobs in the suburbs -- where many big multinationals locate -- and two-income couples who can't both be close to their jobs.
Roelof Wittink, executive director of Interface for Cycling Expertise, a group that exports bicycle planning expertise to cities around the world, says more children are being driven to school. For the first time, he says, the Dutch are starting to worry about obesity.
"It's much more an issue in the U.S. and the United Kingdom than it is here," he says. "But it is coming. . . . Forty percent of Dutch don't get enough exercise."
It's hard to believe when you're pedaling around Amsterdam. You have to look hard outside the tourist areas to find someone who is overweight. Lewis Guignard, a Charlotte, N.C., college student spending a few months in Amsterdam with his Dutch girlfriend, says he was surprised when he recently stepped on a scale.
"I lost eight pounds the first seven weeks here," he says, "just from biking around."
It's mid-November, and Geller is back in Portland, on his regular bicycle ride to work from his Irvington home. After two trips to the Netherlands -- his first was on a family vacation in 1999 -- he rides like a Dutchman. He wears his work clothes, keeps a relaxed pace and doesn't break a sweat.
On Southwest Broadway, he moves over from the bike lane across three lanes of heavy vehicle traffic and makes a left onto Madison. His movements are so deliberate, yet polite, that not a single motorist seems ruffled.
"The impression some people have is that the Dutch are this super-strong bicycle race," he says. "But it didn't just happen. They put the effort in to make attractive facilities. . . . They've made it easy for people to ride -- it's not because they are so much hardier than us."
Jeff Mapes: 503-221-8209; firstname.lastname@example.org