Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More Random Thoughts & Images

I've made it back to Eugene and went out on a ride with the family to Art in the Vineyard on a beautiful summer day.  The bike valet parking was well used and the experience was nice.  It was a bit strange not to have a constant stream of people on bikes all around me though.  And ringing my bell didn't seem to alter anyone's behavior in front of me; I got used to the Netherlands where ringing the bell is frequently used to ask someone to move over to the right so you can pass or just communicate you are coming up from behind so be aware.  It was never rude to use the bell and it was amazing how quickly one gets conditioned to hearing the bell and acting appropriately.  Several people yesterday did pass me and say "on your left", which was fine, but I now prefer a quick flick of the bell.

I am going to try to retain the Amsterdam experience as long as I can, but know it will be hard just because my environment has changed so much.  So sharing the following images and reflections will also help me remain in that space a bit longer. 

Pictures only capture some of the experience; videos may give a slightly better feel. Here is a short clip walking down one of the streets.  This is a typical "big" street layout - sidewalk, then indented bike path, then on-street car parking, then car travel lane, and perhaps a light rail (tram).

In constantly asking ourselves "how do we get some of Amsterdam to the US?", we were amazed at how many small things were being done there, and that how those small things could be effective just because there existed a large base of people on bikes (not cyclists, but people on bikes).  One of those small things is the inclusion of a small gutter on stairs to allow people to easily get their bikes up and down.  Have a look:

That's it for this entry.  More to come.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Amsterdam Trip - Mostly More Bike Parking Edition

I'm now in the Portland airport waiting for a flight back to Eugene and have multiple days to report on in Amsterdam.  The last 4 days have been so packed, there has been little time to write.  In addition, I have moved on to reflecting more than reporting, although I'll try to do a bit of both below and/or in another post given there is so much to say.  (Linked at the bottom of the page are blogs from students that have some incredible insights and images and perspectives.)

First a few general things:
  1. The students on the trip were (are) incredible.  They were together a very filled eight days, often starting at 7:30am and ending around 2am that evening (I would leave them around 11:30pm when dinner finished).  They were engaging, responsible, funny, inclusive, committed, and just great.  In our 13 students, I think five different disciplines were present and the discussions were awesome.  They are all posing on the Amsterdam sculpture in the picture above.
  2. We all agreed that it makes no sense to begin a conversation in the US by saying "In the Netherlands...", yet we all deeply felt that people in the Netherlands seem to have gotten it right.  We visited a variety of places that each had their own approaches, but overall we all felt it would be hard to argue with organizing urban spaces to be so easy and logical for all people to move around by bike.
  3. I was asked what the bike culture was like in Amsterdam.  I didn't see one.  I just saw people biking - men in business suits, women in nice dresses, students, tourists, and everything in between.  No gear, no helmets, no fancy bikes.  Separate bike paths for the most part.  No stop signs.  And very little anger.  People need to share space in a city and it seemed to all flow well.  Yes, no stop signs.  Thing about doing that on all neighborhood streets where you live - what do you think would actually happen if all the stop signs were removed?  Chaos with collisions or organized chaos without?  We've observed that human beings seem to have a desire not to want to crash into things, so removing stop signs seems to actually improve the flow of everybody (bikes, pedestrians, and vehicles!).
  4. In each city we visited, we were greeted and showed around by a traffic engineer.  It was difficult for me to imagine the same being done in any US city, where our traffic engineers have received no training on bicycle transportation and have very little personal experience with it.  For some reason, we have declared the car to be the default mode of transportation and the one we train our professionals on, and any other mode of transportation is a deviation from the norm.  I'm curious where the document that dictates this universal training is that says transportation = cars.
 Here is just one area of bike parking at the central train station in Amsterdam.  An earlier blog post showed the three level structure from the other side, but here it is along with all the additional parking around the structure.  Amsterdam is building a new 10,000 bike parking facility at its train station, which the City of Utrecht laughs at because they are building one for 20,000.
Staying on parking - the picture above is something to consider for any community or city.  This image is of a combined car parking and bike parking structure.  The bike parking occupies about 3/4 of a level (basement level) and car parking occupies the three levels above.  They hold roughly the same number of "vehicles".  The cost to park three levels of cars is tremendous compared to the cost to park the same number of bikes.  And given that the average US car occupancy (for work trips) is 1.05 people per vehicle, then it is fair to say that car drivers require at least three times the space to house their vehicles compared to bikes.  (This is actually a conservative number as one on-street car parking space can be converted to 8 bike parking spaces.  One customer or eight? )

Keeping on the bike parking theme, here is another facility - in Houten - that was just completed directly under the train station.  Completely filled with bikes, legitimate space treating people on bikes as real, legitimate people.  Nicely modeled by Rithy.

There is talk about the EMU (student union) on campus at the University of Oregon is going to be completely re-done and may include a car park in the center of campus.  What if it did two things: 1) provided this type of bicycle parking integrated into it (10,000 spaces?); and 2) eliminated all other campus car parking so that we no longer stored metal boxes for hours on end on the most important and valuable campus land?

The reality of most bike parking we saw, though, looked like the picture to the right. Bikes parked near stores, or apartments, or offices, or wherever people were going, not tethered to anything but chained to itself, giving users door to door access by bike.  Some may think it looks junky, but I found it to be beautiful to see so many bikes being used and parked.  I found it much more beautiful than surface lots full of parked cars impeding on an urban fabric that requires life and places close together.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Amsterdam - Day 5 (?)

Today was another great day.  We started the day off with a two hour lecture and engaging discussion on transportation decision making norms in the United States so that we can begin to understand the information we'll be receiving from local officials as the work week begins.

We then stopped at a market for picnic supplies to take on our first length ride outside the city to see what bicycle infrastructure in more rural areas is like.  The short answer - it's incredible and just as robust as in the Amsterdam itself.  We left Amsterdam by bike along a canal and just kept going along that canal until we hit the next town about 15km away or so.  To the right is the group - still smiling - half way on our way to Ouderkerk to take in a windmill.

The rural roads are design in a pretty cool way to accommodate multiple types of users.  Basically, there is a center car lane that is two-way and a bike lane in each direction on the side.  The middle lane is not wide enough to allow cars to pass one another without utilizing some space in the bike lane.  Cyclists have the right of way, so if there are cyclists present in a bike lane cars cannot merge over at all.  If no bike is present, then cars can move over to pass one another.  If cyclists are present on both sides and two cars come at each other, the cars will slow down until one can merge over when a gap of cyclists appears.  In the extremely rare event that there are cyclists on both sides for a long time while two cars approach each other, those cars will come to a complete stop until one of the vehicles can merge into a clear bike lane for the temporary passing.

The great thing about this system is that there is almost never a need for this last situation to appear - it is a rural area with few vehicles and always space and gaps between cyclists.  Cars do frequently slow down and scan the distance to see if and how to pass another vehicle and it works itself out.  Cars definitely yield to cyclists and do not really do anything intimidating.  Biking in that environment never felt uncomfortable or threatening; in fact it felt the opposite - thrilling, joyful, safe, and comfortable.  The movie above shows a bit how it works.

More kids cycling.  And smiling.

A woman biking with her dog up front.

 We then made it to our destination, found a canal, and pulled out quite the picnic spread and just rested, ate, talked and watched families coming and going by boat in the canal.  Here is Chloe hydrating and having a good time.  It was a picture perfect location, with one student saying it looked just like a movie set.  of course, it was the real thing.
Here is KK taking a break to document the place via watercolor.  All students are keeping a journal of their experiences as part of the course assignment, although students are free to choose the method of their documentation.  The graphically talented are choosing visual ways, like sketching and water coloring to capture their experiences.

This is a great group of students in many ways, but one of them is that they are just interested in lots of things. So when the two architecture students said they wanted to visit some famous architectural site, many others decided to go along and learn a little about how architects see the world and view their craft.  We ended up visiting two places.  The site in the picture below is an adaptive re-use project that I couldn't quite wrap my head around its uniqueness and why it is known.  I am really trying to understand what makes architects tick, but it is still a process and can't quite get as enthusiastic about small design details on buildings.  I'll keep trying.
 The picture below is from the roof of NEMO, a hands-on science museum in the form of a sunken ship.  The top of the building is this fantastic public space with a fantastic view of the city, plus it is populated with oversize game pieces to play - chess, Connect Four, Dominoes.  We had not planned to be here, but it too was designed by a famous architect, and while I still couldn't get excited about small things, we all enjoyed this fantastic, rooftop public space.  It was a great place to take a rest after a long ride and day in the sun. 
And rumor has it that a frisbee is making its way out and will be accompanying some students to an adjacent park for an evening toss (it's 8:30pm and couldn't be lighter outside).  It's been a great day - lots of learning, experience by doing, and developing some great relationships.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Amsterdam - Day 3 & 4

 All the students arrived, stayed awake all day (most flights arrive here between 8-9am), and gathered for a group dinner to launch the academic program.  It's a great group of students from a variety of disciplines (planning, architecture, sociology, environmental studies, law), good natured, and already very friendly toward each other.  All students received bikes  and we collectively ventured out around town as a group.  While biking here will take some getting used to by everyone, one thing that was common for everyone on their first ride was a giant smile.  It's just so much fun to ride around this city with so many other people.

There are no stop signs in Amsterdam and not too many traffic lights.  So every non-signalized intersection is more or less a four-way yield.  In most cases there is somewhat of a priority direction, but in reality most intersections are just treated as a yield for everyone, meaning most people roll through intersections from every direction.  This includes bikes, cars, and pedestrians.  It looks a little chaotic - especially to our very regulated environments in the U.S. - but the group is preferring to characterize things as a dance.  There is a transportation dance that happens when anyone can go anywhere when it is clear to do so, and not surprisingly, people don't tend to crash into each other.  It's kind of like a dance floor that may be crowded with people moving in all directions, but rarely do people actually bump into one another.  The video above is a short demo of this dance.

 I think this is a cool picture - very colorful and captures the intensity of bikes.   We couldn't figure out, though, how one would actually get their bike out, since they are all leaning on each other.  Another mystery to answer.  Luckily we got an answer to "how does one find their bike?" (see previous blog entry).  Bikes are locked in a variety of ways.  All bikes have a rear tire locking mechanism where there is a clamp permanently attached to the bike with a key permanently inserted while it is unlocked.  For short-term visits to shops or at the park, you just stop your bike seemingly anywhere (against a building, along the sidewalk (but not blocking where people would walk), near a tree, or similar open space), quickly turn the key and engage the clamp and go on your way.  For these daytime trips, few people tether their bikes to anything permanent.

It's quite liberating to not deal with a helmet (very little helmet use, but much better safety statistics) or a lock, and to have a step through frame that is easy to get on and off the bike.

For overnight locking, most people have a heavy chain that they tether their bike to a permanent object - bike racks, street poles, basement window grates, etc.  There is a big bike theft problem, but apparently a good chunk of thefts are overnight with untethered bikes.  The picture on the right shows my bike locked overnight to a bike rack - the heavy chain connects the frame and front tire to the bike rack and the rear tire clamp is engaged (it is the black circular thing going through the back tire just behind the seat).  Also notice the bike rack design - there are two elevations for front tires - this is to accommodate the density of bikes as well as the upright handlebars, which make it difficult for bikes to be parked next to each other at the same elevation and in a way that one can get their bike out easily (see leaning bikes above).

 This picture is just a plaza. A minimal amount of white striping indicates where bikes should be parked. In some plazas there are rectangle shaped bike parking designated areas - somewhat obeyed - and some there are no markings. I have no doubt that at one time these plazas became overly cluttered and difficult to access on foot and I love how a small bit of paint can nudge behavior in a certain direction. And if it has not become clear yet from these posts, there is absolutely nothing unique about the number of bikes parked in this plaza - it's just a normal scene.

Something somewhat abnormal is this somewhat famous image to those who engage in any way in bicycle transportation planning. In the background is a three level, exclusively bike parking structure. It is always full and totally impressive.

Here is just another scene from the inner core of Amsterdam - a dad and daughter coming home from school. This is definitely a commercial and tourist heavy area of town, but you still see the volume of bikes parked - none of which is tethered to any fixed object.

And finally, one more image of one of those go-carts with a shell, expertly modeled by Ted to show just how small these vehicles are. I'd call Ted average-height, so you get the picture.

Today the group has some free time to meander around town, get lost, get found, get lost again, and hopefully by 5:15 find themselves at the Anne Frank House for a group tour.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Amsterdam Day 2 - More Bikes

Day 2 started with a torrential downpour, but I slept late and missed most of that.  Late morning, I ran into KK (right), a student in the program, in the hotel reception area, and we went out for a 4 hour exploration of the city by foot.  Moving by foot is really just an opportunity to better take pictures of the biking environment, though.  Bikes parked in official bike racks, bikes chained to canal bridges, bikes moving everywhere, tourists on bikes, locals on bikes, and just bikes everywhere.

We ventured behind the main train station where there are free bike/ped ferries to get across the main river and came across two two-level bike rack that was mostly all full.  One was a retired ferry that is now just a permanent double-decker bike parking lot.  So, it is possible to add bike parking without taking up more real estate.  We also ran into a man who was walking up and down each aisle looking for his bike, answering the question "how do you find your bike?"  For him, the answer was "Not sure, just systematically go up and down each row."  Since I found it for him, it gave us an excuse to chat about biking in Amsterdam.  He actually lives in Utrecht and comes to Amsterdam by train, then bike (or walk) to get to work.  He works for a firm that takes abandoned bikes and rehabs and re-distributes them with and to people with mental disabilities.  He also said he likes the sport of transit and biking - trying to figure out how to get around and do all his daily things without a car.  I didn't get a picture of him, but he was very hip and professionally dressed, which seems to be the norm - good looking, fit, and well dressed people on bikes just doing their normal things.

Those two level bike racks - here is a demonstratation of how they work (thanks KK):

Grab the handle. 
Pull the handle to you.
 The rack will drop down.
bring it all the way to the ground.  Roll your bike on and go in reverse order.

And for Shane Rhodes (kind of) - some pictures of kids on bikes.  In these cases, they are little kids on their parents' bikes.  I have not happened on a school yet to see kids getting to or from school, although the rate of biking and walking to school is quite high.  I saw each of the scenes below many times, so these are not outlier parents somehow being radical, hard core cyclists.  They are just getting around their city in the most convenient way.

This woman has two on her bike - one in front and one in back. 

Here is a mom with two kids in the front basket.
The covered wagon bike with kids inside. Of course, this bike can double as a trailer for stuff.  Also notice that the woman riding the bike is just wearing normal clothes.  All bikes here have some sort of protector around the chain as well as a shield on the back tire to prevent a skirt or jacket from getting caught in the back tire.  Simple things that of course are part of bikes used for daily travel.  Why don't they come standard on bikes sold in the U.S.?

Here is a dad zooming through the heart of Amsterdam with a kid on a seat in the back and one in the basket up front.

Another dad with a kid up front in a covered basket.

And a mom with a baby in a front pack, not on the bike itself.  Also notice that no one wears helmets.  As the number of cyclists have increased, the number of deaths has gone down.  Seems when more people bike and when there is a real commitment to creating a great bike infrastructure, then safety via a helmet is less important. 

And finally, here is a picture of one of those go-carts on wheels. They sometimes travel on the larger bike lanes for short distances and go through alleys where they probably shouldn't.  Scooters also do this, and amazingly enough, even when scooters, bikes, cars, and pedestrians all try to access similar space, things work out with a minimal need for strict rules or signage.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Arrived in Ansterdam

I arrived in Amsterdam today - a couple of days before students arrive - and I quickly realized how completely I forgot how many bikes are here and how comprehensive the bike infrastructure is.  Seeing Amsterdam for the first time last year was the reason I developed this course, yet I was still shocked at how many bikes there are here.

Flying here was both uneventful and completely off hours.  I made it with only one connecting flight (in Seattle) but I landed at the equivalent of midnight in Eugene, an hour I already struggle to stay up until these days.  In Amsterdam, it was 9am, so to get on to local time I had to minimize any sleep.  I made it until 3pm and took an 1.5 hour nap.
Afterward, I went back out on the town by bike (my rental bike on the left)  to begin to acclimate to how things work here - the norms, the signs, the pavement markings, scooters, vehicles, etc.  Plus, I was trying to get any orientation to the layout of the city that I could, but I'm thinking it is nearly impossible in such a short time.  Canals limit crossing and there is no street grid to make order.  The relatively tall buildings (3-5 floors) block out any tall landmarks, so all I did was find some locals on bikes and just followed them around the city.  That was fun - I had no idea where I was going, but it was a great way to get comfortable with the norms of the road.

It wasn't much of a picture day - my focus was to not get hit or hit something else.  But I like this typical 4 lane road - two inner lanes shared by light rail (tram) and car, two bike lanes (in red), on-street car parking, then a sidewalk.  How about this model for Willamette in Eugene?  Or West 11th (substitute EmX)?  Or 13th from downtown to campus - one bus dedicated lane, one car lane, and two-way bike lanes?  Lots of possibilities, and many of them exist in Amsterdam and seem to work just fine.

Of course it doesn't hurt to also have some really old, really skinny streets with character to add to the mix.  These little alleys are for bikes and pedestrians mostly, although scooters squeeze through as well as some extremely small cars that look like a go-cart, but with a full car shell on top.  I'll have to get a picture of those little things.

So far so good.  I'm looking forward to having students arrive.  We have a full agenda for eight days with a lot of riding.  I hope my legs hold out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Can’t a guy ride a bike without being yelled at?

The Register Guard published my Guest Viewpoint today describing a situation I found myself in last week while riding home by bike from the dentist.  It starts.... 

"It finally happened. The other day someone yelled at me, 'Why do you cyclists think you own the road?'”

Read the whole thing:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Default Position and Cultural Impacts

While biking, I often notice small things that are so obviously wrong, and that making them right would either make a big difference for the actual cycling experience, or could communicate a better message to the culture at large. The picture to the right is one such example.

This is Alder St., a bicycle boulevard in Eugene that is one way auto access and two-way bicycle lanes. Currently, the bike lanes are one on each side, but this summer they will be moved to be adjacent on the east side (left in this picture). To prepare for some re-paving of the road in general, there is some utility work going on now that requires some use of the street right of way for equipment and utility access. Totally fine.

Except that the signs in this picture have it completely wrong. In this picture, you'll notice that there are restrictions in the auto lane up ahead and that the bike lane and auto lane essentially have to merge for a very short time to get past the utility work. All fine and good and I am a firm believer that humanity can work this merging out without much problem. But those signs.

In the construction zone, it is the car lane that ends and the bike lane that remains unobstructed. So why is the bike lane closed and why is it that bikes need to merge? It seems to me that the car lane is closed and that cars need to merge into the bike lane.

It's a small thing, but it is part of a larger message. Are bike lanes just nice extras that can be taken away easily when needed? Or are they legit - as legit as any car lane and that closing one is fairly serious and needs to be accommodated properly? Switiching the signs to "cars merge" would help send the message that bikes are legitimate, their lane is legitimate, that they have the right of way, and that a driver in a car must borrow the bike space (merge) when it is safe to do so. It's a small message, but one that communicates equality and legitimacy of bicycle transportation.

And as for the sign - I asked one of the workers at the site who was directing traffic why the signs were not as I thought they should be, and he said, sympathetically, "I don't think they exist".

Monday, April 25, 2011

Taking students to Amsterdam!

I am thrilled to be able to offer a class taking University students to Amsterdam to see how a city designed for bicycles works. What is it about the infrastructure design, legal systems, cultural attributes, economic policy, land use decisions, bike designs, and other things that leads to so much cycling in Amsterdam?

In addition to exploring these issues with a small group of students, what I am most excited about is to have students raise their own internal bars of what may be possible in terms of rates of cycling. What lessons can be brought back to the U.S.?

This blog will be my own telling and reflections on these topics leading up to the late June trip, during the trip, and afterward. Students will be keeping their own journal blogs, and collectively we'll hopefully have some great insights about what is and what could be.