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.