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First reports from Amsterdam

Posted by on November 1st, 2005 at 8:43 am

After a week or so of boring stuff about streetcars and sidewalks, the Portland contingent in Amsterdam is getting down to business. Chris Smith over at PortlandTransport.com is finally starting to talk about bikes.

The group is receiving the gospel in the form of a presentation yesterday from Amsterdam’s bicycle coordinator. Read Chris’s full report for some really interesting and inspiring facts. Here’s a little taste:

“…watching a street operate here in Amsterdam is a bit like watching a ballet – all the dancers, cars and bikes, know they roles and weave together very skillfully and very safely, despite very close proximity. I almost wonder if someday they will reach the point of cultural integration of cars, trams (streetcars) and bikes where physical delineations will no longer be necessary and they will operate seamlessly on a web of nothing more than social understandings.

As one of our cab drivers said about the prevalence of bikes, ‘it’s just a matter of getting used to it.'”

I’m hoping to have some exclusive reports from the BTA’s Jessica Roberts in the coming days.

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An important clue may be here: “perhaps the cars were in the way of the bikes.”

I have traveled in many countries where bicycles are the dominant vehicle. In China, for example, bikes outnumber motorists perhaps 10 to 1 or more, depending on the city. Where bikes prevail there is a cultural acceptance that bikes are primary and motorist are secondary. This likely happened by the chances of history, as in Amsterdam. There is little challenging of bikes by motorists – it simply would not questioned that the bikes have the full right to travel safely and at their own natural speed.

We might consider how to artificially create this cultural change. The Woonerf might be a good means of innoculation. I like the idea of bike “boulevards” where a low traffic through street (like SE Clinton or SE Lincoln) is designated as more than a bike route, but as a route where a bike as primary vehicle is designated and bikes have legal right of way over all motor traffic.

Another related observation of bike behavior in traditionally bike oriented cultures is that the average bike commuter in other countries rides much slower than the bike commuter does here and they rarely wear special bike apparel. Our bike history has its roots in bikes either as childhood toys, or biking as an athletic activity. Many of our cyclists ride specialized bikes, they ride fast, and wear colorful logo covered lycra clothing. This can make it a bit harder for some motorists to make the mental leap to their becoming a non-recreational biker. It might be useful for dedicated bikers to break out of the lycra wrapped speedster image in order to provide a role model that is more attainable by “average” folks who have no interest in speed or sweaty challenges.

Jonathan Maus

I agree with you about clothing and general behavior of commuters here. It always amazes me on Breakfast on the Bridges how many people just speed by with blinders on, not even turning to see what we’re doing.

I think your observation about the roots of cycling in this country are right on. The majority of Americans still don’t take bikes seriously as a viable form of transportation and until they do, motorized vehicles will dominate.