Earlier this month, I attended a dinner and panel discussion hosted by a fledgling coalition of bicycle transportation planners, bureaucrats, and bigwigs from across the country. Bike program coordinators from major cities like Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis were joined by the executive directors of the two largest and most powerful bike advocacy groups in America; the League of American Bicyclists and Bikes Belong.
Why were all these bright biking minds in the same room? Besides their joint (and evolving) effort to promote more bike-centric infrastructure guidelines, they wanted to hear advice from their European counterparts.
Lucky for them, it just so happened that Metro was hosting four experts from Europe as part of their recent Transatlantic Active Transportation Workshop. Below are brief bios of the European delegates (with the perspective they represent in parentheses), followed by highlights from the night’s Q & A session.
I think you’ll appreciate that candid advice and insights that were shared.
Adelheid Byttebier (policy and politics)
An elected member of the Brussels regional parliament from 1999 until 2009, representing the Green party.
Niels Jensen (engineering)
A senior traffic planner working with cycling policy, strategies and planning in the Traffic Department of Copenhagen.
Hans Voerknecht (advocacy, activism)
The International Coordinator for Fietsberaad, a subsidiary of the Dutch Knowledge Center on Traffic and Transport (KpVV), which is a knowledge center for expertise on cycling and related subjects (they also run the website BicycleCouncil.org).
Geert-Pieter Wagenmakers (business)
A senior advisor to the Chamber of Commerce of Amsterdam on issues related to traffic and transportation.
First up with a question for the panel was Portland’s City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield. He asked: What are factors we need to be mindful of if we aspire to reach your levels of biking?
“Copenhagen built their first cycle track in 1905… they have 100 years of building their infrasructure. The cycle tracks are the backbone of the infrastructure. it gives a safe place to cycle both from a statistical point-of-view and a feeling of safety.”
“If they feel safe they will cycle. The solution chosen in nearly all U.S. cities is that you have cycle lanes next to parked cars and next to traffic and I think that the people who might want to cycle but don’t do it yet… they would think it’s too close to this fast-moving traffic.
Also your national guidelines [referring to AASHTO and the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is the bible for roadway design standards developed by highway builders that has become a thorn in the side of innovative bikeway planners]… Were these guidelines a means or an end? I think you consider them an end to the conversation but they should be a means to get more people cycling.
Saying “well those are the guidelines” is like a detective looking for a murder weapon and saying well, “I can’t look in the bed room because the guidelines say I can’t trespass on the privacy of the people.” They [the MUTCD guidelines] are “completely counterproductive”.
Also, look to children. When I ask my kids, ‘should we go by car or bike?’ they always want to take the bikes. But here in the U.S., parents prevent children from doing what they like. Some of the reasons are valid, but you sacrifice the pleasure of your children… for the addiction to your cars. Is that really the price you want to pay?”
Michelle Poyourow from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance asked a question about how to balance consistency (in design) versus pushing for innovation:
AASHTO guidelines make things consistent but also make it hard to innovate… Unlike in Europe where bike lanes change from green, blue or red, as you travel the countryside. If the designs are good, does it matter if someone from Chicago is driving in Texas? Do you think consistency is very important or do you think good designs can vary from place to place?
“In the Netherlands there are of course guidelines but all engineers are challenged every day to find solutions… There is a lot of freedom for trying out things and I think that’s important. For things that are common already, you should use the consistency. But if you’ve got problems you should try out a new policy. In the Netherlands, the politician says “I want to promote cycling” so the engineers and policy makers come up with the plan.”
“I believe a mix of consistency and innovation must be allowed. There is an EU regulation passed in 2001. It was decided every street that’s at least 3 meters wide (about 10 feet) should accept contraflow cycling. The greens were in the majority so we pushed for that. We have now done studies and found that after four years it is safer with more paint. The signage is obligatory and regulated, but the pavement markings we can get creative with.”
Andy Clarke, the executive director of the League of American Bicyclists asked a two-part question:
Where do your get your inspiration and what have you seen [in America] so far that you’ll take back and share with your colleagues?
“I think the inspiration in Copenhagen came with the big cyclist demonstrations that first happened in the 1980s. It was tens of thousands of people showing up demanding better bicycling facilities. It surprised politicians… so they decided something should be done and then they told the engineers to do it. There was some resistance in the beginning, but they had to do what they were told to do.”
“In the Netherlands, politicians want to be the best bicycle town. For example Rotterdam is known as a bad bike town so they are recommending to take immediate action [they have ONLY 20% bike mode share].
Cycling also provides the Netherlands a strategic place in the climate, health, sustainability, and obesity debates. For example, Harvard wants to do research on how/if cycling can help prevent Alzheimers and the only place they can do the research is in the Netherlands because we’re the only place where enough older people are riding.”
“What i could really take back to Brussels is the green wave — the signal timing [on Stark Ave. in downtown Portland] is really superb.”
Bike Gallery owner Jay Graves asked:
One of the schools of thoughts here is that all we have to do is put in cycle tracks and we’ll get to 30-35% mode split. Is it really just that easy?
“I don’t think it’s just that easy… I don’t think you would reach those numbers. I think our two societies are so different. You are depending so much on cars and it’s not so easy to change that. In Copenhagen, cars are expensive the petrol is expensive and many Copenhageners don’t need/have a license [to drive]… You are in a completely different situation. I mean, i don’t know how you should handle it.”
“The thing is, you want to have cycling go mainstream… You have really succeeded when you don’t have these events anymore [like David Byrne at the Bagdad, which they all attended]. If you would organize these events in the Netherlands, no one would come…
And helmets… I don’t think you should forbid people from wearing helmets, but stop promoting it. Doesn’t it say something to you that in cities like Denmark only 10-15% of the people wear a helmet?”
Jeff Olson, a planner with Alta Planning and Design asked:
If you were able to ask Mayors of large cities in the U.S. to go and ask Congress for anything, what should they ask for?
“I’d ask for money”
“Two things: Change the guidelines, and second would be parking. Change dramatically the way of parking. Allow no more parking in the streets 1/2 mile from homes and businesses so you remove all the short trips and people will know they don’t have the car in front of their door. You would also remove all this traffic noise and small particles in the air.
I don’t know if it’s true but I’ve heard Americans even use a car to post a letter around the corner. If you had to walk a 1/2 mile to get your car you wouldn’t do that anymore.”
City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield got the last question of the night (and it was a good one):
I want to ask about pricing the use of the automobile. In most of your countries and cities, it’s expensive to purchase a car, to get fuel, to park — and in addition, you’ve put restrictions on cars within your city. It’s simply not convenient to drive.
In the the U.S., that pricing is very absent. There’s very little political will to disincentivize the use of the automobile. We’re concerned that our goals for reaching higher mode split will be difficult to reach because of our inability to put price disincentives on car use. Is that a valid concern? How is it that you’ve come to have that political will?
“While in Beaverton I saw all of these enormous rooms for all these cars… even a parking garage for cars! I asked, are you subsidizing this? If so, it’s socialism. You’re subsidizing a parking lot… and that’s out of the mouth of somebody from the business community.
In our country, every square meter is money and you have to use it as good as possible so it gains as much money as possible. And I know one thing, parking cars is not a beneficial way of industry.
Why are the tariffs for parking in the city so high [In Amsterdam, they’re about $7 an hour, 24-hours a day]. First, it’s good for quality of life and second, for the people who really need to be in the city — like the people with their big Mercedes to go to the Gucci shop, or the business man who needs to go to an important meeting — now he has a place to park. In the old days, when parking was much cheaper, they had to search for a spot… so that’s good for business.”
“One of the things is, if you would ask the Dutch public, ‘Would you rather pay less tax on your cars and pay less tax on your fuel,’ everybody would say ‘Oh yes!’ But the thing is we don’t ask them!
You shouldn’t ask all the time, ‘Do you want to spend money?’ Of course they say no. The thing is, if people are so narrow-minded, you need politicians… Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.
The costs of maintaining a road network is high and the users should pay for them… there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Fees work very well to affect the behavior of the people, but it also works well is to reward the people who do the desired behavior. In some cities, they have sort of a reverse congestion pricing: People whose cars aren’t seen in rush hour get up to 8 euros a day.”
Adelheid Byttebier chose not to directly answer the question, but instead shared some general advice for how to promote bicycling:
“Maybe we should look for best practices not only in the field of mobility or cycling but best practices that have worked in a completely separate field. What we have with our mobility problem is the means of transport itself — the car. It’s very socially accepted, it’s — certainly here in America — not so expensive, you can get everywhere with one, etc… On the other hand we know it’s not good for your health or for society in terms of sustainable living and so on.
This reminded me of the debate we’ve all had on smoking.
My father was a smoker and it was very social, not so expensive and it was about having a good time. But, at a certain moment, the decision was made to no longer have ads for smoking and to make it an issue and talk about the health aspects. it’s been a long struggle, but in Belgium we’ve just had a report on health and heart attacks and they’ve found we’ve had great results since we’ve restricted smoking.
Perhaps that experience will give us a good inspiration to try and do it a similar way concerning better modes of being mobile.”
As Portland (and the rest of America) strives to emulate places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, we’ll come face to face with some of these hard truths about our transportation culture. Are we ready to face them? Are there limits to how much we can emulate Northern Europe?
These questions are sure to play out in the coming years.
As reception for the Dreams on Wheels exhibit, the Oregon Manifest is hosting Portland Mayor Sam Adams and “Denmark’s leading bicycle ambassador” Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize for what is sure to be a provocative conversation about “whether Portland should aspire to be more like Copenhagen”. Author Jeff Mapes will moderate. Tickets are $10. More details and ticket purchasing can be done here.
If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at email@example.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.
Banning car advertisements…..hmmmmm. It would be a dream. While they’re at it, how about banning furniture and mattress tv ads on the basis of chronic annoyance. Great article Jonathan!
Great article, frank words we need to hear!
(but Minnesota is a state) 😉
It seems that their main point was make it harder to park and charge people more to drive and we’ll get more bikers. Why aren’t we already doing this again?
Make it harder to drive, then you will get more bikes… that was what they were saying.
@Allan: because a lot of people are paying a lot of other people to keep it from happening, most likely.
That last question is the real doozy. Not many people are going to stop driving unless we make it harder for them to drive, and/or simply less convenient when they are driving (that is, wide open roads, no stops, and of course, lack of legal liability). If we stop just catering everything to the increase of the automobile, we’ll see more people starting to reconsider.
I don’t think our current popular political ideology really agrees with Hans’ assessment of what Democracy is.
“Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.”
I don’t think that statement would go over well today if it were published by the Oregonian’s editorial board, or said by the President.
The US government is an example of a representative democracy — technically we’re a federal republic (bound by the constitution). The power to govern is given to a few by the people, but the people themselves aren’t running the government (direct democracy).
Which is a long winded way of saying we choose people who think will make the best decisions while running our government.
@Scott Sallay: Very true, but that’s not the way most people think of it, and that has a distinct “anti-American” ring to it (“anti-American” in the meaningless propaganda sense).
OMG. The best article I’ve ever seen on bikes. This is great news, not opinion. This play by play is why BikePortland is more than just a blog, with occasional opinion from the editors, often well noted.
When trying to ask for things that will increase safety, PDOT ( like most traffic engineers ) always uses the excuse that they only do what is in the “guidelines”
What they are really saying is that any perception to making cars 2nd, or possibly going slower will never fly, and I’m not going to risk my job by speaking up for bike safety.
Didn’t the Founding Fathers choose representative democracy as a means of hedging against mob rule and the inflamed passions of the common man?
Great report and quite thought provoking. I hope that most here think about what the European representatives said and not just accept whatever halfa**ed “solutions” Sam Adams and PBOT throw out as vote fodder.
#10 Lazy Spinner:
Didn’t the Founding Fathers choose representative democracy as a means of hedging against mob rule and the inflamed passions of the common man?
That’s what they taught us in our US government class. I’m worried that an Internet powered mob may move too fast for this style of government to buffet against.
Or perhaps US Internet users form a collective mind with a massive case of ADHD and are no longer capable of focusing on a problem long enough to fix it.
OOOH! LOOK! LOLCATS!!!
Question posed to Conservative, anti-tax, anti-public program type people and their US representatives: “Would you support removing subsidies for special interest groups that waste $ X per year?” where X is some obscenely high number.
While they are agreeing with fervor and rage on in to the distance with passion for dismantling the government: remove subsides for parking, oil, refineries and coal.
Geert-Pieter Wagenmakers’s comment had a some interesting notes, such as: “While in Beaverton I saw all of these enormous rooms for all these cars… even a parking garage for cars!”. “…rooms…”, likely means…parking lots…Beaverton has some big ones, that’s for sure. Just one parking garage…whoo-hoo!
This comment was good too: “Fees work very well to affect the behavior of the people, but it also works well is to reward the people who do the desired behavior. In some cities, they have sort of a reverse congestion pricing: People whose cars aren’t seen in rush hour get up to 8 euros a day.”
Come to Beaverton on the weekend…Cedar Mills Crossing…Beaverton Town Square…either one, and check out those parking lots. They’re filled. During these times, people slowly drive around the parking lots waiting for someone exit a space so they can park their car there.
Now, check out the bike parking facilities at, for example, Cedar Mills Crossing. Here at this big box chain store heaven, a person can, literally, look out over acres of surface parking for cars, but very little little for bikes. A bike rack here and there on the broad sidewalks next to some of the stores, including the big blank walls to either side of Winco.
I don’t want to say ‘make it harder to drive and park’. Less of a negative reaction to think in terms of; ‘make it easier and more inviting to ride a bike or walk to Cedar Mills Crossing, its cinema, or its grocery store. Within a mile diameter of this central point of Beaverton, there are a lot of people that might take advantages of good opportunities to do this, if they existed.
Cedar Mills Crossing should have at least four or five spacious bike parking structures that announce their presence in a conspicuous and appealing way. All of them together would likely not take up more than a half acre of car parking space.
To make something like this work, connectivity for ‘travel other than by car’, is desperately needed in a place such as Beaverton; unfortunately, that is something the city’s residents lack and are in much greater need of than they are a $60,000,000 AAA baseball stadium.
How many times does Portland need to be told how to make it better?
you know the priorities but here they are again.
1. Give priority to needed routes for freight delivery separated from 2 wheelers
2. separate bikes from cars when possible, creating a north south east west infrastructure that incorporates the metro rail system to facilitate longer distances needed to be traversed.
3. No longer make it easy for a lazy person to use a car. (luxury taxes on cars seem to be Americas favorite)
(less parking more mass transit would be my choice)
how long do you need to beat a dead horse?
Start removing the Obstacles to it’s fruition in this case…Guidelines.
Unless of course..all you want to do is discuss it, in which case, the end case is inevitable..critical mass. (not the group)
I’m not sure if it’s a uniquely American problem, but some people are SO bad at taking advice from others that know better. They will cling to their stubborn, stupid, unhealthy ways in spite of the facts. I find this to be a very frustrating aspect of life. That’s all.
I’m with Joe ROwe; Jonathan, I think this may be the best article I’ve ever read on bicycling.
I think this panel repeats a lot of things we already know to be true, but hearing it from them makes it seem all that much more urgent, and more possible. It’s got to be all about the political will to get these measures implemented.
Jonathan, were there any local political leaders or elected officials in attendance? I assume if the event was hosted by Metro then a few Metro councilors were there, but anyone else we should note? Did you get a reaction from any of them?
this was really sort of a low-profile, wonky event so there weren’t any electeds in the crowd.
I think what PBOT (with direction from Adams) is doing is trying to make these things happen… but at their own, Portland-style pace.
the buzz from PBOT is that they are focusing on bike boulevards and residential areas — which are much easier politically than projects in commercial areas — in order to “build the constituency” that will then allow them to have the political cover to do the more bold policies/projects.
the question is… will their strategy net the results fast enough? Will anyone be there to push them/convince them that they already have the cover they need? do they have the cover they need? lots of questions… this is a very interesting time in Portland’s bike history.
I think this also highlights why we should be so interested in listening to what Europe has to say about transportation – not so much so that we can copy their infrastructure, but because of the ideology behind it. We should come up with our own solutions, or use theirs where it makes sense, but all of that has to be driven by exactly what they are saying here – that the absolute abandonment to automotive gluttony has to get a hefty cage put around it, whether people necessarily consciously want it or not – because it would objectively benefit society as a whole.
This post from Copenhagenize says it really well:
Only a small fraction of the cost of an automobile is based on miles driven. When you pay $500/mo on the auto loan, $100 for insurance, whatever the increase for registration is, $19/year for the Sellwood bridge, free roads, mostly free parking, pollute all you want, etc. and your only mileage based fee is gasoline, you’d be a fool not to drive all you can.
Pay at the pump auto insurance would be a start at reducing miles driven.
De-incentivize auto users from frivolous travel by removing the subsidies for oil, gas and refineries over the next 10 years. The EPA cam mandate MPG and clean air standards until they are blue in the face but until gas prices in the US reflect the realities of manufacturing, distribution and the subsequent clean up from the prior and uses of said fuels people will keep buying them and using them like there is no end to the party. As we saw when the price of gas and oil spiked recently people chose to use smaller cars, take fewer trips, carpool, take public transit and we even saw an increase in bicycle commuting nationwide.
De-incentivize auto users from heavy, large and inefficient vehicles by decoupling road building and maintenance funding from any source other than the heavy road users themselves.
The Over the Road Freight industry already pays more per mile than the average auto user due to the obvious increase in wear and tear that they incur over “four-wheelers”.
From there it’s a small leap to realize that road upkeep can and should be pay for by those that use it. Roads are public spaces but autos damage them and they need to pay for the cumulative damage that they do. I couldn’t just drive my car into a government building and expect the taxpayers to pay for all the damages I caused, why should auto drivers expect the same?
So what I hear in Jonathan’s assessment is that PBOT is only going after the low hanging fruit. That essentially means for the forseeable future that your neighborhood will be safer but as you get closer to work it will be as dangerous as ever.
Good plan! Wait until it is politically expedient before fixing those areas with the greatest concentrations of both bike and car traffic at any given time. A handful of cyclist deaths are just collateral damage, eh? Don’t want those drivers to vote for someone else and derail the ambitions of any politicians or career bureaucrats.
Way to be bold Sammy! You are a true visionary.
I agree as well…
Fantastic story! Great event.
Jonathon,when you say…
“I think what PBOT (with direction from Adams) is doing is trying to make these things happen… but at their own, Portland-style pace.”
What specific things do you mean by “these things”?
“…the buzz from PBOT is that they are focusing on bike boulevards and residential areas — which are much easier politically than projects in commercial areas — in order to “build the constituency” that will then allow them to have the political cover to do the more bold policies/projects.”
Could you be more explicit?
What are the bold policies/projects are they referring to?
In the context of this article, I’d assume the bold plan is to implement disincentives to auto use.
Is that true?
Is this what they will be doing in the residential neighborhoods and the bike blvds.?
It sounded like there will be some of that, from what Greg presented at the brown bag talk last week.
I think it would be great for them to make a start there.
I think it was Diogo? that posted (on another page) a great description of what happened in his home town in Brazil when their loving authoritarian mayor got rid of the cars in one small area, in opposition to the business owners wishes, and when they saw how it worked, the people wanted more.
Radical changes need to be made to get us out of our cars… but if they’re making a start, it’s is a good sign! I just hope they have the will to keep pushing. And before it is too late. These issues have to do with a lot more than bicycle safety… it’s a MUCH bigger picture than that.
(perhaps democracy IS the problem! =)
Just read an article that put this “elephant in the room” into the bigger context.
A Reality Check From the Brink of Extinction
In our little town, it is always the needs of commerce that puts up the road blocks to reforming our streets. Should we really be allowing the short term gains that the business class is addicted to, to keep us on the road to self destruction?
The article closes with this…
“The reason the ecosystem is dying is not because we still have a dryer in our basement.
It is because corporations look at everything, from human beings to the natural environment, as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits.
We have allowed the corporate state to sell the environmental crisis as a matter of personal choice when actually there is a need for profound social and economic reform.”
I’d recommend reading the whole thing.
Wow. More self-centered arrogance. So, every person in a car is lazy? Have you ever been disabled? Or had a family member that is disabled? You don’t just “hop on a bike”. I ride as much as I can because I can do it, as I have been doing since I moved to Portland in 1978. But I have disabled family members that are not able to ride a bike. And please, do we always have to turn every topic on the forum into a “us vs. them” political debate?
@ 16 Elliot – This was part of a three-day workshop that took place across the region. Elected officials and business leaders from various cities and all three counties were involved. Many of the same messages that were conveyed during this event were also expressed during events in Beaverton, Lake Oswego, and Portland. The workshop was structured to reach more than the usual advocates and wonks.
Afro Biker, who are directing your complaints to? And what in the world are you talking about? Did you mean to post to a different article?
I don’t own a car, yet I am treated like a second class citizen. It doens’t matter if I walk, use the bus, or cycle. “And please, do we always have to turn every topic on the forum into a “us vs. them” political debate?” Hard to be included in “them” when you are so far from bieng that first class citizen.
The thing I was referring to was e.g. the apalling state of the pavement of the roads in Oakland and San Fransisco. They said nthat to change that they had to have some sort of referendum to raise the taxes. I think that this is quite a stupid kind of running a town or a country. You need elected officials who just say:”We can’t go on like this anymore. Money has to be raised one way or another, so the taxes have to be raised (and realize that taxes are incredibly low in the US compared to European standards).
Two reasons why I would rather call the US a plutarchy (rich people have the power) than a democracy are the following:
1.Problems with e.g. realizing a bicycle path between Portland and Lake Oswego are a.o. that a part of the land is possessed by very rich persons, who do not care about getting more money, but having no people on their land. When I asked about expropriate the domain of these people (or at least the part of the bicycle path, people told me, that politicians were very reluctant to do this and furthermore that a judge is elected in the US and that the campaign of the judge might be funded by the same rich landowner.
2. If you want to run for some position as elected official (e.g. the mayorship of New York) you either have to be rich or or need to raise funds. Which means that lacking this you cannot run for such a positions. Which also means that there is a in my eyes unacceptable undemacrotic aspect in this. In the Netherlands campaigns are run on State funds divided amongst the political parties by some procedures. There can be additional private funding, but no individual or company may donate more than 1000 euro ($1500) and all gifts are public. Which means that the power of your arguments count more than the power of the money that you have and there are no barriers for poor people to run for a public position.
Of course I do not have the illusion to change the US state system, but I think things like these have to be said and hopefully might make you think.