Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Cobblestones, ‘skinny tires’, and how the Dutch really do it

Posted by on May 10th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Cobbled bikeway in Maastrich,
The Netherlands.
(Photo: Alex Hamlin)

Since our story last week, people are still weighing in about the Bureau of Transportation’s decision to remove old cobblestones on NW Marshall in order to lay down new bike lanes.

The story struck a chord with reader Alex Hamlin, who rode his bike around Holland for two weeks last summer. Alex saw the photo from Holland I ran with the story that showed a cobblestone street with smoothly paved bike lanes on it. He wanted us to know that was just one example. See his photo and right and I think you’ll agree with his assessment: “Bumpy? Yes. Civilized? Very.”

As for the bumps, most commenters were against PBOT’s paved bike lane idea. Mia Birk, CEO of Alta Planning, the firm hired for this project, wrote in to point out that she too appreciates the historic aesthetic of the cobblestones, but the decision was made because “we heard loud and clear that the many skinny-tired bike users would not use and were very passionately frustrated by the bumpy cobbles.”

So, civilized or not, PBOT wants to create a bike network that appeals to everyone — even if it means removing some historic cobblestones to do it.

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  • 9watts May 10, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Probably good to note that what you’ve shown in the photos so far are actually referred to as ‘setts’ rather than cobble stones. Some folks are particular about that distinction

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobblestone
    & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sett_%28paving%29

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  • Matthew May 10, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Really, I’m all for this project, but given a choice, I’d rather they spend the money on paving SE Water. Cobblestones are annoying to ride over, whereas SE Water is actually dangerous.

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  • q'Tzal May 10, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Just because something is traditonal or historic does not make it right.
    Allowing cars to rule the road has become a bit of a tradition and see where that’s got us.

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  • Caroline May 10, 2010 at 10:44 am

    I’m a skinny-tire cyclist and happen to love biking on cobbles whenever I get a chance. I also don’t mind trolley tracks. You wimps should go the whole, entire, long block to detour around these. Or is that too far to ride your bike?

    Seriously, I don’t get what the issue is. There’s like one or two streets that still have cobbles and we’re insisting that bike lanes must be on *them?*

    Sometimes Portland gets a little too weird.

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  • KWW May 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Why can’t they do a 2″ overlay of asphalt?

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  • Esther May 10, 2010 at 11:17 am

    I think there needs to be a little perspective on this issue.
    1. Like many other issues, though there are many projects that could be construed as more “worthy”, it’s not clear what or where these dollars could be spent on those projects – they were probably allocated for specific things.
    2. REALLY? People are complaining about a SMOOTHER ride? I think most people in the world would LOVE to have this “problem.”

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  • Chris Smith May 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

    The logic for a boulevard on Marshall is pretty clear and was discussed extensively with the neighborhood and the Bicycle Advisory Committee.

    The bike lanes on Lovejoy have been problematic since the Streetcar tracks were added (arguably Streetcar did a lousy job with the corridor from a cycling perspective). With the further extension of rails on Lovejoy to and over the bridge there were not a lot of ways to improve the situation. The BAC supported moving the bike facility to Marshall.

    The existing boulevards on Johnson and Overton are simply not close enough to serve the destinations on Lovejoy. The recommendation of the neighborhood was indeed to do an asphalt “schmeer” on top of the cobbles, but PBOT apparently did not support that approach.

    Keep in mind that we’re trying to build our network for the 60% of the population that is “interested but concerned”. I’m convinced that cobblestones would be a significant obstacle for them (as are streetcar tracks – and there is no ‘detour around the block’ option here that avoids tracks).

    The good news is that this boulevard allows us to decommission the abomination at 13th and Lovejoy where the bike lane runs through the Streetcar platform! One mistake corrected…

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  • jordan May 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

    How about paving and marking any of the streets east of 82nd? How much is going to the Pearl for this exercise? We have over 26% of the population and a very small % of the transportation $$$.

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  • Elliot May 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    I love the chain guard on the bike logo in that photo! Awesome detail.

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  • matt picio May 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Chris – I don’t think any of us are arguing for the bike lanes on Lovejoy – but I’m sorry, there are maybe a half-dozen cobblestone streets left in Portland, and they represent a history that won’t be repeated. I really don’t care if they discourage the 60% “Interested but Concerned” in the adjacent blocks. It’s not just all about bicycles – it’s about livable communities, and a part of that is retaining history. Besides, those streets keep speeds down.

    If we were arguing about making all streets cobble, then you’d have a point. If Portland had dozens of miles of cobble, brick, or setts, then you’d have a point. That’s not what we have – we have maybe 1000′ of cobble roadway. Destroying it for a smoother ride only makes sense if the end product is as beutiful and durable as what it is replacing. This isn’t.

    I don’t usually say this, but this is a lousy solution that will look crappy in 5 years. This is money and asphalt that could pave the streets south of Woodstock, or the outer east side, or put a couple dozen more feet of sidewalk in SW Portland.

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  • Chris Smith May 10, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Matt, I’m 100% with you on preserving cobbles where ever possible and believe me we tried (and I don’t like PBOT’s treatment). But we got challenged to make bicycle connectivity BETTER, not worse, as a result of the Streetcar Loop project and we took that very seriously.

    Folks on this list would have justifiably crucified us if we removed the lanes on Lovejoy without providing a better alternative.

    We had originally proposed adding two more blocks of cobbles-with-lanes as mitigation, but it just wasn’t affordable.

    And this is being funding with dedicated funds for the Loop project, generally (although not exclusively) NOT money that would be available for bike projects in other parts of the City.

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  • Alex Hamlin May 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Glad to be able to share the photo, Jonathan. It’s probably worth noting that in the hundreds of miles of bike paths we rode over in The Netherlands last summer, I only saw a few like this. But they were in ‘historic’ areas where the cobbles were part of the charm. Of course, the big picture take away is that over there they would have a bike lane on Kearny, a bike lane on Lovejoy, a bike lane on Northrup and they’d just close Marshall to cars entirely…

    At the end of the day, how comfortable people feel riding their bikes is going to have a lot more to do with the 1-2 miles people have to ride BEFORE crossing that one or two blocks of cobbles than how you deal with that one block.

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  • Steve B. May 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I support this project, I just hope those lanes are out of the door zone. Thank you, PBOT!

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  • Scott Mizée May 10, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I’m interested and concerned. 🙂

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  • Caroline May 10, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Bottom line here is we are marginalizing cyclists by creating silly cyclist-specific street paths. This specific proposed path is not only condescending to people who can ride a bike and appreciate the reality of obstacles, but might put a bad anti-cyclist taste in the mouths of cobble-lovers, locals, historians, cyclists, etc. Come on, a one-block Copenhagen?

    Cyclists should be, and belong, on EVERY street. So, if a cyclist chooses to bypass Marshall and take Overton (and why NOT Lovejoy or Northrup, for goodness sake?), it’s his or her prerogative, same as it is for someone driving a car, a bus, or a horse and buggy. Any intelligent cyclist will go where ever he or she feels is quickest, most fun, and the most safe. Even if they do put a silly path in the cobbles, I will still ride the cobble part. You can laugh at me when I fall.

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  • Alex Hamlin May 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Caroline, I think you’re overreacting. Bike paths don’t marginalize cyclists just as sidewalks don’t marginalize pedestrians. They empower and encourage people by creating a safe space for them to bike/walk/be. This has been done successfully around the world, and everywhere the model is more, not fewer, bike-specific street paths.

    The proposed solution is one you see a lot in bike friendly cultures; usually it’s done in places where, for whatever reason, they pave with brick instead of pavement (it’s prettier and makes for less expensive maintenance, maybe). Riding on brick is just as bumpy as cobbles, just without the romance.

    I’m 100% with you on bikes on every street. But you’ve got to get people on bikes first. And to get people to get the ‘quickest, most fun and most safe’ feel, the proposed solution is probably a good step. Someday I’d love to see a quartz-cobble demarcated bike line in Portland. Until then, I’ll be for ANY new bike lanes. For now, I’ll be right there with you, taking the lane and enjoying the bumps on Marshall.

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  • Caroline May 10, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Nice call, Alex. I know I’m overreacting! I LOVE those cobbles 😉

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  • Daniel Ronan May 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Also of note in this story is the fact that the city keeps cobblestones that they dig up. So although you may not see them, the city still has the ability to use them in projects that enhance the street scape, be it the sidewalk, median, or roadway.

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  • David May 10, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I bike on Marshall (and Kearney) very frequently. With skinny tires. No problems.

    Actually I like the cobbles, cycling or not, because they’re a little relic of old Portland in a part of town that can use some history and character.

    The intermittent bike lane on Lovejoy, complete with detour through the streetcar stop, may be silly but it’s no reason to get rid of cobbles on adjacent blocks.

    Maybe cobbles aren’t bike-friendly, but they’re not car-friendly either. As a daily cyclist in NW, a bigger concern for me is the random railroad track fragments poking up through the pavement on streets like NW 12th and 15th. A few blocks of cobbles, bike lane or not, are just fine.

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  • P Finn May 10, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I’d like to see more on how Europe does the rail/bicycle interface; the only two times I have almost eaten it in the downtown core were Max and then Streetcar tracks, trying to negotiate a crossing.

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  • Paul Johnson May 10, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    By the same rationale, then, we should be removing the Streetcar because it’s bad for the skinny tires. I wonder if PBOT ever thought of maybe telling skinny-tired cyclists the same thing the rest of us do when they complain about the surface: Get tires suitable for your riding conditions.

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  • Izaac Spencer May 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Good call Alex. Although I love the old cobblestones myself, I do think we need to make some changes like this to encourage a larger mode share of bicycling. I know there are some very talented artists out there who could make a smoother surface look a bit more like a charming cobblestone pathway if they were interested.

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  • BURR May 10, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    From my perspective, the real problem here seems to be the Streetcar, and particularly, the facts that (1) Streetcar ROW has consistently taken priority over bike facilities, and (2) the engineers working on the Streetcar appear to be as clueless how to integrate their project with the needs of cyclists as the designers of the Couch-Burnside connection were.

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  • nuovorecord May 10, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Memo to you skinny-tired wusses: Get yourself a set of Vittoria Open Pave tires and quit your blubbering. If they can survive Paris-Roubaix, they’ll handle one city block of smooth cobbles.


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  • Daisuke Yano May 10, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    So far, Alta Planning’s explanation sounds weak.Voice “against” is always soooooooo much louder than voice “for”. To be objective, you’d have to weigh the voice “for” with much larger adjustment factor. You can see now that voice “for” has now become voice “against” due to the decision of removing the cobbles, and not it’s become apparent how many cyclists were “for” the cobbles.

    Also, she says in Europe, there are many cobbles bike lanes being paved and took that as reference. Europe gets paved smooth because there are so much more cobbled sections than the US. Cobbled section in the US is much more precious than in Europe. NW Portland, with gridded streets, it seems like there are plenty of easy detours if it remains cobbled and gives those with desire to actually ride in cobbles a choice. But now there are one less precious cobbled choice. I think that option is worse overall.
    With so much complicated bike lane issues going on, next time I’m in Portland, I’m afraid I’ll be missing some local “rules” that I might actually get yelled at more than if I were riding in NYC, or even in obnoxious Osaka.

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  • suburban May 10, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    +1 #20 PFinn, although, the public input phase regarding elephants in the room has closed.
    Dear Alta, your statistical analysis of public input led to the rape of a historical resource, and your perspective clients will know about this. Sure, the math worked out, you came in on-budget on this project, and by doing so, have become the kind of firm you wanted to replace. California-You!
    All the re-use of these stones (and I’ll be looking for that new 16+/- blocks of track) does not justify those wasteful modifications.
    and for what?

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  • are May 10, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    i would not crucify anyone for removing bike lanes on lovejoy. i already take the lane there.

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  • Lazy Spinner May 10, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Another dumb and expensive idea being propogated by the usual cadre of “pro bike” suspects.

    I recently spent a week in Washington, D.C. using my bike to get everywhere. That city is LIGHT YEARS ahead of our provincial little burg for meaningful infrastructure that gets people around quickly on bikes. This week, they are opening a center lane, straight shot down Pennsylvania Ave. for bikes. That sure as hell beats the much ballyhooed six block cycle track near PSU. It’s real and not just consumer magazine and local government-blog complex hype. Check it out – a fantastic town for riding and great bike links to their ‘burbs as well.

    Portland? Just making cycling slower and less convenient a block at a time while other cities design efficient systems that actually gets the working classes out of their cars and reduces overall auto traffic and its negative external costs in meaningful ways. Young working class people are the future yet PBOT and Alta seem hell bent on providing the illusion of safety for the meek and middle aged and spend accordingly. Those people will cling to their cars for the next twenty years because they are too old and comfort focused to change.

    Portland is that poor breakaway rider that enjoyed his TV time but just got passed by the entire peloton within sight of the finish line. A little smarter riding and we could have stayed away.

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  • Red Five May 10, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    This is not Europe, and it’s 2010, not 1910…let the cobblestones go.

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  • Kevin Wagoner May 10, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    The cobbles are fine. It is not that long of a road and not that busy (at least from what I recall). Road cyclist often ride on bumpy roads, SW La View for me on my commute home tonight, not bad at all.

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  • Zach May 10, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Yes, paving SE Water would be a better use of funds!

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  • old&slow May 10, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    A ridiculous waste of resources. Who the hell is making these decisions. Oh, I forgot, the same people that gave us the lovejoy clusterf*ck.
    Cyclists in the city are always moaning about money not spent on them and then they get behind this and the cyclepath on Broadway?
    There are real needs in this city and a block or two of
    a “smooth” ride when the street is easily ridden on now is pathetic.

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  • wsbob May 10, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    “…Keep in mind that we’re trying to build our network for the 60% of the population that is “interested but concerned”. …” Chris Smith #7

    Chris…having read your comment, I’m now trying to figure how many of the “interested but concerned” folks might have been of the skinny tired crowd that made their voice heard in favor of having the cobbles removed where the bike lane is located, to make sure their ride wouldn’t be bumpy.

    I may have to alter my perception of what type of bike “interested but concerned” people ride, because I’ve sort of generally assumed those folks would not take well to a skinny tired racing bike type rig. Cruisers, mountain bikes, and English or English style touring bikes with bigger tires and upright riding position is what I had thought were likely to be their preference. Those type bikes should be just fine on Marshall St.’s cobbles.

    Over on the other bp story on this subject…:

    First look at new bike lanes through cobblestones on NW Marshall/maus-bikeportland

    …commenter Mia Birk #47 said:

    “…The various committees were 100% in sync that Marshall would be a better option, but ONLY if the the City could create a smoother riding surface. …”

    ‘100%’? Well that certainly sounds very conclusive on the face of it, though we all might benefit from hearing more about how the committees came to that conclusion. Not that I necessarily blame them for having done so, even though I don’t care much for the result of the conclusion.

    I’ve got just a little recent experience attending some public meetings out here in Beaverton in the last year; neighborhood advisory committees, bike advisory committee, park trails advisory committee. One of the things I can say from that experience, is that the public doesn’t seem to attend those meetings in great numbers. It’s mostly the board members working on projects and taking care of business.

    So it can happen with projects like this, that ‘the few’ determine the shape of things for ‘the many’. And the viewpoints and conclusions of ‘the few’ may not be accurately representative of the interests of the many, though they may be trying their best to represent them. So it can be worth it to show up to these meetings and let the folks know what you think.

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  • firekayak May 11, 2010 at 9:36 am

    I think it is a shame that they cut out the cobblestone. It would be one thing if there were cobble stone streets everywhere in the neighborhood but there are paved roads on either side of the street. Provided they have trolley tracks on them but that is no reason to tear up history. Shame on all the skinny bike riders out there that complained. I’ve ridden down Marshall with my skinny tires and: A) it’s not that bad, B) if you don’t like it bike down Lovejoy or Northrup until you get to your block then bike over to Marshall…heaven forbid we have to bike an extra block.

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  • Chris Smith May 11, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Just to be clear, there was no “skinny tire constituency” that lobbied for removal of the cobblestones.

    There were folks trying to implement the principles of the bicycle master plan of making the bike network accessible to the maximum number of riders. I don’t think anyone on the committee that made the recommendation would have been personally uncomfortable riding over the cobbles (yours truly included).

    And also to be clear, the recommendation of the committee was to COVER the cobbles, not remove them. It was the choice of the folks in PBOT who actually have to maintain the streets to remove the cobbles over the recommendation of the committee.

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  • wsbob May 11, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Chris, from the same comment of Mia Birk’s that I earlier referred to:

    “I too share an appreciation for the aesthetic quality of cobblestones, and I personally ride a utilitarian bike with fat-enough tires to not be bothered by cobbles, but we heard loud and clear that the many skinny-tired bike users would not use and were very passionately frustrated by the bumpy cobbles.” Mia Birk

    She specifically says “…skinny-tired bike users…”. What do you make of that? Did you two hear something different? Perhaps you’re saying that you agree with her that such and such people that ride bikes were fine with the cobbles; they didn’t have to be removed as long as they were paved over with asphalt, or something else that would create a smoother ride.

    I don’t doubt you people worked hard coming up with a responsible decision on this, but again, this isn’t miles, but a mere 6-8 blocks of cobbles.

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  • Chris Smith May 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Mia may very well have been in some of the BAC discussions where I was not present. My reference was to the neighborhood stakeholder committee that worked on this.

    And to be clear, we’re talking about exactly two blocks of cobbles between 12th and 14th.

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  • jks May 11, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    You ride skinny tires, you learn why you shouln’t be riding skinny tires. And they’re not faster, by the way, even on the smoothest pavement, which shouldn’t be considered real-world conditions anyways. Go ride on a track if you want smooth. I’ll never again ride anything but 28mm—*that* is skinny—and fatter!

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  • The Translator May 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I put Mia Birk’s comments through a translation program and it comes out like this:

    “Do what you want, Roger. I’ve overheard some comments, read about a couple of bike crashes on BikePortland and extrapolated from those that people are frightened. Terrified! We at Alta Planning + Design are firmly committed to anything PBOT wants to do and will happily pimp your ideas,no matter how expensive or absurd,so long as your checks for our consulting services keep clearing.”

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  • least common denominator May 11, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    It’s discouraging that purported whining by skinny tire riders has resulted in destruction of an artistic/historic resource. Those who choose to suffer on skinny tires should be prepared to live with the consequences, and not have the world changed to suit them. The irony is, wider tires tend to have lower rolling resistance than skinny tires. Skinny tires weigh a little less, which may matter if you’re a pro racing up an Alp, but is no benefit riding across town. Why are we so stupid!?

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  • Luke S May 12, 2010 at 4:24 am

    Er… I thought Portland ‘got’ cycling… come on! Half of you get up at six in the morning to watch the spring classics, FFS. If you don’t like a bump or two then buy a full suspension MTB and weld one of those massive reclining leather armchairs on top of it. Alternatively…


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  • poncho May 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    If we are concerned about the comfort of people who are interested in riding who currently dont, it would have been better in my opinion to focus on traffic calming ‘traffic sewer’ streets rather than paving a couple blocks of cobblestones. Cobblestones on a slow and very lightly traveled street seem to be much less of an issue to the novice cyclist than say, the chaotic intersection that is and will continue to be 9th/Lovejoy or the NE Broadway/Weidler couplet (to choose nearby sites). NE Broadway by the Rose Quarter and I-5 certainly gives me much more anxiety and discouragement in riding than anywhere in Central City or NW Portland.

    Paving cobblestones for bike comfort to me is the exact same as what was done in the 1920s-1950s of paving cobblestones for motorist comfort. I have to believe most motorists dont like cobblestones either and would like all that remain paved, luckily we dont give into those concerns. So I’m not sure why we did here for almost the same scenerio. And seriously, can’t we slow down, carefully ride though and appreciate the short 2 block stretch of unique character and urbanity of this area instead of ruining that for the worship of speed and smooth travel which is straight out of a 1940s highway manual. Given the street grid, those that dont care for that do have a multitude of options to avoid that stretch of street if they so wish.

    There was a lot of neighborhood opposition to removing the cobblestones, with all due respect I feel Ms. Birk came in and ignored that and used solely the input of the skinny tire crowd to ram through this pet project of hers. I’m glad to hear that that most here are opposed to this needless destruction.

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  • ike6 May 13, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    I’d also rather seem them pave SE Water Ave instead. Cobblestones are cool. Just slow down and enjoy it, or take the next street over if you don’t like it.

    – skinny tire Dutch bike rider

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  • BURR May 13, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    repaving SE Water Ave should be a no-brainer; no need to link it to anything else

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  • spare_wheel May 14, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    “Just slow down and enjoy it”

    I find this belief that riding slowly is more pleasant than riding fast to be curious.

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