If you’re involved in bike advocacy you’re probably familiar with the wistful yearning for the cycling infrastructure and policies of the great European cycling cities felt by many American activists. In Portland, our city planners and engineers have lifted design inspiration from cities in the Netherlands and Denmark. Now it’s my turn to see what all the fuss is about: After a stop at home (in Denver), I’m headed on a trip across the pond and I want to know what BikePortland want me to cover while I’m there.
When planning a trip to visit my sister Kylie, who is teaching English in Spain for a year, I got the idea to sneak in a few more locations to the trip and take BikePortland international for a few weeks to do some research and immersion. (I am very lucky to have a job where I can do this!) The result of my planning is a European itinerary that includes Brussels; the Netherlands (Utrecht and Amsterdam); Copenhagen; Malmö, Sweden; Paris and Spain (Bilbao and Barcelona). Other than a few scheduled plans, like to take a tour of some bike infrastructure in Paris that has been built under the new mayor and a date to join a “bicíbus” in Barcelona, my schedule is mostly open.
Jonathan, who did a similar trip in 2013, has urged me to not overbook in order to explore freely, but I feel like having a few more ideas and connections before I get there might be helpful.
I am lucky enough to have gone to Europe twice before: once in 2014, on a high school choir and orchestra trip to Germany with about 75 other American teenagers (I cringe to think of how we acted) and again in 2017, when I studied abroad in Prague for six months. I didn’t go into either of those trips thinking about city planning and transportation, but looking back, it’s clear that I was enchanted by the urban design even if I didn’t know it yet.
The most memorable day of our high school trip was when the teachers dropped us off in Hamburg’s city center and told us to fly free for six hours. My friends and I walked and walked, passing parks with incredibly upscale playgrounds, stopping at shops and cafes along the way. We thought we felt free because there were no adults watching our every move. But how much of that freedom was really because we could travel around an entire city on foot alone, without ever having to cross a six-lane stroad with cars zipping by at 45 miles per hour?
I doubt the chaperones on our high school trip to Germany could put into words exactly why they felt okay letting a group of 14-18 year old kids loose in Hamburg, but the built environment surely had something to do with it. I still think back on that day as one of the most magical of my life so far.
This time, I’m going into my traveling with a perspective I haven’t had before. After more than a year spending nearly every day thinking and writing about one aspect of transportation infrastructure or another — and learning about technical, wonky stuff like signal timing and parking-protected bike lanes — I look at and experience the world in a new way.
This new perspective involves me being an active participant in the cities I visit, and knowing these places didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, but were purposefully designed to function as they do. I’m sure I will be overcome with awe and disbelief at bike lanes in Utrecht, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, but I don’t want to mythologize these places so much that they seem entirely out of reach to us back home.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. These are just my pre-trip reflections: who knows what will happen along the way! But I would really like to know what BikePortland readers are the most interested in hearing about. Be as specific or broad as possible, please. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.