I’m headed to Europe! Pre-trip thoughts and a request for ideas

Getting bags packed and ready to go. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

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.

Me (far left) at 17 in Hamburg, Germany.

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.

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Granpa
Granpa
3 months ago

My son lives in Frankfurt. A couple of years ago he organized a hybrid tour of bike and train travel all over Germany for us two. Throughout Germany separate bike paths run along rivers and he had researched these extensively. He had his cellphone mounted on the handlebars with a map app and he had made reservations in historic towns for each night.
At train stations we just bought bicycles on board. It is a done thing. Do research for rail routes and trails and plan the trip. People were friendly and Germany is clean and the food is comfort food.
Take favorite friends

Fred
Fred
3 months ago

I don’t have any suggestions – you seem to have plenty of good ideas. But I’ll be interested in hearing about your impression of European drivers and how they deal with cyclists. In my experience, Europeans drive very fast but they are very skilled in dealing with cyclists. So I hope you don’t feel afraid to bike with cars.

Hope you have a great trip!

Charley
Charley
3 months ago

Awesome!

I went to Paris one time and I was surprised to notice that many car-free places (paths? Multi-use paths? Walking areas?) were covered in what looked like a fine crushed limestone. It was a very pleasant surface for walking and riding, and would have hydrologic benefits over impermeable concrete or asphalt.

I guess this isn’t much of a suggestion, but if you notice it, too, maybe you could report on why they’re doing that, and we *aren’t*. I’d love to know.

Todd/Boulanger
3 months ago
Reply to  Charley

Charley: that walking surface may have been decomposed granite (aka “DG”). https://soilseedandgarden.com/decomposed-granite/

soren
soren
3 months ago

for a few weeks

I agree with Jonathan that spending more time in fewer places might make for a more immersive visit (and, possibly, a more meaningful visit).

PNWPhotoWalks
PNWPhotoWalks
3 months ago

If you have an opportunity, perhaps you could interview an officer assigned to traffic enforcement. And if you find an officer walking a beat, I’d be interested in their perspective on the measures that have been taken there to ensure safe pedestrian and bicycle traffic. I hope you have a great trip, Taylor.

Noah
Noah
3 months ago
Reply to  PNWPhotoWalks

At least in Copenhagen they take enforcing traffic laws of cyclists very seriously, I got two separate tickets for turning right on red there, precisely because there are so many of both types of users there.

FDUP
FDUP
3 months ago

Fat Tire BikeTours in Paris and Barcelona (also Berlin and London, and maybe other cities). Excellent way to explore these cities while having fun on a bike. English-speaking guides. Highly recommended.

https://www.fattiretours.com/

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
3 months ago

I find it useful and interesting to visit the local supermarket in each place – what gets packaged and what is left fresh – the different brands and foods, and so on. It took three trips to Germany and severe cases of being sick before I realized they don’t usually sell pasteurized milk – fresh raw milk is the norm – whereas the French ALWAYS pasteurize their milk (they after all invented the process). The cheese, the bread, the different versions of street donner, the national differences in chocolate, the hot chocolate on Belgian Rail, the chocolate stores in Bruges, fresh soft Pecorino Romano in Italy, speck in Austria, sitting behind the train drivers on the ICE in Germany… Ah, Europe…

As for bicycling and bicycling infrastructure, I find it more useful to visit the least important communities, the ones off the beaten path, to see what they are doing (or not doing), who is riding (everyone versus the young and fearless), towns of different sizes and even unimportant villages, and what kind of infrastructure is affordable rather than what is being built in the national capital.

And please do take time to enjoy yourself – you literally never know when you’ll next pass through. Have fun!

Peter
Peter
2 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Hi David, your suggestions sound great, it’s just how I like to travel. As a German, I just wanted to say that you must have misunderstood something about the milk. It’s in fact very difficult to find fresh raw milk and it is not sold in regular supermarkets.

rick
rick
3 months ago

Please take a test ride on the Elian Cycles’ cargo bike. Any high speed rail adventures?

Betsy Reese
Betsy Reese
3 months ago

Visit Lyon, France. I would love to see you report on their fabulous, bicycle infrastructure, including their soft-mode bridge and tunnel. I nominate Lyon, on the confluence of two navigable rivers with a population of half-a-million, as Portland’s bicycle sister city.

Todd/Boulanger
3 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Reese

Yes to Lyon…a much more digestible “mini paris”

Timur Ender
Timur Ender
3 months ago

Things to check out and thoughts on Utrecht from a visit in 2017:
-Advisory bike lanes in Utrecht are on another level
-Commercial district streetscape: freight, bike parking, etc. (Utrecht), compared to a commercial street like Division/Hawthorne.
-Utrecht downtown: where is the parking? how much is there? how does freight loading occur? I don’t recall seeing much parking when I was there and wondered where it was and how much of it there was.
-Utrecht rail station and transit center- integration with busses and streetcar.
-Car free bridge over river
-What do suburban style streets look like in a city like Utrecht? lane widths, separated bikeway, signal timing. Its all super interesting.

Apparently there is this too:
https://www.fastcompany.com/90457158/in-this-new-dutch-neighborhood-there-will-be-1-shared-car-for-every-3-households
https://www.forbes.com/sites/carltonreid/2020/02/06/12000-residents-zero-cars-utrechts-new-city-district-to-prioritize-pedestrians-and-cyclists/?sh=1158c7104334

have fun!

Todd/Boulanger
3 months ago

Taylor, great to hear this! Too bad you are missing Portugal – very affordable AND the new bike manufacturing hub of EU. Next year!

Take a Clever Cycles Brompton! 😉 Or bikeshare. [If you fly back through AMS with KLM…the KLM dutch bike box (20e?) allows you to bring back a nice sized used dutch bike for $0 (baggage allowance) depending on your ticket etc.]

As a walker: check out the seasonal mini markets / holiday amusement rides in some public squares.

Bike, these are the major missing links in Portland:

  • Mega Bikestations at train stations [NL, DE, etc]
  • Intersections / signals ‘green wave’
  • Traffic Free Streets (woonerf and winklenerf/ commercial bike streets)
  • Moped Share & Bakfiets share programmes for families!

Overall: Other than cities with world leader / strong mayors that are really pushing the envelop (currently Paris)…it is often better to visit regional cities (or post WW2 rebuilt cities) for design tips that are more appropriate for adoption by Portland / PNW cities (the Lyon, Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Groningen etc.).

Amsterdam: visit Fietserbond (The TA / BTA of NL)

Brussels: recently one of the more car centric cities…lots of diplomats / entitled drivers…so watch out! (Let Op!)

Barcelona: go to the gothic quarter in early evening…its pedestrian streets are sooo quiet compared to adjoining more modern arterials.

Any City: check out how the livability of dense urban neighborhoods are once you enter into the large interior courtyards with quiet treed areas (Germany, Paris etc.) vs our opposite approach to placing our outdoor areas on the exterior of our homes.

OTHER
Shop local for unique things but for other items get to know the local discounter/ app for replacing damaged / disposable things [EU: Aldi markets, Decathelon sporting goods, NL: Jumbo, AH market, Bever, Halfords, HEMA – last three have good bike accessories,..often at train stations etc.] Plus take some winter cold medicine, some countries do not sell Sudafed OTC. Rapid COVID-19 test kits can be found cheaper in EU [$2 vs $12] but carry 2 on hand. Don’t forget to add a PIN code to your credit cards so you can make purchases anywhere vs just tourist places…and have Apple Pay or similar as backup in case your credit cards are stolen / or forgotten like my family did on our last trip. ;-(

  • Bon chance & Tot ziens!
Lenny Anderson
Lenny Anderson
3 months ago

Between ’82 and ’95, my German wife and I traveled back and forth over a half dozen times to Europe with Frankfurt am Main as our primary destination. Our first date there in ’82 was for a bike ride along the Nidda; the area’s extensive system of streetcars, subways, commuter lines and intercity trains took my breath away.
A couple of thoughts: Germans love their cars, and most sidewalks on the narrow streets of old districts of Frankfurt in those days were dominated by parked cars! A parking spot was a real prize. One night at a party one guest asked another “Did you drive?” The response: “Oh no, I took the streetcar…did not want to lose my parking spot right in front of my apartment.”
About those streetcars, the city plan was to replace them with subway lines or buses, but the folks who had been so well served for so many years by streetcars in close in neighborhoods put up a good stink, and a dozen lines still complement the U-Bahns and S-Bahns.
Last while Portland has a dozen freeway lanes along the east bank of the Willamette, Frankfurt has a dozen museums…yes museums! in a park lining the opposite side of the Main from downtown. We have such a long way to go! Looking forward to your reports.

qqq
qqq
3 months ago
Reply to  Lenny Anderson

That “Couldn’t drive because I’ll lose my parking space” story is great. I wonder if it’s still parked there today–“Couldn’t get rid of it or we’d lose our parking space”. Or maybe they did sell it– “Comes with parking space (as long as you don’t want a test drive)”.

Jaemes P
Jaemes P
3 months ago

Seems irresponsible to travel internationally while covid is surging again and RSV has our hospital system holding on for dear life, but what do I know? I’m just a Portlander who’s taking this crisis seriously.

Chris I
Chris I
3 months ago
Reply to  Jaemes P

How about you do you?

There is no reason why a healthy adult can’t travel right now.

rainbike
rainbike
3 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

“How about you do you”? Funny, coming from a site that has plenty of commentators who seem pretty confident that they know how others should live their lives.

Watts
Watts
3 months ago

I’m sure you’re going to have a great trip, and I would echo the fewer places more time advice others have given you.

If you stay someplace long enough to get out of the urban core you’ll find that transportation patterns are much different than what you see in the more touristed areas. I suppose this is to be expected, but if all you see is the center of cities, many of which are built around a medieval core, you will have a distorted view of how many Europeans live. Kind of like judging transportation in Oregon from what you see in downtown Portland.

Have fun!

dachines
dachines
3 months ago

I’d suggest taking a moment in each stop on your travels to view how the cycling infrastructure is working from a pedestrians viewpoint, in particular, as a non “native” pedestrian.

Prior to my visit to Amsterdam in 2009, I thought that I would love the city, especially because of its “renowned” bike infrastructure. However, as a pedestrian, I found that the infrastructure wasn’t nearly as intuitive as “advertised”, and I often found myself inadvertently at odds with people on bikes. Dishearteningly, I also found myself being chastised by those on bikes, despite the fact that as a walking pedestrian I was the most vulnerable road user. How interesting that in another country while walking I was made to feel like a second class road user by someone on a bike, when at home the norm is to be made to feel like a second class road user while on a bike by someone driving a car!

With many years of road cycling under my belt, I mistakenly believed that Amsterdam would be a panacea, and that I would immediately get/understand everything that was going on there. However, the infrastructure wasn’t always obvious, and oddly the pedestrians road rights seemed secondary to bikes and motor vehicles.

As a walking pedestrian, I couldn’t leave Amsterdam soon enough. I found Milan, Barcelona, London, Bruges, Brussels, Zurich, Paris, and Munich much more pedestrian friendly.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
3 months ago

The first thing you will notice is America is a real mess compared to Europe. And watch out for pickpockets in crowds.

Gunter Fritz
Gunter Fritz
3 months ago

Have fun. Taylor, I encourage all privileged travelers to purchase carbon offset credits. Air travel is a HUGE contributor to global warming. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/should-you-buy-carbon-offsets-for-your-air-travel

Richard
Richard
3 months ago

Awesome, sounds like so much fun. Make sure to bike a lap or two around Vondelpark in Amsterdam! 🙂

Todd/Boulanger
3 months ago
Reply to  Richard

…and through the museum if the gates for the bikeway (fietspad) are open.

Brian
Brian
3 months ago

Malmo: check out the bike station at the main train station. Also cycling infrastructure. Copenhagen: there is so much to admire, enjoy. Amsterdam: the great cycling infrastructure, bike parking. Barcelona: check out bike parking. Soak up the ramblas. So many great achievements to absorb. I was in Paris in 2003 when they were proud to have 2% cycling. Look at where they are now!

Noah
Noah
3 months ago

When you go to Copenhagen you should go hunting for the Forgotten Giants as a way to explore the suburban bike network of greater Copenhagen! They are super cool and biking is by far the best way to see them all. https://thomasdambo.com/works/forgotten-giants/

Also the Vestvolden fortifications nearby circle the entire western side of the city and has a really nice bike path along its entire route, it’s a beautiful path away from traffic with really unique views of historical abandoned forts and moats that are all being reclaimed by nature.

While out in the western suburbs there’s also a few of really wild suburban style developments that have completely separate bike infrastructure from cars, if I remember from memory and looking at maps the Herstedvester neighborhood/ Albertslund. A lot of the paths there go under all the roads through tunnels instead of making you push a beg button at every intersection so getting around is super relaxing and quick!

In the city the most interesting bike lane is Vester Voldgade and it’s made out of fancy grey tiles instead of the typical boring danish asphalt, it’s a very classy experience.

You should definitely highlight the struggle of bike parking, the Danes could take some pointers form the Dutch there.

I lived there and biked around for almost two years of my life biking absolutely all over the place so it was hard to limit myself to just a few suggestions.

City-lover
City-lover
2 months ago

Just seeing this now but I was an exchange student for a year after high school in Gent, Belgium. It’s the coolest city in Europe and where I first biked for transportation or took a streetcar! It’s a quick hop from Brussels and so friendly. Living there is probably why I moved to Portland after college in 1998 and why I became an urban planner.