The Shock of Returning to the Bay Space – Streetsblog San Francisco

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My short sabbatical in Europe ended this month with a trip to the Netherlands, the mecca for every urbanist and advocate of safe roads.

It wasn’t my first trip there. But as I got off the train in Utrecht a few weeks ago, having just finished my week at an international cycling conference in Leipzig, it struck me again that I was in a world that’s all about people, not about cars went . I am sure that all Streetsblog readers know the numbers: Depending on the city, a full third to over half of all journeys in the Netherlands are made by bicycle. Transit tends to increase again as much. Cars also play an important role, but they don’t take precedence over all other modes of transport like they do in the US

A bridge in Utrecht

It was my first time in Utrecht but it felt so familiar and comfortable, like an old shoe. It was as if the whole town was one community—an extension of everyone’s homes. It gave the same feeling you get when you walk through a park or an outdoor market, only they were just regular streets full of bikes, the occasional car or truck, and lots of pedestrians.

But that was not always the case in the Netherlands. Check out this photo below from the 1980s in Utrecht from the Bicycle Dutch blog.

An aerial view of Rotterdam in the bad old days.  Photo by : Bicycle DutchAn aerial view of Utrecht in the bad old days. Photo by : Bicycle Dutch

How do you reconcile old photos like the one above with today’s Utrecht, which is characterized by gabled houses, canals and bicycles? Surely they can’t be the same place? (But they are).

As an American, I can get a better idea of ​​that when I go to the Dutch city of Rotterdam next. Rotterdam was completely destroyed in World War II. Well into the 1970s the city was still being rebuilt like an American city – with skyscrapers, large glass and steel structures, freeways and huge roads to maximize automobile throughput.

It’s still a modern looking city with wide streets and tall buildings. There is nothing really “Dutch” or European about the architecture or layout, as I hope the photo of the skyline below will make clear. From this perspective, it could be Pittsburgh or Toledo without concrete streets running through and around downtown:

Rotterdam, Wikimedia CommonsRotterdam, Wikimedia Commons

And yet, just like Utrecht, Rotterdam feels wonderful for walking and cycling. Watching the movement of so many people on bicycles, trams, on foot and even by car was a kind of poetry. No horns. I could not see or hear any aggression. No standstill. And there was so much life in the streets.

A typical corner in RotterdamA typical corner in Rotterdam

The Dutch are still making improvements. Since I was last there ten years ago, Rotterdam has moved away from building cycle lanes or even sheltered lanes as one would normally think of them. Instead of cutting off a fraction of the road space for cars and using it for bikes, they shook up the Etch a Sketch road and built completely separate roads for bikes, with wide gaps between the two modes of transport. Except at intersections, cyclists rarely need to interact with or pay attention to motorists. And the crossings are of course Dutch – no dangerous curves or mixing zones.

Modern Dutch cycle lanes are almost completely separated from the parking lot.

My friend Ju-Sung, with whom I stayed in Rotterdam, has a small, modern terraced house in the suburb of Zevenkamp. He and his wife own a car; There are many cars. Creating a suburban neighborhood where car ownership and use can still be desirable does not mean that it will be difficult or even difficult to use public transportation, ride a bike or walk. We actually walked everywhere and took the subway. All of the modes co-exist but without the constant conflicts and dangers of attempting to walk or bike through an American suburb.

My friend's neighborhood in a suburb of Rotterdam.  Image: Google EarthMy friend’s neighborhood in a suburb of Rotterdam. Note that there are many cars. Image: Google Earth

I’ve also gone jogging through the neighborhood and admired the harmony that reigns with the many hiking trails, wetlands teeming with ducks and other birds, bike lanes, car lanes, and trains.

Since I had a large suitcase, my friends saved me a transfer on the way back and drove me to a main train station where I could catch my return flight on my last morning there. They discussed driving me to Schiphol Airport but the train was a faster and easier option. Ju-Sung accompanied me until departure at Schiphol to say goodbye. You can do this for a friend if the trains are fast, frequent and reliable.

An example of one of the many bike-only streets that complement the car streets in my friend's Rotterdam suburb.  Image: Google MapsAn example of one of the many bike-only streets in my friend’s Rotterdam suburb. Image: Google Maps

How come they have such a great transit too? investment of course. But the Dutch don’t make things that damn complicated either. The Rotterdam Metro, for example, runs on the surface as soon as it leaves the inner city district. On the surface, it takes complete precedence over other modes. It is therefore easy to get to the city center and trains are fast and frequent. And it doesn’t cost billions a mile to build and maintain.

The Rotterdam Metro runs on the surface, at a bicycle crossingThe Rotterdam Metro runs on the surface, at a bicycle crossing

How many times have I heard from professional transit planners in California that subways can only run fast and frequently when they are in a tunnel or above traffic? No, planners simply have to follow the Dutch example and stop subordinating trains to people in cars. Note the above photo of a level crossing on the Rotterdam Metro. where the train crosses its own cycle path.

All of this may seem like an urban fantasy. But it’s real. And it’s accessible everywhere if leaders want to make it a reality, as they are currently doing in Paris, Brussels, Lyon and elsewhere.

I cut my flight home and stayed in Boston. Walking through downtown Boston, as is the case in any mid-to-large American city downtown, one encounters a place riddled with traffic noise, huge SUVs, pollution, huge multi-lane highways, virtually no bike lanes, and a non-stop gridlock is overwhelmed. It was shocking how intimidating and incredibly uncomfortable it was to be back.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Dutch design can be applied anywhere if people can get the “car must rule” meme out of their heads.

I wish everyone could spend some time in the Netherlands. I think upon his return, any sane person would demand an end to all freeways, multi-lane roads, unprotected bike lanes, noise and the current state of the Bay Area.

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