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Bicycling Seattle: Comparison with Amsterdam can be favorable

A local writer who hails from The Netherlands finds that, in some ways, bicycling in Seattle has advantages over her native land. And the rainy weather is similar.

Biking is a way of life in Amsterdam.

Biking is a way of life in Amsterdam. Anne-Marije Rook

Bikes are sometimes precariously chained on the edge of Amsterdam's canals.

Bikes are sometimes precariously chained on the edge of Amsterdam's canals. Anne-Marije Rook

It's early on a weekday morning and I'm looking out the window gauging the weather. Darkness is fading and light casts an orange glow in the east. It looks cold but clear. Every dry day is like a blessing. I put on a coat, strap on my shoes and slip on some gloves. In the garage I roll up my pant legs, put on a helmet and I'm ready to go — the morning routine of bicycle commuter.

I have done this every morning for most of my life, ever since I was 6 years old and learned how to ride a bike properly without training wheels.  I hail from The Netherlands , a country where there are more bikes than people and more than a quarter of all journeys in the country are made by bike, according to the Dutch Cycling Council. The Netherlands is unparalleled in its bicycle ownership and usage in the Western World with its segregated bicycle lanes and general biking infrastructure, so perhaps my fondness of biking was in my blood.  

While this time last year I was cruising the flat red bike paths of Amsterdam, I am now taking on the hills of Seattle. While the two cities differ greatly in landscape, they have many similarities. The rainy weather and bikeability are two of them. Seattle's bike friendliness — worthy of a fourth place in Bicycle Magazine’s ranking of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities — was definitely one of the factors that drew me to this city.

Seattle is undeniably a leader in bikeability in the U.S., and it might even be on the right track in becoming an international competitor as well but it has a long way to go. While more bicycle lanes and bicycle parking are necessary, the city’s real challenge lies in balancing the push to increase bicycle commuting and public transportation usage while appeasing the automobile drivers.

As Hubert G. Locke showed in a recent article, "Beep-beep: a car-user’s manifesto," the city’s alternative transportation agenda is being pushed onto the Seattlites too quickly and with little concern for car users, creating a counterintuitive attitude towards biking.

The difference between biking in Amsterdam and biking in Seattle is that in Amsterdam, biking has always been in its culture. Here, bicycle commuting has only recently began trending.

In Amsterdam, biking culture was in place before the usage of cars, and the city’s infrastructure is simply incapable of dealing with the car congestion. It has made it possible for cars and bikes to live side-by-side, in a segregated but equal manner.

The majority of the bike lanes in Amsterdam are segregated from the street by thick white lines and red painting or even by bollards and curbs. Parking garages specifically for bikes stand next to train stations to allow commuters to continue their commute on bike in the city. 

Amsterdam is often praised for being the world’s most bike friendly city but it doesn’t come without sacrifice or dangers. Most of its downtown core is inaccessible to cars — it’s foot or bike only — and people are discouraged from using their cars.  It has some of the highest parking fees in the world. A survey by Colliers International showed that it will cost you around $70 to park a car all day in central Amsterdam. Compared to that, Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposal to boost on-street parking rates to $4 an hour isn’t so bad.  

Where Amsterdam is unparalleled in its bicycle usage, it’s also unparalleled in its bicycle theft and vandalism. You will see absolutely no one commuting on the expensive clipless-pedal road bikes you see throughout Seattle. They wouldn’t last one afternoon in Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam you’re best off to buy the oldest looking, shabby, upright grandma bike you can find and pay more money for a decent lock than for the bike itself. Because biking is a necessity in the city to get around, bikes have become a commodity for black market dealers and drug addicts. In 2005, around 54,000 bicycles were stolen in Amsterdam and annually some 6,000 bikes are fished out of the various bodies of water.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

To paraphrase James Carville's old Clinton campaign slogan: It's the topography, stupid!

Bicycling in a town with this many hills, and in some parts some pretty steep ones, is simply not practical (or safe) for the general population. I grant you it works for a small core of athletic-minded individuals, and those who can afford expensive mountain bikes or electric bikes (and may be willing to make part of their bike journeys with a bike-toting bus), but these are not the qualities that have fostered the mass appeal of bike riding in Amsterdam and other cities around the globe. Most of those towns have one thing in common: a fairly level terrain.

I visited Amsterdam in 2004, and duly rented a bike to serve as my main transportation (other than walking) for the 10 days I spent there. It was great! Sure, I rode on a one-speed bike with balloon tires, which was fairly weighty in comparison with what people ride here in Seattle, but that's all I needed. The only 'hills' I encountered were the small bridges spanning the canals.

As a result, virtually 'everyone' rode a bike there, and nobody wore helmets or special gear for this activity, because it wasn't particularly dangerous or strenuous. If they locked their bikes whenever they parked them--well, people do that here as well.

I think that the very 'advantages' the author attributes to Seattle over Amsterdam in this matter stems from Seattle's relative lack of 'success'. After all, if bicycles were as prevalent here as cars are, more of our car thieves would be out stealing bicycles. And bicyclists here don't have to worry so much about colliding with other bicyclists--because there are so few of them. Except during Critical Mass or sporting events, the local bike rider doesn't have to confront the risks of riding among packs of other riders.

I must therefore say to the author: Be careful what you wish for. (Although it would literally require moving a mountain--or, should I say, some hills?--to make that wish come true.)

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not the topography it's the culture.

I offer you this Google maps photo of the bike rack out side of Harborview Hospital. If you'll notice, it's at the top of a very steep hill, and yet the rack has a large number of bicycles in it.

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source;=s_q&hl;=en&q;=harborview+hospital,&sll;=47.603467,-122.322673&sspn;=0.001212,0.002897&ie;=UTF8&t;=h&radius;=0.08&split;=1&rq;=1&ev;=zo&hq;=harborview+hospital,&hnear;=≪=47.603939,-122.323274&spn;=0.001204,0.002897&z;=19&layer;=c&cbll;=47.604027,-122.323355&panoid;=ylHsVLWJ2QRMxA9x7AZvyw&cbp;=12,239.34,,0,5.92

Unfortunately it's not a covered rack so the bikes are exposed to the weather.

The bicycle culture here is old. I've been commuting since 1980 for the same reason as the author. It's cheaper, and healthier. But it's not always possible due to the lack of a bike lane on 520.

As for stolen bikes. you should follow the Amsterdam riders and lock your front wheel as well as the frame to something solid and use a U-lock, not a cable lock for the frame.

As for strenous, after you ride a while, those hills stop being a problem. With the CDC forecasting 1 in 3 people getting diabetes by 2050, you owe it to yourself to get out and ride.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

That long link didn't seem to work — try http://goo.gl/maps/KIkt instead.
Yes, Harborview is at the top of First Hill. I wonder how many people rode up from the waterfront, though, or up from the International District. I wouldn't be surprised if most of them came from Capitol Hill, or on Metro buses.

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

The hills can no doubt be a formidable challenge, but I think they can also be an excuse. There are many, many places in the city where hills really aren't a factor, especially in North South directions. It should also be noted that Capitol Hill has an above average amount of cyclists even though it is on a hill. My experience has been that as long as you have a well geared bike, you may have to go slow but the effort is doable for any physically-abled individual.

Regardless, our goal should be to create such a comfortable, safe cycling system that the hills are the ONLY factor people don't ride. We may never get to 50% cycle commuting but I think we can get well beyond the 3% we're at right now.

JoshMahar

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 5:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this very complementary article about similarities and differences biking here vs. Amsterdam. I agree with most of the assertions in this article, but after a recent trip to Europe I feel that our bike infrastructure is meager compared to that of many European cities (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, etc.) and downright lame compared to that of our urban neighbors, Portland and Vancouver. I have biked for years both in Seattle in in other cities and towns and what is really striking is the sheer hate that cyclists are exposed to here. I have been shouted at, cursed at, squeezed next to parked cars, driven up onto the curb, and even spat at on Seattle's streets. I have narrowly missed hitting erratic pedestrians and skateboarders who often insist on hogging local trails. Admittedly, our trails are multi-use, but SDOT barely gives a nod in the direciton of attempting to separate cyclists and pedestrians though it could easily do so with better signage and striping the trails with high quality, durable paint to encourage separation of direcional traffic not to mention encouraging peds to use nearby sidewals that parallel many of these trails. Most of our trails are discontinuous, and even when SDPT and Seattle Parks spend big bucks improving streets and parks they carelessly fail to attend to details that could improve safety and usability of trails and streets. Examples include leaving relict RR tracks embeded in the pavement near South Lake Union Park, and that park's bizarre array of new sidewalks, one of which near the west side of the Lake abruptly ends in grass. Biking on some of our bridges (e.g., Ballard, Montlake) is at best unpleasant and sometimes downright dangerous, and there are still numerous "missing links" that SDOT hasn't managed to get around to fixing in spite of decades of effort (the disconnect between the west end of the new Nickerson road diet bike lanes and the part of Nickerson west of 15th Avenue West, the south side of the Ship Canal, pretty much anywhere in South Seattle. Bike racks are still sparse even downtown, the densest and one of the most heavily biked neighborhoods in Seattle. It all boils down to SDOT's huge inability to walk its talk. The Seattle Master Bicycle Plan is barely 10% funding. At the molluscan pace SDOT is proceeding it will take 60 years to fully implement the plan.

The results of Seattle's tepid commitment to bikability this are nowhere more striking than comparisons between bike transportation infrastrucutre in Portland vs. here. In Portland some commercial parking lots have more bikes than cars, a situation unheard of here. Unfortunately, I won't live long enough to see Seattle catch up to Portland.

Mud Baby

Posted Sun, Oct 24, 8:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I am an older person who has been to Amsterdam several times. My husband and I found Amsterdam to be a nightmare for pedestrians because of the bicycles. We either walked or took public transportation. Every time we crossed a street we had to dodge bicylists who wove around us as not all paid attention to stop lights. Next time we visit Amsterdam's museums we'll probably take a taxi in order to avoid playing dodgeball with our bodies. Unfortunately, every idea has unintended consequences.

MASKR

Posted Sun, Oct 24, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree that antibike hate is pretty, and truly incomprehensibly, intense in Seattle, though less so from Seattleites proper and more so from commuters who live outside the city limits.

I also see the shift to being more bike-friendly as a generational one, since the hate seems also to radiate more hotly the older someone is. Over the next 5-10 years, I would expect the antibike voices to subside considerably.

I like the idea of including biking safety training in the curriculum for kids. I'm surprised it's not already required!

smacgry

Posted Mon, Oct 25, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I've seen people riding up Yesler on bicycles to Harborview! It can be done, although they were going pretty slow. Also note that one of the bicycle messenger services is also up that same hill. (ABC-Legal @ 633 Yesler Way)

GaryP

Posted Mon, Oct 25, 6:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Two points:

Amsterdam is pretty substandard by Dutch standards:

http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2010/02/effect-of-population-density-on-cycling.html

(note that the best infrastructure is in the relatively low density north of the country which also has the highest rate of cycling.)

And hilly places with good infrastructure have far higher levels of biking than Seattle does:

http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2009/10/effect-of-hills-on-cycling.html

So it's the infrastructure that seems to matter...

Posted Wed, Oct 27, 12:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Agree fully with the previous commentor about the anti bike hatred coming too often from a demographic that will hopefully soon be taking it to their graves. I myself hope to avoid an early grave by staying away from cars as much as possible while on a bike. A paint strip won't do anything to protect me from a car weighing 15 times what I and a bike weigh and going faster. F=ma, do the math, bikes lose. Why the city persists in trying to put bikes on arterials alongside cars is beyond me. There is a sidestreet way to get almost anywhere. I may be the only person biking that way but at least I might get there alive.

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 9:02 p.m. Inappropriate

@smacgry and Snoqualman: Please don't consign me "hopefully soon" into my grave. Many of us grey-headed characters love biking around town, and love fellow cyclists, too, especially if they heed the rules of the road. (Roads in Seattle, though, aren't always kind to the aging behind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v45SkhDtNA .)

Posted Sun, Oct 31, 1:45 p.m. Inappropriate


The problem for both planners and cyclists is that the thinking is trapped in the same high density, central hub thinking that is so retrograde.

The bicycle works well in a linear city situation...where low density amenities are spread out along a flat line with many access paths to a bike-only lane...like the Interurban or Burke Gilman.

So, rather than figure out how to get bikes into high density down town, the ideal should be, how to construct low density, low cost but quality business and retail along a bikeable path way.

jabailo

Posted Sun, Oct 31, 10:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Bite your tongue!

There is NO comparison between Amsterdam & Seattle (the biggest small town on the West Coast).

Amsterdam is not Seattle.

Amsterdam is urban, cosmopolitan, and the people are friendly w/o attempting to control your life thru small town pressure.

Seattle is one big suburb

Posted Mon, Nov 1, 1:26 p.m. Inappropriate

If I understand car buying in Holland properly, taxes add about sixty-percent to the price of a car, whether you buy new or used. Gasoline is dear, too, at around $8.00 per gallon, when I visited in early October. In a sense, it's more interesting that the private car modal share in Dutch urban settings is so high (around one-third), not that cycling has such high usage. I could imagine an immediate leap in bicycling, in many U.S. cities, if driving were equally expensive.

But then again, I loved cycling in Holland, from Groningen to Amsterdam. I'd love to see equal infrastructure here.

BJToepper

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