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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