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.
In Amsterdam, I commuted on a decent street bike and protected it well with two locks, one for the front wheel and frame and one for the back wheel. I was lucky that for the seven months I commuted on that bike the worst that happened was to return to my bike one day to find it without a seat. On a different day, I left it locked but unattended for two hours and found it without lights.
The Amsterdam bike paths aren’t the safest either. They may be segregated from cars, but you still find yourself dodging other bikers, crossing pedestrians, joggers, scooters, pigeons and geese, loose cobblestones, and the occasional motorcycle. And most dangerous of all, tourists on bikes.
Biking in Seattle is, in a lot of ways, nicer than in Amsterdam. I ride a road bike of my choice and I’m happy that I can lock it to a bike rack downtown without having to worry about getting it, or parts of it, stolen. I love greeting other commuters and Seattle has a really nice cycling community. Seattle is a great city to incorporate bicycle commuting into your daily life.
The city is relatively small and dense, which means that most trips out of the house are under 10 miles. The weather is wet but mild. Many businesses have showers or locker rooms available for its employees to change and freshen up before work. There are bike racks all over town. And any bike with a few gears will enable you to take on the hills.
So if the majority of your trips are under 10 miles and you’re physically able to ride a bike, I see no reason why one would drive. Bicycle commuting benefits the global climate, eases the city’s traffic congestion, saves money and time, and it improves your health.
Understandably, the biggest concern people have is safety. Cyclists zig-zagging in and out of traffic and inattentive car drivers cutting off cyclists are dangerous and irresponsible. Seattle only has so many streets, and in order to safely share these streets, cars need to respect cyclists by giving them space and cyclists need to act like a car and adhere to the same rules. Whatever disagreements people have regarding the city’s pro-biking agenda need to stay in the city council or on the ballots and not be decided on the streets.
In the Netherlands bike rules and safety are part of the school curriculum as many field trips are done on bikes. While this is not the case here, there are still resources available. Organizations like REI, Cascade Bicycle Club and Cycle U offer great classes on bicycling safety, rules, routes, and bicycle maintenance.
As Locke mentioned, the bicycle commuter demographic in Seattle tends to be on the younger side, but that shouldn’t intimidate or discourage anyone. On the contrary, I think it’s encouraging to see the younger demographic embrace biking the way it has. I think it’s mistaken to interpret this biking trend as shunning the Industrial Era past. I see it more as stepping up to deal with the task that’s been handed down to us. While Locke and his generation grew up with a reverence for the automobile industry, we’re stuck with trying to curb its detrimental environmental impacts.
The environment aside, bicycle commuting is popular with the younger demographic due to the sheer fact that we’re broke. Between having to pay off our student loans and having a hard time finding a decent job in this economy, we've learned that a car is a privilege and it’s unnecessary for trips in and around the city.
For the majority of my trips, it’s actually faster to bike than driving or taking public transportation. Plus, young and old alike can benefit from a little extra low-impact exercise and some more fresh air every day. Incorporating biking into your daily life is by far the easiest, most enjoyable, and most practical way to live a healthier lifestyle.
However, as Mayor McGinn is experiencing, lifestyle changes cannot be forced onto people and need to be taken one step — or one pedal stroke — at a time. But the best way of shaking old habits is by trying on new ones. Biking is good for the planet, good for your wallet, and good for you. If you can physically handle it, all you need to do is put on a helmet, roll up your pant leg, and go!