It’s Perfectly Normal

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Portlanders are proud that we are consistently ranked among the three most bicycle friendly cities in the United States. After visiting Amsterdam last month, I don’t feel that we have much to brag about.  

If Amsterdam were likened to a bicycle, it would be a comfortable, well-tuned machine that would take you wherever you wanted to go in just a few minutes. By comparison, Portland would be a kid’s bike with training wheels. (We’d be riding along gleefully waving and yelling, “look Ma, no hands.”)

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As much as Portland wants to believe it is a bike capital, Amsterdam outdoes it every way: countless miles of cycle tracks, bike roads, and bike directional signs, all of which are interconnected and give cyclists the priority over most other modes of transport.

Note the man in the dark suit on the left side of the photo.
Note the man in the dark suit on the left side of the photo. When was the last time you saw a businessman in a suit riding a bike in the US?

But more important than facilities, people in the Netherlands make bicycling feel normal; like something you’d prefer to do over getting into a car or even riding a trolley (which ply the city at frequent intervals).

Notice the variety of people riding bikes in this picture.

Regular people of all ages ride bikes. They carry things Americans would never think to use a bike to transport.

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They move about with a comfort level that makes you imagine that they were born on a bicycle.

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Hauling a passenger on the back rack is common.

In Portland, men on bikes outnumber women on bikes by about two to one. In Amsterdam, things seem pretty balanced.

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Observe the multitude of bikes parked in the background of nearly all of these photos.

So, how could Portland take off it’s training wheels? How will we know when we’ve arrived as a true bike city? Over the next few posts I’ll delve into the answer… Stick around.

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6 thoughts on “It’s Perfectly Normal

    1. There are four bike hooks to hang your bike. There are regularly eight bikes jammed into that space, partially blocking the doors, which is somewhat acceptable. During rush hour there are often 10-15 bikes on the train, which frankly, is rude. You’re not allowed to bring bikes on most trolleys (trams) in Amsterdam, nor on buses. Besides, if we had better bike infrastructure, why would you want to put your bike on a train?

  1. Well, say for one reason or another you live in Hillsboro or Gresham and work in the city what do you do? Amsterdam is flat and there is no way a Portland businessman in a suit is going to bike into town and arrive in any condition to get to work. According to the transit authority if the four or at most eight hooks are full, you are expected to catch the next train with open hooks. More power to those who crowd in as they represent fewer cars and less traffic. What is worse is the newer replacement train cars actually have less space for bikes. Take a few notes from the trains in Denmark, they also have a culture that uses bicycles as a primary transportation for both young and old. The trains in Copenhagen work the same way on street and dedicated track but the middle entry area is devoted to bike and stroller parking. Ten to fifteen bikes would be easily accommodated and often are. Most of the wet and dirt stays there and the seating areas stay cleaner. The ability to take a bike on a train or bus IS bike infrastructure as it represents the way people live here. I do agree there are many more improvements Portland could choose to better encourage bike usage; I just chose to pick on a problem I dealt with on a nearly daily basis.

  2. As you know Bruce, I grew up in Portland and was part of the lobbying effort in the ’70’s that resulted in the Bike Bill. It’s been a long haul since then to make bicycles recognized in the city and beyond as a legitimate mode of transportation. The current hyperbole from city hall promoting bicycling is encouraging, but the question of how to get the community to switch from autos to bikes is still at the core of the debate. You will still find motorists that believe bicycles have no place on the roads. I happen to be of the opinion that an additional infrastructure is not necessary – fewer cars would make cycling safer and there would be plenty of room on the roads we already have. For starters, how about every motorist capable of riding to work in the city from a five mile radius taking to two wheels? I’ve been part of that demographic at times throughout the last 40-50 years and at one time I could identify by sight every daily cyclist in the county. Today that’s not possible, so we’re moving in the right direction.

    1. All good points. I respect all the work that has been done to date and continues to get done by groups like the BTA. In my next few posts, I’ll delve more into my feelings on the matter. I hope you’ll continue to weigh in.

  3. Hey Bruce! Kyle and I just got back from visiting Germany. Tons of bikes there too. I immediately noticed that they have the sidewalk divided into the bike lane next to the cars and the pedestrian part on the building side of that. At intersections they have broad crosswalks where the bikes continue in their lane as do the pedestrians. It gets pretty constricted in some areas due to the really old buildings and narrow streets.

    We also visited Salzburg Austria and on a walk I noticed a secondary road along the river that didn’t have a centerline. Instead, it had a dashed line demarcating a bike lane on either side and room for one car in the middle. Granted, this was a lower trafficked road, but it was nice to see the bikes having defined areas.

    I commute by bike most days, like you do, and people are always surprised and think it is such a masochistic thing to do. Once you have the gear, rain just doesn’t matter. Numerous times in a torrential downpour, in the dark, I find myself laughing out loud at the wonderful absurdity of it.

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