A Total Fiasco: Bicycling Infrastructure in Italy

As many travelers past and present have been keen to observe, Italy does many things well- gelato, ravioli, fancy cars and even fancier handbags. Traffic, I must dutifully report, is not part of that impressive repertoire. From the moment one steps off a train platform, whether in Rome, Florence, or (god forbid) into the pungent cauldron of Naples, they have lost their right of way. The culprit may be a Vespa, a delivery truck, or a Ferrari, but you will always remember that virgin, bitter sting of your foot being crushed under a rubber tire going 20 km over the “speed limit.” For as much as I could chuckle to myself about Italy’s traffic chaos, especially after basking in the traffic paradisos of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands- places where pedestrians eerily wait for walk signs in the dead of night- bicycling in fact plays a larger role in Italy’s transportation chaos than one might expect. Of course, when one goes to Italy, one doesn’t go to study bicycling infrastructure, and to be honest, neither was I. Still, I believe that some of the good and bad examples of bicycling infrastructure I came across along my travels are worth sharing with the general public.

Ravenna and Ferrara

(I would have begun in Venice, but riding a bike around Venice is insane.)

The small cities of Ravenna and Ferrara, and to a lesser degree Bologna, in the province of Emilia Romagna (one of Italy’s wealthier, northern provinces), have a surprising amount of bicycling, and a slightly more striking amount of bicycling infrastructure. What is most distinctive about these small cities however, is who is riding these bikes. Unlike Brooklyn or Berlin where bicycling is most visible and fashionable among hip youth and students, in Italy, the most noticeable bicycling population is elderly.

Like some crumbling basilica sinking into the mud, the elderly bicycling populations of Ravenna and Ferrara represent a vestige of time past. They hark back to a time in Italy’s grand history before automobile ownership and vespas, when bicycling was the fastest and most convenient way to get around the small towns and Italian countryside (at least the flatter regions). Though the gates of Ravenna have today flung open to a torrent of traffic, the old ladies headed to the market still take their bikes. (When I say old, I mean really, really old ladies.)

Since I was expecting almost nothing infrastructure-wise in Italy, Ravenna and Ferrara were both enlightening in that each boasted considerable mileage of separated, well signed on street or sidewalk bicycle paths. Moreover, the ways that these paths had been implemented were, especially in the case of Ravenna, somewhat distinctive from other cities and strategies that I had observed thus far.

For a city that was briefly one of the largest of antiquity and the Byzantine Era, Ravenna doesn’t boast the kind of tarnished grandeur that one might expect. Still, though its luster is today primarily restricted to its famous gold church mosaics, the city’s bicycling culture is a marvel in a country ubiquitous with traffic fatalities. Many cobblestone streets in the city’s old center have been repaved in the center to create smoother surfaces for bicyclists. Outside the city walls, meanwhile, a mixture of signage and infrastructure indicate regional destinations. Some head toward the Adriatic, others to nearby towns and villages. At the tourist office, I was even given a bicycling map, albeit one that way only in German. (I suppose Ravenna isn’t exactly on the American grand tour.)

As much as I was impressed by the amount of infrastructure I did see in Ravenna, after a day or two, I began to see how many fissures there really are in the city’s bicycling network. For a relatively small city, there is a lot of traffic. Main streets, like elsewhere in Italy, are difficult to cross, with few timed traffic signals. Actual bicycle paths, meanwhile, when consistent, still zigzag unnecessarily and frequently change from street to sidewalk to street without much warning or logic. Though Ravenna is by no means a perfect system, it has many of the important, less noticeable elements of a good cycling network, such as well thought out parking areas catered to frequent destinations, and for Italy, a fair amount of traffic hierarchy and structure.

From Ravenna, I made my way to the city of Ferrara. A light rain was falling when I arrived and, since I couldn’t find a baggage storage at the train station, I had to haul my thirty pound pack of dirty laundry around with me while taking photographs. As much pain as I felt when I finally took off my pack, the sight of throngs of elderly bicyclists parading through the Renaissance streets of Ferrara is a memory I will cherish forever. Though the city is compact, and has a large student population, bicycling culture here flourishes as if a part of a timeless way of life, and compared with other Italian cities, Ferrara’s street life is largely free from the tyranny of automobile and vespa traffic.

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Rome

When I was originally doing research for my fellowship, I remember reading a sentence about bicycling becoming fashionable all across Europe- in cities like Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and yes, Rome. The sentence surprised me too, but I kept it in the back of my mind to look out for a bicycle share station or two on my visit. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly impressed by the results.

First off, Rome’s bicycle sharing system is pathetic. Stations are few and far between, and seem to serve more as a showpiece of the city’s (lackluster) effort to be green than as any tangible solution to their ingrained traffic problems. As a pedestrian, moreover, Rome is a complete nightmare. Forget the warren of medieval streets that shouldn’t but do allow cars and vespas to both park and drive on them, the biggest issue in Rome is that regular streets serve as highways directly where the city’s main attractions meet. What would logically be the city’s modern “forum”- the most central, celebrated axis where it coalesces into something resembling sanity- a series of ineffective crosswalks with no timed traffic signal offer the only  passage across. It’s an outrageous and obvious rent in the fabric of the city. Someone should have thought to fix that problem before investing any time and effort into a purposeless bicycle share system. The ancient center of the city, meanwhile, the actual Roman Forum, is completely fenced off with only a single entrance (at least during low season). It serves as a massive barrier between neighborhoods, and since it lies at the foot of the Campidoglio and the Palatine, can be a thigh-blasting nuisance to circumvent.

As infrastructure goes, Rome made Ravenna look like Amsterdam. Whatever infrastructure I did see, was bad and lasted for hardly two blocks. A beautiful bicycle path does run along the Tiber, but to reach it, one has to find a staircase. In my mind, Rome’s traffic problems stem from a lack of clear hierarchy and categorization, not only for bicycles, but for cars and pedestrians as well. Cars drive down residential streets at the same speed as they drive down regional or distributor roads, and there are few tangible indications, outside of logic and sanity, that they shouldn’t. If Rome’s streets were better defined into a series of 30 km/hr or pedestrian friendly zones with speed bumps and parking bans, then fewer cars would be speeding to take shortcuts to the nearest traffic jam.

Ditto Florence, with more infrastructure, but less character to the chaos.

Final Thoughts

Italy is no place to learn about bicycling infrastructure. Nevertheless, its bare canvas for traffic planning (really more of a Pollak-esque opus), is thought provoking for the logic one can deduce from its palette of missteps and ineptitude. Places like Rome and Florence have a tremendous amount of history, streets congested by tourists, traffic, and street hawkers, but they are places where bicycling has the potential to not only improve traffic, but make the city healthier, safer, more environmentally friendly, and livable. After all, any old, dense city with a concentration of destinations and insufficient public transit, is rife for cycling infrastructure. Instead of focusing on bicycle sharing rather than infrastructure (or in the case of Florence, relieving the city’s infrastructure by moving the David somewhere else–a ridiculous solution if I may say so myself), both cities miss out on the opportunity to rethink the potential of the street as a place for people to meet, interact, eat, and wander, without the fear of being run over, an all too common occurrence in Europe’s richest second world country.

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Dissecting the Copenhagen Bicycle Path

Though my fastidious investigation of European bicycling infrastructure was initially inspired by my semester-long residence in Copenhagen in the spring of 2009, after a month of cycling through the Netherlands, I found myself rather underwhelmed at the prospect of reevaluating Copenhagen’s cycling system. In the Netherlands, I had observed elements of bicycling infrastructure far more developed and cohesive than anything I could have imagined while a student in Denmark. Moreover, I felt frustrated that, despite boasting a rather less developed system than the Dutch, the Danes had touted the cycle track as a “Copenhagen path” and branded themselves as the bicycling ambassadors to the world at large. (This also contradicted everything that I had been told about Danish humility in my language and culture classes.)

My first day in Copenhagen did little to sway my opinions regarding the Dutch versus the Danish cycling path. Whereas the Dutch cycle tracks had by and large been separated from the street by a generous median, ubiquitously painted (or paved) red, and well-signed at decision points, the Danish paths felt closer to the bustle of traffic, were only painted blue at  certain intersections, and consistently lacked signage at major decision points. Though I observed some novel experiments in the creation of bicycle highways threading through the city center and its periphery, the traffic realities of these routes often conflicted with their loftier goals.

Setting out on day two, however- albeit a fresher, sunnier morning than the one previous (winter comes early in Copenhagen)- the beauty of the Copenhagen cycling system unveiled itself to me once again.

Below I describe the basic tenets of what makes bicycling in Copenhagen special, and those things that the city needs to improve before staking a claim to the title of world’s greatest cycling city.

1. Danes ride fast: A city of smooth paths and skinny bikes

In contrast to the Netherlands, where the hefty “grandma-bike,” or Omafiets, is the ride of choice, the Danes bike around Copenhagen on thin, sleek, fast, and fashionable bikes. Even more noticeable and significant than these svelte bikes, however, are the smooth paths that they race over. Unlike paths in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, almost all paths for bicycles in Denmark are paved with smooth asphalt. The result is a faster, more seamless commute.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use an anecdote. On my last night in Copenhagen, my host family and I went to the city of Ballerup in the northwest metro region of greater Copenhagen. One of the family’s boys decided to cycle the 5 or 6 miles back home since there was no room in the car, offering jokingly to race us back. He set off a few minutes before the car and I looked out the window for some time along the ride home, convinced that we had long past him. After driving almost halfway home, meanwhile having fully taken for granted that we’d left him in the dust, I was shocked to see him riding ahead of us from the back seat window. Stunned, I look around to check if the rest of the family shared in my amazement. They did not.

A typical cycling path in Copenhagen as seen from above. The paving of the sidewalk and the cycle path are distinguished. The asphalt paving of the bicycle path makes for an incredibly smooth ride in and out of the city. Car traffic can be heavy in both directions, causing a nuisance.

A close up of a typical Copenhagen path. Smoothness and a slight change in elevation are the distinguishing markers. Color could be used to better distinguish the bicycling areas from the street and sidewalk (and bolster the overall presence of the cycle path).

2. Fashion and Branding

Copenhagen’s foremost success in the world of cycling has been its ability to brand bicycling, to render it “in” and fashionable. I don’t know whether or not it was the golden-haired, leather-booted Scandinavian maidens bicycling (floating) beside me, but cycling in Copenhagen felt distinctly cooler than elsewhere. In Copenhagen, your bike is as much a fashion statement as your jacket, shoes, pants, or bag. Indeed, this fashion, which I believe takes certain cues from early 20th c. posters popularizing the bicycle, responds with conscious grace to the bicyclist’s motion. As a result, nowhere does the appeal of bicycling, the cool factor, loom larger and lure more youth and elders alike to ride routinely.

Cycling in Copenhagen. Cooler (more attractive) than anywhere else.

3. The Intermediate Curb

Considered as an architecture, one of the most incredible facets of the Copenhagen’s bicycle path is its visual subtlety. Most Copenhagen paths are distinguished by a simple intermediate step in between the elevation of the sidewalk and the street. This strip can be as wide or wider than the sidewalk (or in the outskirts, a shared-sidewalk model) and is sometimes separated by parked cars as well.

As a lesson to any place considering the development of a cycling infrastructure on a budget, the intermediate step path is significantly more minimal than most of the tiled paths in the Netherlands or Germany (depending on comparative costs of digging up and replacing piping and drainage), and takes up less space on the street. It is a simple, beautiful operation because it provides just enough space for bicyclists without placing them on a street lane that compromises safety and comfort.

Small cues such as this slight change in elevation (and paving of course) need to be appreciated by street designers and engineers. Pedestrians and cars do notice even slight changes in elevation and material consistency. The Copenhagen path demonstrates the perfect kind of minimal operation, cue and street element that can alter the way engineers design and people perceive rights of way on the street. The change is simple, but the effect resounds tenfold.

A slight, subtle, and extremely effective change in elevation between the street and the sidewalk provides adequate space for bicyclists.

A minor architectural element separates the bicycle path from the street.

4. Paint it Blue: A Copenhagen intersection

Boosters of Copenhagen’s cycling prowess have made a great deal of fuss over and done much research into which color of bicycle path is most effective for recognition by cars and bicyclists alike. Not surprisingly, they have deemed Copenhagen Blue to be the color of choice. All this is well and good, except for one fine point: a large part of what makes any color scheme successful for a bicycling network has not to do with the color itself, but its scale of use, material, and frequency. In Amsterdam, where red asphalt paved cycling paths are a fixture (not only at intersections), and, for that matter, in Strasbourg, which has painted a huge number of its intersections green (with marked white borders), the choice of color is secondary to its frequency. Light blue may be the easiest color for cars to recognize on the streets, but without the appropriate frequency and continuity along the actual pathways, this is a fruitless debate. Moreover, a path that is painted blue is automatically inferior in quality to one that is paved a distinctive color. A separate colored paving creates a discernible layer of permanence that outrivals even the brightest of painted paths, which are doomed to fade more quickly.

A second strategy for bicycling at intersections not as frequently employed in Copenhagen as in the Netherlands is the conversion of intersections to roundabouts. Though not always feasible in busy, inner city areas, roundabouts permit more eye contact between cars and bicyclists, minimized wait time, and flexibility for bicyclists, and can even ease car traffic in certain situations as well.

The famous Copenhagen blue at an intersection. Though the Blue is instantly recognizable, it still needs more presence in the system overall. The Dutch have converted many intersections into roundabouts, something that can help ease transitions for bicycle traffic.

5. The Green Wave

In Copenhagen, one of the marked, though subtle features of its cycle system, are its green waves. Green waves allow cyclists traveling at an ideal speed of 15 km/hr to hit every traffic light on certain main routes. I recall the first time I noticed this while bicycling in Copenhagen. I would race out in front of every girl and granny on the path, and then watch dumbstruck as they caught up to me like clockwork at the intersections. When I finally realized that I either had to ride 30 km/hr or 15 km/hr, I decided, for the sake of my already sweat-soaked shirts, to opt for the latter.

The green wave, moreover, demonstrates how a large part of what can make a bicycling system fast and efficient- to create highways and routes- is a matter largely invisible to the naked eye- traffic signal timing. (This issue, moreover, can have a major impact in making streets pedestrian friendly or not as well. I noticed this in Hamburg especially, where wait times for pedestrians and bicycles at intersections are interminably long, a fact compounded by the Germans’ aversion to jaywalking.)

An approaching green wave along one of the main routes outside of Copenhagen is instantly recognizable.

6. Traffic Calming

One of the ways which I noticed the Dutch are far ahead of the Danes is in the area of traffic calming. Though the Danes have an abundance of 30 km zones and speed bumps, the articulation of residential zones is less nuanced, while there seem to be more two or three lane streets in high bicycle and pedestrian traffic areas (without under or overpasses) in general.

The Danes, however, just as they have branded bicycling, have also been major proponents of the shared street concept, which advocates for streets designed to enhance different transit mode users’ awareness of one another in order to create streets that can be as friendly to bicycles, playing children, and local traffic, without necessarily creating individual, separate infrastructures for each. The Danes have employed this theory with measured success on certain streets in Copenhagen and other smaller cities and communities.

A traffic calming measure in the suburbs of Copenhagen to make a thru-street less attractive to cars.

7. Network identification: Building the Copenhagen Bicycle System

The final element of Copenhagen’s cycling system that I will address is its quality as an integrated, legible network. Copenhagen, like the Netherlands, has a multi-modal system design meant to encourage people to bike to and from regional train stations. By and large, the quality and iteration of the city’s paths is consistent and recognizable. Where Copenhagen falls short, curiously enough, is in the realm of signage. Not only does Copenhagen not even begin to compare with the Netherlands signage-wise, but the city does not even really compare to Munster and other cities in Germany. Where signage is more prevalent, as in Odense (Denmark’s third largest city), those signs are placed too low and not at all major decision points.

Signage helps those unfamiliar with a bicycling system to know their whereabouts and potential destinations and reassures experienced local commuters of the quality, permanence, and logic of the system they use daily. Although Copenhagen has a dearth of signage at present, I noticed along specific routes throughout the city a series of new marked Green cycle routes that strive to illustrate the structure of the city’s main bicycle routes and junctures (stops). This initiative even includes an abstract visual diagram that approximates how bicyclists might visualize Copenhagen’s structure by bike.

The pathway example pictured below follows an old rail right of way that has been converted to a bicycle path. For planners in the United States and elsewhere, using a pathway spine (or a series of spines) of this quality which links different paths, destinations, and communities can create a legible highway for both bicyclist and pedestrian movement. This type of system could even be bolstered by placing consistent bicycle parking, city maps, water fountains, tire pumps and bicycle share stations at these locations. If a bicycle system can attain these qualities- to begin to emulate the reliability and wayfinding qualities of subway or roadway design- commuters will begin to realize the place of bicycling infrastructure as a piece of essential, permanent, roadway infrastructure.

Though Copenhagen may not have as developed a system as the Netherlands, examples like this new path development indicate a consciousness of the potential of the bicycle to define and structure their city. This self-consciousness, or even pride at times, will work to Copenhagen’s favor as a global cycling city highly touted by both locals and foreigners, and should continue to encourage Danes to view cycling as an essential piece of their national identity.

Signage placed on a partially completed bicycle road along an old rail right of way. This route is one of a fledging system concept envisioned by the city's planners.

A diagrammatic representation of Copenhagen's green cycle routes. These even show certain stops or checkpoints where signage and intersections with important streets or destinations are located.

A fast cycle highway along a main car highway leading to the outer suburbs of Copenhagen.

Part of Copenhagen's regional signage system. These signs typically point toward recreational paths leading between cities and towns. They are not frequent and generally more catered to recreation or touring purposes.

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Copenhagen 2009

Before I delve into the intricacies of Copenhagen’s bicycling infrastructure, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly recount how the notion of studying bicycling infrastructure and design first popped into my head. I studied architecture at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in the Spring of 2009. While there, I lived with a host family in the suburb of Gladsaxe 12 km north of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen Spring 2009

Before Copenhagen, I was a runner. On summer jogs through Central Park or along the Riverside promenade, I would habitually curse out the Lance Armstrong-wannabes whizzing past me in spandexed cohorts of ten. Their approach rang like a swarm of locusts at my back. Far worse was the hipster, whose skinny, ramshead, perfectly faded fixed-gear bicycle weaved in and out of traffic in purposeless defiance. Their skinny bikes, like their skinny, tattered jeans, epitomized the bicycle as a passing fad and, as an devout contrarian, I simply would have none of it.

Trains, not bicycles, in fact, were and have always been my primary interest as transportation goes. I love subway maps and station names, and on weekends, I am the type to get off at a random stop because I want to see how the name and place compare. (My favorite, still, is the Wonderland terminus on Boston’s blue line. The name comes from a theme park that burned down in the early 1900s.) But here, in the damp chill of Copenhagen’s come-early winter, I find myself jotting down notes on paving patterns and photographs graffiti blemished bicycle signage. How did it come to pass?

I fondly recall the spring day when I first came to realize how a proper bicycling infrastructure could change the way people use and interact with cities. My host Dad, Klaus, had just finished fixing up a bicycle for me to use, and as the frost of winter had begun to subside, I saw it fit to do a test ride into the center of town. Until then, I had been commuting on Copenhagen’s regional trains, the S-Tog. S-Tog trains come every ten minutes and in general, hit their schedules. Door to door, my morning commute lasted about 50 minutes, which, given my frenzied commuting experiences in New York and Boston, was about as refreshing as I could imagine.

Arriving at my university that morning, however, I noticed that my ride by bicycle from the suburb of Gladsaxe to the center of Copenhagen’s old town had taken me only 40 minutes. The difference, though modest, took me by surprise. My ride had been leisurely. I observed the scenery, stopped dutifully at all the red lights (a peculiar Danish habit), and gave myself copious time to get lost and meander. Still, I had cut my commute by ten minutes, and though my back felt a tad damp from the ride, the endorphins had lifted my groggy morning spirits.

In the ensuing weeks, spurred on by the wondrous efficiency of my new mode of travel, I became attached to “my bicycle.” Even on days when I took the train, I always took my bike to the train station and back. By bicycle, I explored Copenhagen to its fringes, and as my riding became second nature, so too did I begin to comprehend and mentally map Copenhagen in relation to its bicycling thoroughfares. When friends invited me to dine with them or their host families at the city’s outskirts, rather than risk getting a fine on a bus or train, I instead let myself be lured by those smooth, consistent bicycle paths which seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see.

The bicycle path, in my eyes, was the essential ingredient. If there existed a path, a stellar, straight route that could safely ferry my wandering self away from traffic jams and pedestrians, there would be no reason for me not to use it. On top of being the fastest way to get around, bicycling allowed me to engage my surroundings, to become familiar with my new city and environment, and of course, to always arrive at the dinner table with a big appetite. Copenhagen has plenty of routes, but what amazed me most about this infrastructure was how minimal it seemed. The bicycle paths of Copenhagen consist mostly of a small, intermediate step, a simple change in paving and elevation between cars and pedestrians which creates an adequately demarcated space for people of all ages to feel comfortable using on a daily basis.

Post Copenhagen

On my first day home from Copenhagen, I got on my bike as naturally as ever. I had a doctor’s appointment located a little over a mile from my house, and reckoning that there was no real logic to driving such a short distance when I could bike it, I defiantly saddled up. Immediately, I felt distressed. I was pushed to shoulder of the road. Stuck between parked cars and heavy traffic, I was nearly doored three times, and finally, an old brown Buick knocked me off my bike. The accident was minor by ay standard. My bike had only a minor scratch, and in truth, the driver seemed a bit more shook up than I did. Still, I had been pushed off the road, and at a higher speed, might have been knocked unconscious.

My accident, however slight, aroused in me a conviction that some right of mine had been taken away. I was using a street that in Copenhagen would easily have supported a bicycle friendly, safe path, but here in the states, was tyrannized by the frenzy of traffic and parking cars. These not only made for an unpleasant bicycle ride, but an unpleasant streetscape in general. I could see that the street was wide enough to support an intermediate path between the parked cars and the pedestrians, and that the neighborhood’s density and environment would be ideal for routine bicycling, but that simply is not part of the visible agenda in the states. Out of my frustration grew the seed of  this research fellowship, and so I find myself with a notebook of street diagrams and bicycle maps.

As I started, I will finish. I am a runner. In Copenhagen, I use a bike because it’s the fastest, most enjoyable and carefree way to get around. In New York or Boston, like many, I bike recreationally, but don’t delude myelf into thinking that the infrastructure is comfortable or safe enough to convince me to start commuting by bicycle. With the proper connectivity, a bicycle system can be as permanent and important a piece of the transportation network as a sidewalk, street, or tramway. What it takes is a change in mindset, a shift in the way we see streets- as spaces composed of roads and sidewalks, to ones which appropriate space for a third element in the hierarchy- the bicycle path.

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From Bourg to Burg. Beyond the Netherlands: Bicycling infrastructure in Germany and Strasbourg

Beyond the Netherlands

While the Netherlands and Denmark are the renowned pioneers of bicycling culture and infrastructure, several other European countries have built for bicycles with much success as well. Bicycle share stations are quickly emerging as a standard in many European cities (most famously in Paris and Lyon), while many other cities once bereft of demarcated space for bicyclists have jumpstarted campaigns to increase the share of daily trips made by bicycle.

This past week, I had the chance to visit several bicycle-friendly cities outside of the Netherlands. My trip began in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France bordering Germany, and then took me across the border to Freiburg, Karlsruhe, Munster, and finally Hamburg in Germany. Whereas I had done a fair bit of preparatory research on bicycling in the Netherlands, I went to France and Germany rather off the cuff, to gain a perspective on what lessons a bicycling system in the course of its elaboration has to offer. What I discovered was a host of excellent examples of how to (and how not to) develop infrastructure for bicycles in a cost-effective way.

Below I discuss some of the primary lessons that I have garnered throughout this tour.

1. The art of the sidewalk bicycle path

As a kid, it always bothered me that I wasn’t allowed to bike on the sidewalk. If there was space, and nobody was using it, it seemed more logical to dodge pedestrians than to dodge traffic going 50 mph. My ten-year old self would have pleased to find that in Germany and Strasbourg, sidewalk bicycling is standard practice. Though I noticed that bicycle tracks and lanes were on certain occasions carved, sunken or paved into the existing sidewalks of the Netherlands, in Strasbourg, Freiburg, Munster and Hamburg, this appears to be the solution of choice.

In Strasbourg, for example, bicycle paths have been placed alongside narrowed pedestrian walks through a combination of painted lines and actual asphalt repaving. Though the painted lanes often seem a bit provisional, what Strasbourg excels in is reassurance. Even if it seemed clear that the bicycle path was really just a couple of lines painted onto the preexisting sidewalk, the city has stamped its bold bicyclist logo every ten or twelve meters along the sidewalks. Along with a painted line, this makes for at least some degree of comfort at minimal cost. Better pathways were paved smoothly and made for a nice ride.

The sidewalk solution, as I later learned, is even more popular in Freiburg, a university city with decent signage and average infrastructure. Freiburg, like Munster and many of the university towns in the Netherlands and elsewhere, benefits hugely from its bicycling student population. This gives bicyclists enough critical mass to make cars aware of their presence. In Freiburg, on-street suggested bicycle lanes were also quite common.

The most interesting use of the sidewalk path was without a doubt in Munster and Hamburg. In both cities, the paths, to my surprise, had tiling and color variation built into the sidewalk (as in many Dutch cities), but without much (if any) change in grade. In Munster, because these paths had a consistent stream of cyclists to keep pedestrians at bay, they functioned successfully as a separate piece of infrastructure. These consistent pathways, along with a level and consistency of signage on par with the Dutch, made Munster a ideal environment for bicyclists.

Munster, like Freiburg, is a university town. The situation in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, was a far cry from Strasbourg, Freiburg, or Munster. With heavy pedestrian traffic, a car friendly center, and a sprawling downtown, the bicycle paths on Hamburg’s sidewalks at first seemed hardly there. What is striking, however, is that space for bicyclists–bicycle paths with red color and separate tiling–covers a vast amount of ground throughout the city. Unfortunately, these paths lack the critical mass or change in grade that functionally separates bicycles and pedestrians. The result is that Hamburg, despite giving bicyclists a defined space, has relatively fewer bicycles using its lanes than one might expect. Hamburg, of course, is no university town. It is major metropolis with a fabulous, efficient metro, and superb roadways. The city could benefit from traffic calming measures as well as shorter wait times at intersections that bother cyclists and pedestrians.

2. Iterate Intersections

Without the proper signage and infrastructure at intersections, a bicycle system cannot function effectively. Even if a city has dedicated, separated high quality paths along all of its major streets, if a cyclist is stranded without signage or direction where he meets other modes of transportation (foremost cars, but also pedestrians, buses and trains), those are rendered relatively useless.

One of the great things about bicycling in Strasbourg was that even though the pathways often seemed less than adequate,  the indicators were consistent and the intersections were ubiquitously painted green. This made it clear to cars, pedestrians and bicyclists, exactly where the systems continues and further strengthened its sense of connectivity and logic.

In Freiburg and Hamburg, two cities with arguably more on street (or sidewalk) bicycle paths, the intersections tended be a lot more problematic, and in the case of Hamburg, favored the automobile over both the bicyclist and the pedestrian. A well-iterated intersection represents a point of quick decision-making. At its best, a bicycling network should have signals, directional signage, and a dedicated space to perch and rest while you wait for the light to change or the cars to pass. Without these and other cues, the systems loses its currency and can be dangerous and uncomfortable.

Munster, like many cities the Netherlands, not only highlighted safety at its intersections with proper markings, signals, and demarcation, but also added another layer- directional signage. Munster’s signage was superb, arguably even better than many of the cities that I saw in the Netherlands, and definitely superior to Copenhagen’s. Though Freiburg and Hamburg had the occasional standard (German) signpost indicating the next town or touring destination, Munster had signs at most major intersections, and, best of all, had a wonderful tree-lined promenade, or bicycle ring road (as I would to call it), around the old city, which distributed bicyclists to routes emanating into the outskirts. I rode gleefully around this ring at least five times, using its signage to shoot me off like a pinball in a novel direction each time.

3. Smooth riding surfaces

Bicyclists need a smooth riding surface. In Strasbourg and other cities of Germany and France, this lesson has only been partially realized. In certain circumstances, I found that the cyclist area had been repaved or done with separate tiling, but when simply painted with markings, paths tended to proceed over surfaces not ideal for bicycling (including cobblestones) or went straight through obstacles (like benches or bus stops) that made riding problematic.

If the US Government declared tomorrow that bicyclists should, when possible, ride on the sidewalks instead of the streets, there would be major problems with the surfaces. Not only would cyclists persistently run into trees, parking meters, and bus stands, but concrete panels and asphalt destroyed by tree roots would (at least in my town) make for a bumpy ride. Where the pedestrian area ends, so must the tree, the bus stands, benches and parking meters. If bicyclists must negotiate these obstacles in addition pedestrians blissfully ambling side to side, the “sidewalk” path becomes just another sidewalk, and is no place for bikes.

4. Slow streets/Bike streets

In the Netherlands, speed bumps are everywhere. Residential areas serve as notoriously poor shortcuts for drivers, but ideal riding space for bicyclists and local pedestrian traffic. In Germany and Strasbourg, these lessons have been adopted with measured success, but not enough change in paving, material or street configuration. In Freiburg and Strasbourg, streets often had large blue or green signage telling cars to go only 30 km/hr. In most cases, these were respected. But in a bigger city like Hamburg, without an actual speedbump or street reconfiguration, the cars went faster. Any measure changing how cars use streets must go beyond signage and paint. In certain cases, I saw the use of temporary speedbumps. These functioned effectively and translated two-dimensional signage into a three-dimensional, tangible, yet cost-effective, solution.

I noticed one particularly interesting solution to the bicycling street in Freiburg. The street, running parallel to a street with much heavier traffic, had been marked as a Fahrradstrasse, or Bicycle Street, and was marked by mid-streets bollard, which forced cars to drive on that street only if they planned to park there or it was their residence. This effect, I realized immediately, could be immensely successful in American grid cities where altering the pattern of one-way streets crossing one or two-way streets could solve some of the traffic problems encountered by bicyclists.

This kind of thinking is extremely cost-effective, and can enhance urban living environments and streets congested by traffic. It is essential for any planner or designer of a bicycle system to thinking beyond bicycle lanes or cycle tracks to consider how the entire traffic realm of cars, bicycles and pedestrians interacts.

Conclusions

With the exception of Munster, what I found in Germany and Strasbourg were bicycles systems half complete and on their way to being fully realized. Though spaces for bicycles were in most cases “carved” out of the sidewalk, the architecture of these carvings varied in their material consistency, level of permanence, safety and comfort. This architecture of the street, can, of course, be a moot point in a place like Hamburg, where the level of activity makes sidewalk tiling and separate coloring a failed proposition. In these cases, a stronger change in elevation or separation must exist.

Where paths did not exist, I saw other strategies- signals, speed bumps, and others types of signage, that indicated at a basic level both a space for the bicyclist to use, as well as an opportunity for a larger number of people to carve this space out through increased bicycle usage. In Hamburg, a bicycle rental/share system has just been established. The presence of these red bikes, with a small seat placed on the bike’s back for a bag or friend, was unmistakable. Surely, as the bicycle gains in use and overall attractiveness there, more measures will be enacted to make the city’s street safer and to create an environment healthier for cyclists, pedestrians, and the overall urban atmosphere.

For those in the United States studying how the Europeans have done it, the systems of the Netherlands and Denmark in many cases offer utopian prospects, while those of Germany and France offer lessons in the process of realization. May we learn from their trials and improve upon there successes.

Photo Gallery

Below are a series of examples illustrating the four topics discusses above. The first group of photographs shows sidewalk bicycle paths, and is followed by photographs of well (or not-so-well) iterated intersections, and finally, bicycle streets. Different surfaces, smooth and tiled, are depicted throughout the gallery.

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Unplanned Odyssey: To Zwolle…to Groningen

To Zwolle

The Netherlands smiles upon me. Not once in the month of September did I plan a bike ride of more than 10 kilometers and experience rain.

Setting off from Utrecht for Zwolle, the sun deities of the nether lands once again favored my dry passage to the north. Zwolle lies approximately 90 kilometers northeast of Utrecht, in the center of a region of the Netherlands hardly known to the outside world, as well as many in the Netherlands itself.

As with most of my long-distance trips, I resolved at the beginning to follow the recreational touring routes designed to show cyclists a pleasant panorama of the Netherlands’ cow and sheep dotted countryside. After nearly two hours of meandering through farm paths, I set myself on the straight track to Zwolle, along a straight, well-signed local highway. At some point after I made this resolution, I accidentally entered the Veluwe, a massive forest preserve, halfway into which I discovered an inland sand dune populated by elderly people eating sandwiches. There I briefly rested.

My worldly possessions capsized in the dunes of the Veluwe.

I reached Zwolle, crossing the Ijssel into the province of Overijssel (an all too logical name I think), near six in the evening. As I entered through the city gates in a blaze of victory, I arrived immediately at the sad reality that I had yet to find myself a place to stay, a warm room to rest my knees already weak from riding through cow-fields on a 40 year old two speed Batavus.

The Dutch (in stark contrast to Flemish I later learned) do not do hostels well. One person even directly told me that hostels are not very Dutch thing, whatever that means. What is very Dutch, apparently, is to make arriving in a new city without a reservation a proposition doomed to failure.

I did not find a place to stay in Zwolle. Zwolle, as it turns out, is not much of city after six o’clock, when all the shops close, and everyone either drinks beer or goes to McDonalds. I did the latter.

Though I can’t say whether or not the Big Mac I bought would have tasted better with the ketchup that cost extra, I can say, that McDonald’s balances having free Wifi with making you want to leave there as fast as possible. With no prospects for a hotel under 150 dollars in Zwolle and a belly hollow and grumbling from a dry Big Mac, I opted to move on to the next town. By then, anyhow, my knees had had a chance to recover and I was feeling rather sprite, if only numb with persistent pain.

To Meppel

The only hotel I found between Zwolle and Meppel. (Not a joke.)

The next town on my map, Meppel, lay 23 kilometers to the north. By then it had grown dark, and as it was a pleasant night, I thought I might just bike until I found some campsite or bed and breakfast at the side of the highway. Motels, as it turns out, are not so Dutch either.

By the time I reached Meppel, I could sense that I was at a crossroads. Meppel felt like the sort of place that people talk of wanting to get out of. Moreover, my decision to divert from the signed bicycle route to ride through the town center turned out to be ill-conceived.

Leaving Meppel’s center, I lost my way in a dense suburban encampment with no inherent logic or landmarks. Round and round, I rode through the suburb with not the slightest clue of whether I had see that house or stream or car before. The feeling, I imagine, is somewhat how someone stuck in a hedge maze might feel like once the thrill and aura of adventure wear off. I just wanted to be free.

With freedom came weariness, and soon enough, midnight passed. The next town beyond Meppel of any respectable size would be Assen, almost 50 kilometers to the north. But as I rode at my slow and steady pace down a beautiful quiet farm road, I finally resolved to put down my possessions and take a brief nap.

When I awoke, however, it was not to the alarm I had set for early that morning, or the neighing of horses and the mooing of cows, but to the lights of Dutch police car.

The farm plot I had sleepily chosen to serve a few hours slumber, as it turns out, was a kind of local highway in this part of the Netherlands. Somebody, perhaps a farmer headed home from a late night at some sorry Meppel tavern, thought they had seen a strange figure at the side of the road. But rather than stop to ask me if I might like a ride somewhere down the road or fresh cheese rind, he called the police.

The Dutch police, as it turns out, were as shocked to see me napping roadside in the boonies of the Netherlands, as I was to be awoken by them. Though they instructed me that I would have to continue on my way (is there no piece of earth yet unclaimed!), they led me directly to a canal leading all the way to Assen, something I was very grateful for.

To Assen

I rode along the canal for hours, watching the sun rise gradually over the flat countryside. Half asleep, I trudged on until the first few Dutch schoolkids, like early morning songbirds, joined me on the trek. By dawn, I was jostling with groups of teenagers and little old ladies in electric wheelchairs. But after the longest sunrise I had ever seen, I felt like the entire affair had been worth the stress, and trekked forth.

I arrived in Assen at rush hour and drank hot chocolate at the train station for an hour before continuing on my way to Groningen. Thirty kilometers later, I arrived in the Netherlands’ city of the north with an ache in my back and bags under my eyes, but a smile on my face and a big appetite.

Groningen

A massive church tower hails my arrival in Groningen.

Teetering side to side with the weight of my bag, I finally pushed into the old city, nearly being hit by a bus in front of the market square. The ride had lasted close to 200 kilometers. I followed red bicycle signs all the way there, and, if it hadn’t been for curiosity and spirit of recklessness, I would not have once been lost.

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Utrecht: my favorite city

Cycling towards the Dom Tower.

I have the peculiar habit of taking the fewest pictures of the places I enjoy most. Of Rotterdam, I have at least 200 hundred photographs. Of Utrecht, I can count only thirty, and of those, most are of bicycle paths.

The city of Utrecht, about 50 kilometers to the southeast of Amsterdam, is a rich and enticing place from many perspectives. For the cyclist, this student city provides the critical mass to give bicyclists a premiere presence on the road. As a tourist, Utrecht has a compact, lively center that boasts the spirit of Amsterdam without the drifters and the chaos.

It is from the perspective of the urbanist, however, that I most enjoy Utrecht. In the mind’s eye, the city is a fascinating collection of  diverse and distinguished monuments. Together, these impart to the city a fascinating and legible expression, and one which helps to define how pedestrians and bicyclists move through and define its urban realm. Below, I discuss those urban gestures that define Utrecht and how these intersect with its excellent bicycling system.

1. Hoog Catherine

For anyone who only glimpses Utrecht from the train platform, the city is perhaps the ugliest in the Netherlands. Stocky, worn down modern buildings create a uninspiring panorama that leaves you wondering if the entire city had been bombed and then hastily reconstructed. In the 1960s, to put the city of Utrecht “on the map,” city officials constructed a massive shopping and rail complex known as the Hoog Catherine. As part of the effort, the city, drove an underground highway through a space that had been a lovely perimeter canal (a move they are in the process of reversing), and forced people to walk through an elevated shopping complex that feels seedy and desolate after dark.

From a preservationist’s perspective, the Hoog (as I have come to refer to it) is a travesty. And it is. the shopping plaza is redundant and unpleasant and outdated and makes the rail station feel more cramped and hurried than it needs to be. Being forced to walk through an elevated mall to reach ground level is an unnecessary bother. The Hoog Catherine acts like a massive wall to the old city of Utrecht, which is precisely why I love it.

When cities were surrounded by massive bastions, they were governed by an implicit structure and hierarchy. When those bastions were dismantled, and oftentimes engulfed by subsequent sprawl, cities began to lose some of their recognizable borders. The Hoog Catherine, in spite of its paucity of architectural grace, recreates the anticipation of entrance. Once finally set down in lovely old center of Utrecht, the feeling of having been successfully processed comes over you, like finally getting through the security gates at an airport terminal.

As a bicyclist, the massive barrier presented by the Hoog and the railroad tracks has engendered the construction of an interesting series of underpasses. Anyhow living between the old city and the Amsterdam-Rijn Canal must pass through one of these to get to the station. The result is once again, an exaggerated and satisfying quality of entrance and exit. Entering the city by bicycle feels like going through the doors to a train station. The threshold, though seemingly unspectacular, heightens the definitions between Utrecht’s districts and neighborhoods.

2. Oudegracht

Compared from above with Amsterdam, Delft, or Haarlem, Utrecht appears to have scant few canals for such a sizable Dutch city. Utrecht’s Oudegracht (meaning old canal), makes up for it. Bisecting the city in a northwesterly direction, the Oudegracht is famous for having two levels. At street level, crowds of shoppers and students mingle to make the streets a busy and frenzied affair, while down below, people dine under beautiful tree canopies canalside and dip their feet in the water. The lower level was originally intended for cargo to be more easily dropped off and stored, an innovation that is strangely not mimicked elsewhere in the Netherlands.

The Oudegracht  defines Utrecht by anchoring its center. To pass from east to west through the city center, you need to cross the Oudegracht. To move north south, the Oudegracht is an essential point of reference, if only as a path for cyclists to avoid.

To the east of the Oudegracht, the city’s old ring of fortifications (now a park) provides a second recognizable barrier of entry and exit. Beyond it, stretches the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and student quarters. To the north and south, the Vlecht, Utrecht’s main river, stretches into the hinterlands, connecting the city with small neighboring towns and villages.

3. The Dom Tower

Utrecht’s most recognizable landmark, and the one that may be seen from farthest afield, is its Dom (or Cathedral) Tower, a 368 foot Gothic masterpiece built during the 16th century. The Dom, however, is no ordinary church tower. In the 17th century, before the church nave was complete, it collapsed. They never rebuilt it.

As a result, the Dom acts kind of like a giant obelisk that indicates the central point of Utrecht. The tower, moreover, today has a gateway arch at its base that leads into what was once the nave. Where the pulpit may once have stood stands a voluptuous sculpture of a women holding a flame. She looks like a humbler Dutch version of Mother Russia.

Between the Dom, the Hoog, and the Oudegracht, Utrecht’s center possesses a well-defined and exquisite urban vocabulary. Though the city’s suburbs are characterized by a generous degree of sprawl (for the Netherlands), they form mostly separate entities centered on perimeter train stations.

The urban elements that make Utrecht a more easily navigable or legible city at points, also strengthen its potency as a city of bicyclists. Bicyclists need and respond to cues, landmarks, and barriers just as pedestrians and automobiles do. The more easily these are iterated, discovered, and then mentally processed, the better people can read and move through the infrastructural network that has been provided for them. For a city like Utrecht, this might not be a problem, but as other cities define their cycling systems, making sure that such urban elements, hierarchies, and destinations are communicable to the bicyclist represents an essential and necessary piece of that system’s success.

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The Trouble with Houten

The city of Houten, on the outskirts of Utrecht, is famed for its dedication to cycling. Not only does the city have an extensive, dedicated, cycling network, but the streets that cars can use are often restricted and inconvenient. During my trip to Utrecht, I spend one day in Houten. Here are my reflections.

Entrance to the Organism

I reach Houten via a long winding farm road leading 3 kilometers outside Utrecht. The path meanders, but is otherwise decently paved and well marked. The entrance to Houten is not some grandiose archway or city wall, but a rather forlorn looking underpass accompanied by a map. From above, the city looks like a cellular organism, or a Spanish Guitar with a railroad spur for a head.

If not for its model bicycle network, Houten would not get many visitors. And even though the interested are few and far between, now and then, a curious urbanist passes through the town’s underpass and into Houten’s drum.

Inside, the streets of Houten unwind into a series of opaque super-districts from the 1960s and 1970s. The housing is decently constructed and dense, but the roads curve and interlock in no meaningful way. As I bicycle south, I find myself increasingly lost. The suburbs become newer and newer, until Houten is only a rendering with an inspirational photograph of Venice. Here I have reached the future downtown called Castellum, an office and retail park that reminds me of a rendering of Diocletian’s Palace. Beyond the construction of Castellum, new Houten is a land of young trees. A beach and a lake stand before two modern pedestrian bridges and a string of houses designed to look like a Norwegian portside. One massive apartment building, sunk into a low marshland, resembles a modernized miniature of Breugel’s tower of Babel.

The Cyclist King

In Houten, the cyclist is king. At most times of day, the streets are designated “car as guest,” meaning that cars must defer to bicyclists in all situations. In Houten, the fastest way to get from point A to point B is always by bicycle, and the suburb has an abundance of dedicated cycle paths to move around from one place to another. Cars, meanwhile, must use a ring road that causes them to make frustrating, roundabout journeys, further encouraging bicycle usage.

For suburbs in the United States, Houten has a lot of lessons to offer. The network of cycling paths is safe, efficient, and well-designed. The grounds are lush and well-cared for, while the city’s retail nodes are attractively designed and well patronized.

The trouble with Houten, and many of the Netherlands’ newest suburbs (or Vinex suburbs, dedicated for population growth), however, is that they are incredibly mono-functional. Despite their relative density, well-proffered public and open spaces, and incredible bicycle paths, they have not heeded the doctrine of mixed-use. In Houten, there are no corner stores, no shopping streets with doner kebab, no laundromats nor tailors. In fact, if Houten had no bicycle paths at all, I expect it would still be a safe place to bike, because there is hardly any destination that might attract more than a passing car.

Lessons from Houten

As we reconsider the American suburb and attempt to correct the mistakes of our fore-planners, I would heed the Houten model with care. For though these types of suburbs are denser, greener, and better designed than our own, they are still suburbs, and for the most part, they are not so interesting to spend time in. For a bicycle system (and a city) to function at its highest potential, there need to be real and attractive destinations,  places to rest and have a cup of coffee or tea, or even do laundry with friends. Without them, the bike lanes are mere showpieces of a sustainable future.

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