Thursday, July 14, 2011

Creepily Amazing

So, what if I told you we should design and build a new CITY for 50,000+ people where bicycle transportation is the main mode of transportation?  Sounds good right?  Vehicles move in your periphery, if they move at all, and your ears are filled not with the honking of cars or the typical noises that contribute to noise pollution found in most cities, but instead there is silence.  This is how I perceived the city of Houten. Houten is a master planned city, totally created from nothing, in the 1970s and brought to fruition today.  A city where bicycle transportation is given the ultimate priority, where motorized vehicles are forced to move around the city limits or strategically float overtop of the city with elevated bridges and roadways, so not to impact the human powered vehicles below.  I applaud the idea of a city designed around bicycle transportation and in that regard I think that the master plan achieved its main goal, design a city that can sustain itself with bicycles as the main form of transportation.
            Although I am not a urban planner or city designer the limited number of courses that I have taken in regards to city growth and design show examples of successful city neighborhoods and larger districts that all have a variety commercial, residential, institutional, etc. options (vertical and horizontal mixed-use) in relatively close proximity to each other.  Different businesses and buildings arrive overtime and give the neighborhood a sense of place and distinction from other areas in the city.  Time allows these neighborhoods to evolve overtime and even though the city is relatively young, because everything was created like POOF!! I can’t imagine how individual parts of the city will age any differently or at different rates than other parts.  In the successful neighborhood examples that I have seen offer are the residents a variety of choices a that ultimately enable a diverse group of social classes (often reflecting different ethnicities too) settling in these neighborhoods.  Our visit to Houten lasted a little more than an hour and in no means did I see the entire extent of the master planned city, but from the small portion that I did see there was something eerily fake about it. It really reminded me of that movie the Truman Show or Seaside, FL.  However, those developments were small neighborhoods, this was a CITY!!!  A city that had over 50,000 inhabitants!  Wow, so that means that there really is a market for this type of development?

We did not have enough time to question our tour guide about all the specifics of the city, but he did mention that the average income was without a doubt higher than the national average income.  It really seemed like there was a lack of diversity and choices that individuals had to choose from.  Though everyone used his or her bikes there was no major industry/employer, university, or tourist attraction that was mentioned on our tour.  The majority of residents used the public transportation system to commute to their jobs that were in surrounding cities.
*I’m not sure why out of all the cities that we visited in the Netherlands, this one, which could have been argued to be the most successful in terms of bicycle transportation infrastructure, was without a doubt my least favorite place to visit or potentially live in.  I think it gets back to the idea of just because a building is “sustainable” doesn’t mean that it is livable.  Understanding the tradeoffs of the design choices is imperative to the long-term livability and success of a project/master-planned city.

While in Utrecht we visited an elementary school that was wrapping up their final school day before entering summer break. Our group arrived at the school in an ample amount of time before school released to witness mothers and fathers arriving to meet and pickup their children.  This was such an incredible site to see! Parents arrived by bike or on foot to congratulate their children on another successful year (I can only hope!). Everyone was riding bikes of different shapes and sizes; anything you could imagine was there!  Parents rode bike and so did their children, lead by example.

Later, we met with the principal of the school to discuss how the schools in Utrecht approached bicycle safety. The principal with the help of the city implemented a bicycle program that taught youngsters about bicycle edict and being aware of other forms of transportation that are on the roads ways. This seems like such a simple idea, but I truly believe that educating the youth is extremely important to maintain bicycle safety and use in the future. I also believe that educating the youth in America about the option and importance of alternative forms of transportation could prove to be an extremely successful way of gathering a big user group in upcoming generation.  And even if the incorporation of bicycle education in elementary schools does not generate more bicycle users it would minimally make these children more aware of bicycles on roadways that optimistically would reduce car-bike accidents.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cyclist Advocate

June 28th

Today we went to meet with a representative from a bicycle advocate group, the Cyclist Union that talked about her organizations role in the further development of bicycle improvements in Amsterdam and the country. The time that we have spent on the road thus far has exposed me to a completely unfamiliar user groups than I am used to seeing in the United States.  The societal acceptance of not wearing helmets is one of many factors that, I believe, contributes to the widespread use of bicycles in this country.  I has been incredible to see mothers transporting their children (1 or 2) on a single bicycle at the same time! Sitting on the handle bars, straddling the back wheel on the cargo platform, a variety of special small seat attachments, and even teenagers and adults would have their friend sit side saddle on the rear cargo platform and navigate through on coming traffic with no hesitation.  So, because the entire group had still been getting looks as if we were dumb tourists my friend and I decided that we need to get some Amsterdam “street cred” and decided to show up to the Cyclist Union bike tour riding as the locals do.  Leaving the hotel our teacher doubted the safety and our ability to pull something like this off, but after a safe arrival to our destination (which was only a few blocks away) he began to relax a little bit.  I think there was still a little bit of that American liability mentality, who is liable if they get injured, in the tone of his voice at the beginning of this day’s adventure.  After we sat down and talked about the Cyclist Union’s role in Amsterdam our speaker planned to take us on a tour of the city showing us different strategies to making Amsterdam more bikable.
            Although we had made it to the Cyclist Union’s office safe and sound the short neighborhood setting of our journey did not put us in any real danger.  However, now we were about to travel through the city with a single bike.  There was not turning back.  After a few slow starts at intersections and getting feel for hoping on and off the back and maintaining a more uniformed center of gravity we felt fairly comfortable making turns and even passing other bikers.  We even started getting some friendly waves from locals.  I think we achieved our goal of gaining some legit “Street Cred” for this group of foreigner.  Haha  We really are missing out on this form of riding in the states…..totally safe!
            Our Cyclist Union friend left us at an exquisite example of a bike parking strategy that benefited pedestrians, bikers, and handicapped pedestrian alike.  Instead of having hundreds of bicycles scattered in front of a grocery store that made hadicap and general access to the store entrance easy, the Cyclist Union tested an idea of bicycle parking area in certain zones to make the area more user friendly and safe.  They drew zones on the ground with chalk and sat back and observed.  Within minutes new bikers coming to the area to shop parked their bicycles within the temporary chalked bike zones.  People are smart and usually they do not need someone to hold their hand and tell them what is best for them. They usually do it. There seems to be a lack of this trust or credit that is given to every citizen in the Netherlands that seems to be the opposite in the United States. In certain cases their seems to be an over protectiveness that works adversely to the goal of the program or design.  I believe more trust needs to be given to the American citizen and certain “laws” or standards cannot be so conforming.  I do not know what is at the root of this nationwide United States belief, but this European or Dutch way of thinking has elements that we can learn from.

Amsterdam Loves Bicycles

June 27th

Today we met with Amsterdam’s Center for Transportation.  They presented us with some interesting statistic and facts about cycling in Amsterdam and the Netherlands as a whole.  Our presenters were good resources, knowing common statistics (i.e. bicycle accidents, trips made by bicycle in Amsterdam, etc.) and some specifics about how bicycle policies were implemented into city enforcement, but there were also a lot of important/critical elements that just seemed to be givens in the Netherlands.  They didn’t know how it started, it just was. This lack of understanding made me aware of the huge differences between bicycle culture and acceptance in the Netherlands and the states. So far, in the Netherlands bicycle culture seems to be introduced at a young age even in formal school setting for young children, which in my opinion is a critical and necessary step to insure long-term bicycle usage through age groups, a safe transportation environment (including automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians), and to continue to perpetuate the idea that bicycle transportation is of national importance.  This meeting was good, but it left me wanting to learn more about the specifics and origin of bicycle acceptance and use in the Netherlands. Before our class left the Center for Transportation’s building one of the presenters took a few of us to the building’s “bicycle parking garage”. 
The parking garage was awesome!  There was a direct connection to the exterior of the building by implementing an oversized glass sliding door.  Bikers ride up to the door and with a motion sensor the door slides open before the riders needed to dismount their bicycles.  The rider then enters the building and places their bicycle in one of many double-leveled bicycle parking spots.  Then, the rider has the ability to change their clothes and take a shower in the adjacent locker room if they desire (although the Dutch bicycle enable a clean and casual ride to work unlike American conditions).  This small design detail seemed minor, but critical to incentives a more sustainable and enjoyable way to get to work especially in the states.  The style of bicycles, condition of infrastructure, and mentality surrounding bicycle riding in most major cities in the states contribute to a rushed and frantic commute to work by professionals. Without a proper storage and clean up area the bicycle movement in the states misses a huge demographic of “transportation” riders. 

Finding Nemo

June 26th

After two full days on bike the class started to feel more comfortable interacting with the local traffic conditions without too much stress.  Sunday morning everyone went to the local grocery store, which resembled a Whole Foods quality of products, but still had that mom and pops intimate corner store feel. Also, the store was fairly empty besides the 8-10 students from our class.  We all went on a mad scramble gather as many easily transportable food and beverages for our long bike ride. 
The route took us outside of the city where we followed by the side of a wider country canal to our destination.  Along this road we encountered our first sports bicycle riders who were all riding their fancy racing bike and wearing their colorful spandex.  This site reminded me of the riders in the states.  The road that we traveled on was a one-lane two-way automobile and bicycle road.  The bicycles stayed to their respected sides and only went into the middle of the road if it was necessary to pass someone.  Rarely were there two cars traveling in opposite directions, but when that did occur one car would stop and allow the other car to continue by. Usually the car that was closest to an open drive way or larger pull-off area would stop. This all happened very quickly and was solely done by driver judgment and courtesy.  This behavior was also directed towards bicycles too. Periodically we would jump off of our bicycle to take some photos at scenic point. 
*The kickstand, which seemed to come standard on these Dutch bikes, enable us to hoop on and off our bikes with a swiftness that would typically leave me looking around for some vertical element to place my bike against in the U.S.  Partially because kickstands aren’t cool!
We made it to our turnaround spot and had a fantastic picnic lunch spread before we returned back to the city. The return trip was uneventful, but so picturesque riding by the canal.  However, while we were riding by we did come across a modern building with a small type of racetrack in the front of the building.  I was a little confused with the size and shape of the course because it was too small to fit a racecar in it and the markings on the ground were not familiar to me.  Soon one of the students more familiar with the bicycle system in the Netherlands piped up and explained how it was a bicycle traffic course that was used for teaching young students about bicycle safety.  I thought this was extremely cool.  Shortly after we tested out the handling of our bikes on this closed course track a woman from the building came outside and politely asked us to “get off the track”.  Haha
            From there we continued back to Amsterdam and us architecture students (there are two of us) decided to check out some recent housing projects and a children’s museum, Nemo, built by a famous Italian architect.  Some of the other students tagged along and we tried to explain some of the logic behind the designs (i.e. choice of material, relationship to context, massing strategies, etc.).  I hope they thought it was interesting. 

The children’s museum was positioned on a small peninsula of land close to the city center.  The shape of the building resembled the bow of a ship exiting the harbor for the open sea.  The “roof” of the building sloped away from the bow opening back to the city center and turned into a public urban space.  From what I understand about Amsterdam is that recently it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, which among other things dictates that no new construction can be built taller than 5 stories.  This outside public space was tall enough to provide a great vantage point to see the historic and contemporary city fabric that is Amsterdam.  

An In-between Pace

 June 25th
Wow!!! After seeing that bike-ped crash last night I am interested to discover if we will continue to see minor accidents on a daily basis.  I know that the amount of bicycles on the road in Amsterdam is on multiple orders of magnitude larger than the amount of bicycles found in U.S. cities, so I would hypothesize that the amount of accidents would increase some amount too.  Although it was a brutal crash last night I do believe that it would have been avoided if the two men walking across the cycle lane would have been sober and the bar adjacent to the lane would have taken better measures (e.g. using a type of rope barrier, etc.) to insure the safety of both parties.  At any rate I do not feel unsafe riding my bicycle, but I do need to get more comfortable passing and merging with other bicycles.  Practice makes perfect!

Today I am going to see Amsterdam and the countryside at a different pace than riding on a bicycle, walking on a sidewalk, or driving in a vehicle, I will be running! I really love to explore cities through running.  I’m able to cover more ground than if I was walking and I have a quicker reaction time to adjust to unforeseen variables (parked cars blocking sidewalks, people walking at illogical paces, steep terrain, etc.) than if I was on a bicycle or car.  The plan is to run 13 miles, which I haven’t ran since early January.  I’m a little bit nervous!

MADE IT!  The run was incredible and the pace was good so my legs are still pretty loose.  It was interesting to see how pedestrians, both walkers and runners, interact with bicycles.  It seems like every form of transportation (walking, running, and automobiles) take a backseat to bicycles.  Bicycles are given the right-of-way in every transportation situation that I have observed. There is a universal understanding between these user groups of who is given the right-of-way even when there are no traffic lights or traffic symbols. I am interested to see if I can get more insight to how this social phenomenon began and is maintained in Holland.   


An Amsterdam Welcome

I left boston yesterday at 7pm and arrived at the schilpin??? Airport in the Netherlands at 8am this morning.  Traveling across time zones is so strange to me.  The flight was only 6 hrs, but now I am a day ahead and I feel like 6hrs of my life disappeared.  I much prefer traveling the opposite direction and feeling like I did so much in the little amount of time that passed to travel so far. How the heck did they come up with time zones anyways?

I purchased a ticket planning on heading to Amsterdam, but was confused and ended up going the opposite direction.  I immediately noticed that the first stop was not the name that the ticket woman told me and got off the train before I could get any more lost.  I asked a man for directions and he told me to follow him because he was heading the same way.

The train ride only lasted 5 minutes or so before I was back at the airport station stop, but had an interesting conversation with the man in the time being.  He was born in the Netherlands and was on his way to work.  He had never been to the United States and after I told him that I was in his country studying bicycle transportation he was more than confused.  I told him that APPARENTLY (because I am an architecture major and have little knowledge of basic bicycle statistics in the U.S.) his country was the world leader in daily trips made on a bicycle, which is extremely different than the current situation in the states. We both got off the train and he pointed in the direction of the platform where I could take the train to Amsterdam.

I soon arrived in the city and navigated several blocks to the hotel.  The weather was overcast and it looked like had been raining earlier in the morning.  Although the hotel that our class was staying at was directly off one of the major streets in the city center, I did not notice an abundance of traffic, bicycles or automobiles, on the streets at this time.  I found some of my classmates and we traveled to the Van Gough Museum to see some artwork.  Some of the permanent and traveling collection was very cool.  It also astonished me that there were no protection devices (e.g. barriers, sensors, or guards) to insure the safety of this historic artwork.  This idea or concept of trust was visible in many areas of Dutch culture, which is visible in many of my observations.

Because I had left from Boston at 7 in the evening and the flight only lasted 6hrs I barely got any sleep and I was really starting to feel disoriented at the museum.

We returned to the hotel to receive our Dutch bicycles that would be facilitating our travels for the entire week.  Because the weather was still gloomy and we had not ventured far from our hotel I still did not have a feeling for the sheer magnitude of the bicycle scene in Amsterdam…..this was about to change.  The first thing I noticed about our bicycles was that they all looked like traditional women’s bikes that you would find in the U.S. in the 1980s.  By this I mean that there was no top tube to step over, but merely an open space that allowed the rider to slide their leg through opening easily. Also, it was surprising to find that the bicycles were substantially heavier that even the cheapest bike you would find in the U.S. All the bicycle were equipped with an interesting permanent back wheel locking device and a front wheel chain that made the need find a solid object to attach the bicycle to unnecessary. Bicycle were parked anywhere.  This was also possible because most bicycles had kickstands. I also cannot forget that the rear wheel had a type of “skirt shield” that prevented women’s dresses from getting sucked into the rear wheel while traveling. With all of these small, but obviously different features found on these generic Dutch style bicycles I immediately realized how they encouraged a wider range of user groups than the generic and most basic bicycles found in the U.S.

Key Bicycle Features to attract diverse market group
1. Heavy bicycle
2. No top tube on frame
3. Skirt shield
4. Chain guard
5. Unique locking capability
6. Kickstand

Now it was time to make our first real trip by bicycle in Amsterdam.  Keep in mind that there are 14 of us and staying together is quite difficult.  With that said we started off for the restaurant single-file going against traffic on a one-way street.  Fortunately we did not encounter any cars, but I was a little unsure why our tour guide was leading us against automobile traffic.  Next, we merged out a lane dedicated to bicycles, maybe 1.5 – 2 meters wide, and continued to follow the person in front of us.  Before I knew it a small Vespa was roaring past me on the right, only a foot away, like everything was normal.  I was a little perplexed that motorized vehicles were allowed on the same path as bicycles.  There were a few times on this initial trip that the group go separated at an intersection and it was very stop-and-go when the group was approaching intersection, not understanding which bicycle was authorized to go first.  But, we finally made it to our destination with only a few looks of terror on people faces and everyone’s bike still intact.

After finishing up dinner several of us went to our bicycles, which were scattered throughout the plaza at any spot that was available, only to witness our first bicycle pedestrian crash!  The plaza was surrounded by a bicycle lane, which was then adjacent to a popular bar. Apparently, two men, who had totally drank their share of beer for the evening, were not looking as they crossed the cycle lane and a bicycle hit one of the men.  The bicycler went flying over his handle bars into the ground the pedestrian on foot crumpled to the ground holding his leg and muttering in a different language.  From the looks of it the man on the bicycle was fine, but something was wrong with the alignment of his wheel and the man on foot was trying to walk off the injury, but could barely put wait on his leg.  It did not look good and the thought of crashing into a pedestrian in the cycle lane was all that I could think of on the rest of the ride home.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Back State-side

Wow!!!  The Netherlands was awesome!  The trip totally met and surpassed any expectations I had going into the program.

So, I have been a lot a bit behind with my Internet blog journaling updates, but can you blame me.  I really tried to immerse myself in the city and culture, so timely blogging and getting a sufficient amount of sleep took a back seat. A problem that I would gladly be involved in anytime.

Although I wasn't blogging I did journal daily and had longer time to reflect on these thoughts.  I think the next few blog posts that follow will be in chronological order to show my evolution of understanding the bicycling and dutch culture.  stay tuned