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Alderman Solis in Zolle, Netherlands – all photos courtesy of Bikes Belong

[Background info for this post came from a write-up of the trip by Washington D.C. Department of Transportation Bicycle Program Specialist Mike Goodno.]

Earlier this month when I interviewed 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis about sustainable transportation projects in his ward, he mentioned that he would be taking a trip to the Netherlands from October 1 – 8 to study bike facilities. The bike industry-funded advocacy group Bikes Belong sponsored this fact-finding mission for transportation officials from Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Miami, and Solis says that staffers from Working Bikes Cooperative recommended him to Bikes Belong as a bike-friendly politician. Joining him from Chicago were former Active Transportation Alliance executive director and current SRAM Cycling Fund director Randy Neufeld, as well as Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) bike program staffers David Gleason and Mike Amsden.

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Randy Neufeld gives Streetsfilms videographer Elizabeth Press a ride in a “bakfiets” box bike

The group visited seven Dutch cities (Utrecht, Zwolle, Groningen, Nijmegen, Tilburg, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam), meeting with local transportation experts and politician and touring the country’s famously bike-friendly streets on two wheels. The Americans got to experience a land where transportation biking is not just for enthusiasts but is a completely normal activity – nearly 80 percent of the population rides a bicycle at least once a week. Nationally the mode share for bicycling is 27 percent and in the some cities more than 50 percent of trips are done by bike. This is because of extremely cycle-friendly laws and infrastructure, and because most motorists pedal as well, they understand the importance of driving safely around people on bikes.

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4-way “bike scramble” in Groningen

I caught up with Alderman Solis last week last week by phone to debrief him on his trip.

What were the highlights?

The highlight for me was I got to visit several different cities in the Netherlands. And in each of these cities we did at least two hours of bike riding after we got a presentation from city officials, usually aldermen. And I think the reason we were able do this is that every city in the Netherlands is connected by rail and no city is farther than an hour away. And so we would be one morning in one city, get a presentation, go bike riding, eat lunch on the train, then visit a second city and do the same thing.

But the thing that most impressed me is the way that bike riding is a way of life, like cars are here in the U.S. Every child goes to school goes to school by bike when they’re old enough. The urban areas are especially friendly to bike riding, pedestrians and public transportation, and all three forms of transportation are very well coordinated. Automobile driving in the city is actually last on the priority list.

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Bike-prioritized fietsstraat (bike street) in Tilburg

What most impressed me as something that could be brought to Chicago is the way that commercial areas, the small restaurants and shops, benefit so much from the fact that there’s more people out there on foot and on bikes then there are in cars. So I can envision [25th Ward] neighborhoods like Pilsen, Chinatown and Little Italy, as well as downtown having the same type of benefit.

Mike Amsden and David Gleason from CDOT were on the trip and that was a good thing because I got a chance to really interact with them. I’m going to give a presentation soon in [39th Ward] Alderman [Margaret] Laurino’s committee [Economic, Capital and Technology Development] and to the rest of the city council. I brought it up in the budget hearings when [CDOT] Commissioner Gabe Klein was presenting. So I’ve become a very strong advocate for bicycling – it really makes sense for the city.

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Solis gives an interview in Groningen

Here’s one thing I noticed in the Netherlands. In the United States we have an emphasis on recreational riding with mountain bikes and hybrids. Over there they just use a very practical, sturdy bike with three speeds, which was all you needed. People don’t wear helmets. You’d see men in business suits as well as women and men in clothes for going out on the town, with the women in skirts and high heels. You’d see seniors on bikes and parents transporting their kids. So it’s very utilitarian – they use the bike like an extension of themselves.

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Stylish cyclist in Groningen

Did any other elected officials from Chicago come with you?

No, Alderman Laurino had to beg off at the last minute and [2nd Ward] Alderman [Robert] Fioretti was going to go but a medical condition he has right now made it difficult for him to take a long plane ride. Randy Neufeld was there, and there was [Commercial Bike Parking Manager] Sarah Reiter from Saris [a bike accessories company] in Madison, Wisconsin.

Any other ideas you experienced in the Netherlands that you’d like to bring back to Chicago?

Yes. Instead of just lines painted on the street for bike lanes I’d like to see different colored asphalt. Maybe we could also make some of our residential side streets one-way with two-way traffic for bikes.

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Bicycling in Groningen

The idea that most impressed me is the economic benefits of getting more bike riding in commercial areas. The number of bikes on 18th Street in Pilsen has really increased over the last couple of years and you can see how it could really help if we figured out a way to make the street even friendlier to pedestrian and bike traffic. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of cars in the Netherlands but they’re mostly in the suburbs and on the outskirts of the city.

We’ve been talking with Saris about putting in more bike parking on 18th Street. Sarah Reiter and the CEO came down to Chicago after the Netherlands trip and we did a bike tour of the ward. They’re coming up with ideas for locations where they might be able to put in some bike parking.

[Reiter told me she and Solis discussed the possibility of installing on-street bike parking corrals in the near future by Café Jumping Bean, 1439 W. 18th, and/or at the northwest corner of 18th and Paulina, near the 18th Street Pink Line Station. These would involve “inverted U” racks on rails, possibly with ornamental placards with a design that could reflect the area’s Mexican-American culture.

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Saris bike corral in Milwaukee

Down the road, Saris might provide high-density, double-decker Stack Racks, comparable to the two-tier Josta racks used at the Millennium Park bicycle station, for covered parking projects in the 25th Ward, Reiter said. Solis told me that covered parking areas, with space for hundreds of bikes, could potentially be built on city property across the street from the 18th Street station or under the Dan Ryan Expressway in East Pilsen.]

Would Saris be donating the bike racks?

They’re looking at trying something out where they lend them to us for a certain period of time to see if we like them, and if they are successful maybe we could figure out a way to buy them.

You know, in the Netherlands you see parking facilities at train stations with over 5,000 bicycles. I’ve heard the country has more bikes than people.

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Bike parking at Tiburg Central Station

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  • Anonymous

    great article john.
    Looks like Alderman Solis got a lot of good ideas out of his trip.
    Growing up in the Netherlands I still remember being most impressed with Groningen. Bikes in Groningen have a 55+% mode share (depending on statistic you look at). I actually found this study when googling Groningen and it shows that this percentage is not just luck. It is the result of persistent and decades long pro-bike policies and investment in bike infra structure.
    http://policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/pucher/Frontiers.pdf

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Yes, it seems like this trip was very effective. Whenever Chicago politicians take trips to bike-friendly destinations good things seem to come from it, like when aldermen went to Bogota, Colombia, and Guadalajara, Mexico, to check out the ciclovias, and when Aldermen Moreno, Colon and Reboyras traveled to Seville, Spain, for the VeloCity conference. They all came back inspired to make Chicago a better place to bike.

  • Jane Healy

    I think one of the best takeaways is that infrastructure helps to make the change happen.  “If you build it, they will come…”  

    Ald. Solis noticed that to make biking happen in higher numbers, you need safer and more user friendly routes;  you need to make it _easy_ for people to choose to bike. One way is to create one-way car traffic on a street, but to allow two-way bicycle traffic.  Alternatively, you can have colored asphalt designate bike right-of-way.  Another comment of his focused on the need for better bike parking. 

    These systematic changes in the built environment make it easier for people to make the mode shift from cars to bikes.  

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Yes, infrastructure is key. I definitely believe that if the 100 miles of protected bike lanes materialize in Chicago it’s going to have a huge effect on bike mode share.

  • Uptown Biker

    Of course the infrastructure is a prerequisite to getting high bicycle mode share.  One other thing that is obvious when you ride in the Netherlands is that people really know how to ride.  I love riding in Amsterdam;  there are swarms of bikes everywhere, but people know what to do, and the flow is safe and efficient.  People there have been taught and (generally) follow the same rules – unlike Chicago, where anything goes.  Unfortunately, in our car culture, few kids learn vehicular cycling…and it shows.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      It would be great if the U.S. schools started to teach bike safety to kids as well as Driver’s Ed.

      • Uptown Biker

        I was taught bike safety and rules of the road as a child (living in a town of about 150k people, 40 years ago).  Our elementary school prepared us to ride our bikes to school.  I think we were allowed to ride starting in 4th or 5th grade.  Now it seems, practically no children ride bikes to school.  In my school, most of us did.

        • Jane Healy

          Both of my local school districts incorporate bike safety into the curriculum.  At District 130 (grade school), K-3 gets pedestrian safety training, at grade 5 and 6-8, they get Bike safety training. Of course, this is the same district that puts 400 kids on bikes for an annual “bike day” and which is involved with Safe Routes to Schools programs.  

          The local high school district (218) offers bicycling as part of it’s Outdoor Education P.E. class.  The kids actually ride through the community as part of the class!

          Dist. 130 services most of Blue Island and Crestwood, as well as parts of Robbins and Alsip.  Dist. 218 serves Calumet Park, B.I., Crestwood, Alsip, Chicago Ridge, Palos Heights, and Robbins. 

      • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

        I wrote yesterday about “mobility education” on my personal blog, Steven Can Plan.

      • Rachel Ruhlen

        It would be great if US schools taught Driver’s Ed. They don’t here.

        And it would be great if Driver’s Ed would teach kids how to drive around bicyclists. What a bicyclist’s left turn signal looks like, for example.

        And yes, it would also be great if schools taught bike safety to kids. I just don’t think teaching bike safety to kids is going to help much until motorists are taught how to drive around bikes.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      I wrote yesterday about “mobility education” on my personal blog, Steven Can Plan.

    • Anon

      Have you really spent time in Amsterdam? The cyclists have little awareness of safety. Collisions with pedestrians happen often. Red lights are run all the time. The general attitude is that a cyclist has right of way anywhere regardless of the laws. It works out because the vast majority of people are cycling on protected lanes. But that same attitude doesn’t work when you have to share the road with significantly more non-cyclists. My boss, who is Dutch, has nearly been hit by cars several times here in Chicago.(and in typical Dutch style flips them the bird, despite the fact he was ignoring road laws completely).

      If we want to copy anything from the Dutch, it’s the infrastructure not the attitude.

  • Andy

    He also wants to decriminalize pot now.

  • Rachel Ruhlen

    “I’ve heard the country has more bikes than people.”
    Our country has more cars than people. I think the last statistic I saw, we’re approaching 3 cars per person.

  • Anonymous

    Did he use taxpayer money for this vacation?

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Nope, the bike industry-funded advocacy group Bikes Belong sponsored this fact-finding mission.

  • Jenn

    So very exciting thanks for this. Alderman Solis has come full circle in less than a year on cycling as those of us in his ward can tell you! I think a key aspect of growing all mode share as we also all know is growing women cyclists who in turn grow family riding, nurturing the next generation of riders– basically in Chicago this could be the first real large swath of yourth riders but only with excellent planning. Beyond cycling education we must have real  infrastructure in Chicago. The newest lanes are absolutely not an clear example of cycling infrastructure that includes family riders. 
    We need a strategic plan for linking our libraries, schools shoppings parks and museums so that families can ride confidently and safely in Chicago. We can only grow a broad based generation of riders when this is in place in our city. Though many of us ride with our children both on their own bikes and on our own we know that we are the just the edge of possibility in Chicago.
    Hopefully this is a powerful impression that ALderman Solis has taken away from his journey. Now he can begin to put this place in the 25th ward so rich with shopping, schools, parks, libraries and the university.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Jenn, I agree that the Netherlands is a great example of how infrastructure and policy are crucial for getting non-enthusiast riders to consider biking for transportation. I strongly believe that if you build it they will come. And you make a good point that getting women on bikes is key for growing the number of cyclists since mothers are a huge influence on getting kids to ride. Studies have shown that feeling safe on a bike is especially important to women, so we’re not going to see a big rise in the number of cyclists until we have a network of protected lanes, bike boulevards and off-street paths that feel safer to use than what we have now. Hopefully the promised 100 miles of protected lanes will materialize and help fill this gap.

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