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Photo of Alderman Danny Solis by Serge Lubomudrov.

Last night, about 40 people gathered in Simone’s (960 W 18th Street) to hear Alderman Solis (25th Ward) talk about his October trip to the Netherlands. Also speaking was another member of that study tour, Randy Neufeld (note 1, 2), SRAM Cycling Fund director. The Netherlands is a great place in which to investigate successful bicycling planning, policies, and infrastructure. They have the highest share of people cycling, for all trip purposes, in the world, as well as the lowest injury and fatality rate in any kind of traffic. I was hoping the two would ask how many people in attendance have themselves visited the Netherlands. From what I know, at least six people, including myself, have gone there.

John Lankford, the Active Transportation Alliance’s neighborhood bikeways campaign coordinator, introduced the evening by saying, “What we’ll see from the presentation is that what we all hope for, and what we all dream for, in terms of infrastructure for our city, is not pie in the sky. There are places like Amsterdam where more than 40% of trips are being taken by bicycle. In Chicago, between 2000 and 2010, we went from 0.5% to 1.1% of trips to and from work. There’s an enormous amount of ground to be gained. And the Netherlands is a perfect example of how it’s actually being done”.

In the 25th Ward

Before the presentation, Solis mentioned some bicycle projects he’s working on or has devised:

  • On Wednesday he met with the railroad who owns the 16th Street viaduct (BNSF) to talk about installing a bike trail on there from Canal Street to Western Avenue. He “they were open to the idea”.
  • The flexible posts have gone up on 18th Street, between Canal and Clark Streets.
  • He’d like to consider the empty space under the L tracks on 18th Street across from the Pink Line station for a bike parking area (presumably sheltered and more secure than normal bike parking).
  • He’d like for there to be a protected bikeway on the surface of 16th Street.

Next Solis and Neufeld went through a slideshow of photos from the trip, and explained what we were seeing. Many audience members asked questions about the photos or inquiries about the country and the citizens who cycle. Many people audibly expressed their impression with the photos of the “bike parking problem” at train stations in the Netherlands.

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A photo of a pedestrian zone in Leiden, Netherlands. (This isn’t the photo from the slideshow but shows the same conditions.) Photo by Richard Baer. 

Pedestrian zones

When we landed on a photo of a pedestrian zone, I asked Randy to explain it. After telling that this small street once had a curb and cars driving on it, he gave a rundown of what changed and how it functions now: the curb was eliminated and the sidewalk and the “roadway” are now one and the same, with an “advisory lane” for people who are driving delivery trucks, the only allowed use, down the street. The speed limit is a walking speed and drivers cannot pass people walking or biking.

That discussion evolved into one about the State Street Mall from the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, until it was undone in 1996. Someone in the audience asked if we could learn from this pedestrian zone in the photo. Randy briefly recounted that pedestrian malls have a bad rap in the United States and said how he thinks we should revisit them, to experiment with different strategies, like making a street closure temporary at the beginning. He then said that the State Street Mall was very different: it was a “diesel bus fume mall, very different from the kind of environment you see in Europe”. Solis added that the business, retail, and residential environmental around State Street in the Loop is different now than during the mall era.

Additionally, Alderman Solis described what he liked there, saying it was a great experience for him: “I’m more of a visual person than a concept person, and I like to actually experience the things that I’m interested in, and being able to explore several cities in the Netherlands was a great way to find out what a good job the Netherlands is doing to promote bike riding and how they’ve done it”.

He talked about how members of Chambers of Commerce and restaurant associations should visit to see how cycling is related to economic development, retail activity, and quality of life. He said he was “impressed by the way the business community in the cities have embraced bike riding for a very simple reason: it’s really good business. The number of people on bikes congregating in business sectors really give new life to these communities that we were able to see”.

Chicargo Bike blogger, Jennifer James, commented on this, suggesting that Dutch business owners should come to Chicago to explain the benefits to business around pedestrian-only “foot zones”.

Lastly, someone mentioned that Lincoln Square, on Lincoln Avenue between Leland and Lawrence Avenues, is very close to a pedestrian zone like we saw in the slideshow.

Safety

Over a picture of children practicing safe transportation in a traffic garden, he said that there’s bicycle education for third graders and that the Dutch are very respectful of safety, respectful of traffic laws, and this behavior is based on early education. My friend remarked to me, about this “mobility education” and the traffic garden, that “adults should do that here [in the United States]“.

Lankford closed the presentation by responding to James’s question of if the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 process only wanted to have people who ride a lot involved about improving bicycling infrastructure: “The key framework behind why cities and the mayor are getting behind this is because it’s quality of life issue. A study in Portland, Oregon, found that 60% of people who live in cities are really interested in getting the benefits of riding (cost and time savings, health benefits), but they don’t, because they think it’s nuts to get on a bike and ride in traffic. Folks who would get out and ride if it were safe. The goal is to have it safe for 10 year olds and my 65-year old grandma to ride their bikes”.

Other topics

  • Bike parking: The slideshow displayed several instances of hundreds and thousands of bikes parked, especially near train stations. Neufeld added that many people don’t lock their bikes to anything but use a frame lock to immobilize the bicycle.
  • Demographics: Doug Hinckley asked if Neufeld and Solis if they noticed the demographics of people cycling, to which Neufeld succinctly replied, “It’s the demographics of Holland” (note 3). Solis added, “there are tons of kids on bikes before and after school”.
  • Abandoned bikes: Someone in the audience asked if the Netherlands “polices bike removal”, calling out that they’re an issue in Chicago, as he’s seen bikes still on the sidewalk past their posted “pick up” date. Neufeld said it’s estimated that 20% of the bikes you see in the sea of bikes are abandoned. They tag them, similar to Chicago, and eventually remove them.
  • Traffic laws: Are they different there to support bikes better than in Chicago? Neufeld: “For the most part, they’re not different. ActiveTrans board member Bob Hoel has been researching liability and rules, what liability drivers in crashes – it tends to be greater and we’re trying to figure out why.” Hoel: They have a vulnerable users law in which the most vulnerable user on the road has priority, “so if a cyclist hits a pedestrian, the cyclist is generally at fault. It’s amazing to see the people just know how to show respect to each other”.
  • Density: Justyna Frank, an owner of Rapid Transit Cycleshop in Wicker Park, asked, “Is there anything that’s inherently different, other than the compactness of the cities, and Europe in general” that facilitates high biking levels? Neufel responded, “The Netherlands is a very dense country but has rural areas and small towns, as well as neighborhoods without a lot of businesses, like here, and the biking accommodations and levels is those places is high. So, suburban Amsterdam has a lot of bikes. It’s not just density that makes it happen”.

Notes

  1. Bikes Belong paid for the trip, which also brought Elizabeth Press from Streetfilms, and two Chicago Bicycle Program staff. See more photos from the event. See my photos from Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Houten in January 2011.
  2. Randy is also a board member of Active Transportation Alliance, and its first paid staff member in the 1980s.
  3. 55% of people cycling in the Netherlands are women. In Chicago, women make up 26% of cyclists going to work. Read this letter in The Stranger: Bike infrastructure is a women’s issue. Read my extensive coverage of this issue, especially as it relates to Chicago.

Updated to add a mention of Lincoln Square, to move a paragraph for better flow, and to section the article for easier reading. 

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  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    I was very encouraged to hear Alderman Solis’ vision for bike improvements in the 25th ward.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the plan evolves and how it affects quality of life and business vitality in the ward.

  • Urbanpln

    I am an urban planner for the city. I have always believed that our city leaders and decision makes (mayors, alderman, community leaders) should travel outside of Chicago, especially to the great cities of Europe, to understand how important pedestrians and cyclist are to the vibrancy of cities. Our leaders need to experience other great places which could help them envision a better Chicago. Kudos to Alderman Solis. 

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

      Mayor R.M. Daley was well-known for his international journeys. The City’s exploration into bike sharing started after he rode a Vélib’ bike in Paris. 

      Trips like these should be supported, but I think it’s hard to evaluate their effectiveness, which may lead people to criticizing the time and money spent on the trip (but in this case, the trip was paid for by Bikes Belong). 

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