Well, Sean’s first impressions that is. My good friend and bicycle buddy Sean Lee-Siebels arrived yesterday morning in Amsterdam. I met Sean almost ten years ago in a dorm room at Whitman College; he was freshman year roommates with my high school boyfriend who I was visiting for the weekend. A lot has happened since Sean and I first met in that dorm room. We finished college, relationships started and ended, we had loved ones die, we made new friends, we traveled the world, we started our careers, we became independent. Sean and I reconnected shortly after college when we both moved to Seattle and started playing on the same indoor soccer team, Medium Rare. Medium Rare quickly became a core part of my Seattle social life; my Medium Rare teammates were my go-to group for Friday happy hours and weekend trips. Nearly everyone on the team had a shared love for numerous other sports and outdoor recreation. Together, we’ve hiked and skied in the Cascades, surfed on the Olympic Peninsula, floated down the Twisp River, sailed to Blake Island, and biked along the Yakima River.
Sean is an avid city biker. He doesn’t own a car and he bikes almost everywhere he goes in Seattle. I always admired Sean for being a bike commuter but didn’t think it was for me. A little over a year ago I was working on a project for the Cascade Bicycle Club and began thinking about cycling a lot more as I was doing research and work on the project. I told Sean that I was interested in bike commuting but that I was a little intimidated by biking downtown. He reassured me that I would be fine and—like a lot of people who bike commute—he shared with me that his rides around the city were one of the most enjoyable parts of his day. Finally one summer morning I decided to bike into work. Several of us were meeting to play tennis after work at the Greenlake tennis courts and I realized that to get from my Madrona apartment to work to Greenlake and then back to Madrona would either require multiple hours on a bus, driving into work, or biking. I decided to bike. I left my apartment early to avoid rush hour and took advantage of the calm morning streets. I went down streets I didn’t usually go on, noticed new buildings on Capitol Hill that I’d never stopped to look at, and felt refreshed when I got to work. Sean met me after work that day at my office on 1st and spring and gave me a few tips about biking in downtown rush hour traffic. I followed his lead as he slipped by waiting cars at traffic lights to get to the front of the intersection and was amazed by how quickly we made it to Lower Woodlands for our tennis game. The tennis game didn’t go so well for me, but I was hooked on bike commuting after that day and I partially have Sean to thank for giving me the extra push I needed.
Sean brought his bike from the US and reassembled it at the airport yesterday morning before biking into the city to meet me. We spent most of yesterday biking around getting lost, drinking beers, people watching, and even splurged and did a touristy canal tour.
When Sean was biking from the airport he noticed that the segregated bike paths faded as he got closer to the city. I too have noticed this as I’ve moved from rural to suburban to urban ares. The city center of Amsterdam is a lot like Groningen. Bikes, pedestrians, and cars share the road and it all feels like an improvised dance with a lot of giving, taking, and agile maneuvering. I met with Marc van Woudenberg a few days ago, the blogger behind Amsterdamize.com, and he explained that segregated lanes allow people to go faster and be less alert. When you remove the barriers between different users of the road, everyone slows down and is more conscious of each other. Here is Marc’s description: “the (historic) downtown area is basically 60% sharing the road (which means people on bikes dominate cars), 20% bicycle-only & 20% segregated. Downtown, car speeds are low and access restricted. So the more you venture outside the city center (where you’ll cross paths with arterial routes into town), the more segregated bicycle infrastructure you’ll see.”
Marc and I talked a lot about bicycle politics both in the US and in Holland. Although cycling is a core part of Dutch culture, Marc told me that “cycling isn’t a part of the Dutch DNA.” They’ve invested significantly in bicycle infrastructure and Dutch citizens have made it clear to politicians over the years that cycling is a priority for them. Cycling rates in Amsterdam dropped to about 12 percent of all trips in the 60s and 70s when automobiles were being heavily marketed. During this surge of car use in Amsterdam several children were hit and killed by cars and it prompted protests by citizens demanding that car use be restricted in the city so that the roads would be safe for all users of the road. Now about 40 percent of all trips in Amsterdam are taken on a bike and the road and street designs used here have effectively kept Dutch bikers safe. “As more cyclists fill Dutch streets, bike fatalities have remained among the lowest worldwide. From 2002 to 2005, an average of 1.1 Dutch biker was killed per 100 million kilometers cycled. In comparison, fatality rates in the United Kingdom and United States are 3.6 and 5.8, respectively.” 1
Sean and I are both impressed by how skilled bikers in Amsterdam are. Yesterday was a gorgeous, sunny day and all of Amsterdam seemed to be in parks, eating and drinking at outdoor cafes, and taking boat rides in the canals. We saw a man riding a rickety bike one-handed while eating a double-scoop ice cream cone. His girlfriend was riding side-saddle on the back and also eating an ice cream cone. What impressed us was that this man and his girlfriend seemed utterly relaxed and very focused on their bright fuchsia, berry-flavored ice cream while they were maneuvering through a busy intersection full of pedestrians, tourists, other bikers, and a few cars. When I was speaking with Kristen van den Hul a few days ago, founder of the Change Agent, she told me that she learned how to bike before she learned how to walk. Cycling situations that might be stressful to a new cyclist are routine and uneventful to most Dutch cyclists. When I met with Kristen she had actually just come from purchasing her first car ever. She bought a vintage sports car and was taking it out to her mother’s house in the country later that day because she had no where to park it. There are five-year waiting lists for parking permits in Amsterdam and street parking is between 5 and 4 Euros per hour in the city depending on where you are. Gas also costs about $10 USD per gallon in Holland right now. Kristen was looking into renting a private parking spot in Amsterdam and said she would probably pay between 175 and 300 Euros per month for parking. Car purchases in Holland are also subject to several expensive taxes. Owning a car is a luxury in Amsterdam. There’s actually a limited supply of bike parking in certain parts of the city too—but it is almost always free unless you park in a guarded lot.
Sean and I leave Amsterdam tomorrow and will begin heading south to Brussels and then on to Paris to catch the last stage of the Tour on July 24th. We’re going out tonight in the Red Light District to top off our Amsterdam experience and hopefully won’t get a terribly late start tomorrow morning. We’ve been working on our route today and have also been looking for team jerseys to wear while we ride. Stay tuned for more updates from the road, shots of the team jersey, and perhaps a guest blog post from Sean.