Starry eyed and slippery. On the bike lanes of Europe.
Posted on 24 February 2010
For those who follow our little online magazine you know that we get around a fair bit. There is a less-than-glamorous reason for this. As importers of Europe's city bikes, we feel obligated to ensure that we bring in the best and only the best. Our travels are a great way to experience the very different bike cultures of Europe and find vendors that are not only committed, but have the experience and economy of scale to succeed in the North American market. It's hard work, but it's always a great learning experience!
When we left our home base in Toronto the weather was balmy (for winter) and nary a flake of snow was upon the ground. After a fun-filled flight (never order kosher food from KLM, unless your idea of the mile high club means barfing and the sweats - long story) we arrived to a very Canadian scene, a snow covered Europe. From our travels across Holland to Dusseldorf, Berlin and Copenhagen, Europe was one huge blizzard. This, incidentally, is extremely rare. Of course, the thing that interested us the most is whether or not people were treating life as 'business as usual' and riding their bikes. Oh, they were. The bicycle, even in blizzard conditions, is still the default transportation tool. Even with slippery black ice and piles of snow, it still beats public transit, the car, or walking. The Dutch, who are totally unfamiliar with snow, taught us Canadians a lesson. Why have a big discussion over winter riding? Just do it!
We have ridden in Paris, Brussels, London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam and many smaller cities and we must say that Europe is hardly the bicycle utopia that starry-eyed North Americans think. This became especially clear in the snow, a sort of reality check to our starry eyed jealousies. Berlin has an emerging bike culture that feels like NYC three years ago. It is a youthful scene into fixed gear bikes and artistic expression, hardly the genteel bike culture of Munich where German citizens ride in a fashion not at all unlike Amsterdam. Berlin has all the angst of an emerging North American bike culture - it is young, tribal, and naieve. In the span of four hours, we counted only six cyclists on the snowy streets of Berlin while in the equally snowy Amsterdam we counted thousands upon thousands (actually we didn't count, we just stood gawk-eyed and marvelled).
Many people who visit Amsterdam are startled by the huge amount of bikes, but, if you look closely, there really aren't that many bike lanes. The canal belt, where most tourists spend their time, is a network of narrow medieval streets that are simply too narrow to paint lanes - and so cars and cyclists compete for space. Yet this is where the large bulk of cyclists weave around as if the entire street was their bike lane. It seems clear that Amsterdammers know what any seasoned Toronto, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles cyclist knows: take the backstreets, they are the biggest and best bike lanes available (not the case in Paris or Manhattan where even the back streets are still packed with hubbub). In the inner city of Amsterdam the bike lanes are merely paint strips on the ground and only are found on busy streets. It is only outside of Amsterdams center, or in the smaller towns like Zwolle that a large system of completely segregated, almost pastoral bike lanes appear to exist. Copenhagen, with its wide Haussmann-like boulevards has plenty of beautiful segregated bike lanes, but the maze of its perfectly intact medieval core is once again, a total free-for-all. Now, just add ice.
Bike lanes, which have come to symbolize the "fact" of an established bicycle culture in North America are hardly the safety blanket we often reify them to be. Perhaps it was the ice and snow, but we finally realized, in a moment of truth that there is a certain measure of chaos to every bike culture whether it is emerging or not. When we had lunch with Mikeal from Copenhagenize he commented that he couldn't rent a bike in Portland because he refused a helmet. Apparently the waiver he was told to sign indicated that 'cycling is a very dangerous activity'. And driving isn't? These are the myths we spin for ourselves, that a bike should somehow feel as safe as an SUV. Except an SUV is not safe at all. We are a culture that clearly does not read the statistics. Cycling fatalities are reported far more than car fatalities, and cyclists are often considered 'crazy' or daring to ride around town. You may not feel safer in NYC on a bike, but you are - even if there isn't a bike lane in sight. Bike lanes only add safety - and are no doubt necessary. But as the founders of Paris' Velib system realized, safe bike lanes still require safe bikes - a point we have been pressing endlessly.
Whither bike lanes or proper bikes, the real issue is temperament. You would sometimes think in Holland - as a car brushes past your left shoulder - that even here there is a war between cars and bikes, but that simply isn't true. It isn't really true anywhere. There is no war. (Unless you declare one, like those in the anti-car movement). In LA most cyclists own cars. So what is the best thing to call this friction, the same friction motorists have with each other in cities like Montreal, where drivers seem truly insane. The word for this is competition. There is a competition between cars and bikes. You feel this the most in Paris where this competition is simply understood and not at all resented. In fact, its all just kind of a fast-paced game. In Holland I saw a car pull out in front of a woman. The driver put her hands to her mouth and looked very sorry. The cyclist waved. We need more of that. You don't stop driving because some other motorist yelled at you, do you? No, you give them the finger, yell back, and move on. Even the safest bike culture plays these games.
While planners all over North America establish bike cultures through bike lanes, storage lockers and other infrastructure, the object that lacks the most consideration is the bike itself. A city bike in Holland cannot be sold without front and rear lights and a bell. Why? Because it is transportation. The success of Paris' bike culture is due entirely to the Velib program which introduced a fantastic city bike first, and then bike lanes later. Consider bicycle design. On a Volvo car you have a 'crumple zone', meaning that the hood will absorb the entire frontal impact of a crash, leaving the driver 'safe.' The bikes of Holland are very much the same. The entire front end is far ahead of the cyclist, creating it's own effective 'crumple-zone.' On a North American bike, with your heads hunched over the handlebars your head becomes the 'crumple-zone.' North America is full of people riding fundamentally unsafe bikes on unsafe streets with unsafe drivers.
When we got back to Toronto the roads were clear and as we rode back home, we reflected on the wide backstreets we rode on. They were clear of traffic and as our lights bounced their beams upon the concrete, we realized we felt safer here than in Holland. There is a measure of chaos to every bike culture. No one is ever safe. But you're still safer on a bike.