Died and Gone to…Utrecht

Shiloh Ballard describes the cycling environment in the Netherlands.


Some 70 people turned out Monday night to hear first-hand accounts of a recent fact-finding trip to the Netherlands by three local San Jose officials regarding the country’s bicycle transportation infrastructure.

The Netherlands Bicycle Transportation Study Project was funded by Bikes Belong, a national coalition of bicycle retailers and suppliers. I’ll break this report into individual accounts.

Shiloh Ballard, Vice President, Housing & Community Development at Silicon Valley Leadership Group, (SVBC board member and avid cyclist) started things off after an introduction by Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition’s Corinne Winter. SVBC hosted the meeting.

“My first impression as I flew in to Amsterdam was the miles and miles of open space and dairy farms between cities,” she said.

She made a telling point when describing the hordes of bikes at the Utrecht station (population 300,000). “They have parking for 12,000 bikes, and they’re planning for 8,000 more.” She asked rhetorically, “How much bike parking do we have at Diridon Station?” [No answer was provided.] She said that even car parking is limited to 600 spaces.

Fortunately, Diridon Station will be rebuilt and an area plan is under development. Greenbelt Alliance and other groups are actively pursuing walking and biking accommodations.

As Shiloh and team started exploring the area by bike, they quickly discovered why so many parking areas are covered. “It rains a lot,” she noted. “I froze my hands trying to unlock my bike in the rain.”

Not just infrastructure
While Utrecht has an “amazing infrastructure” for bikes, it does not account for its 50-60 percent bike trip mode. Shiloh said that a web of bike paths, parking facilities, bike parking, bike signal prioritization, etc., are outstanding, but culture is crucial.

To cite just one example, immigrants to the Netherlands do not ride bikes as much as native populations, so it is a top priority for bike programs to reach out to these communities. Historic buildings are preserved whenever possible, even when it may inconvenience a bike route. When parents talk about their child’s development, their cycling growth is always a point of conversation.

“Everything the Dutch do is thinking about how to get people to ride bikes,” Shiloh said. Most trips are less than 7.5 km (4.5 miles), at 34 percent. Beyond that distance, biking decreases dramatically.

Instead of giving up on seeing longer rides, city planners are trying to figure out how to get people to ride longer distances. “They’re looking at replacing bricks for asphalt for a smoother ride,” Shiloh said.

Another interesting item Shiloh brought up was the preference of bike tunnels to bridges/overpasses. As Shiloh pointed out [obvious to anyone who rides a bike on the San Tomas Aquino path] they like tunnels because on the descent they can build up speed for the climb out.

Facts and figures
Of all the cities visited, Rotterdam was the most like San Jose, with more cars and wide streets. Most older cities in The Netherlands have narrow streets. Because Rotterdam was rebuilt after WW II, it is more car friendly. Even then, Rotterdam is far more bike friendly than San Jose, with 16 percent bike share. San Jose is just over 1 percent.

An immediate change that could be made at no cost here is to have reduced car speeds on some designated streets with bike lanes. “The speed of cars matters,” Shiloh said.

Most Dutch ride their bikes to commute to work and shop –37 percent–while visiting friends came in at 14 percent, and school 9 percent.

An interesting side note was that the Dutch don’t like helmets. If required to wear helmets, most would quit riding, according to studies. “They’re defensive about it,” Shiloh said. She cited statistics that show it is safer to ride in the Netherlands than anywhere else in Europe. Italy is the most dangerous even though people here ride the least.

Another motivation for riding a bike might just be the price of gas–$8 a gallon. “They don’t’ make it easy to drive,” Shiloh added.” There are canals everywhere that add to the complexity of driving.” Audio excerpt follows:

Coming up: Sam Liccardo, San José Downtown Council Member, talks about the political realities; Manuel Pineda, Acting Deputy Director of San José Department of Transportation, describes what’s being done now.

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