CategoryInternational

Looking back on my winter holiday in Europe two months ago

A pretty tram in Budapest

A tram travels along the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary

I’ve posted a few articles about my trip to four countries in Europe over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so this is purely a recap to link to them.

I visited Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Germany again, and Switzerland. It was a multimodal trip by train and plane, and some local transit buses. There are hundreds of captioned photos on my Flickr, but check out these three articles:

  • Five common “best practices” that every city with a high-use transit system in Europe has that the transit agencies in Chicagoland should adopt.
  • Day 1 in Switzerland on Mapzen’s Transitland blog – I discuss how amazingly interconnected Swiss public transport systems are, and how their single schedule data source makes it possible to get a route for a journey from Zürich to the top of a nearby mountain via four modes of public transport.
  • Day 2 in Switzerland where I spent a lot of time riding trams, buses, funiculars, and a cog railway to get around Zürich and visit a couple of museums.

 

Day trips from Amsterdam

This is a list of day trips that you can take from Amsterdam. We might have different ideas of what constitutes the duration of the day. Once I get to a city I “travel quickly”: I walk fast, bike fast, and don’t linger too often at a point of interest, so I can see lots of places. This advice assumes you’ll arrive into the city center (where the train stations are) between 10 and 11 AM.

Naarden and Hilversum

Visit “vesting” Naarden (Naarden fort) to see a star-shaped fortress from the 1600s. You can take a bus or bike there from the train station.

Hilversum is a richer city and has a lot of typically Dutch architecture, especially of buildings designed by Richard Dudok. Go here if you’re in the TV and radio industries. You’ll need a bike if you want to see even half of them. A lot of them are schools and apartment buildings.

These two cities are a <15 minute train ride away from each other, with trains every 15 minutes.

Haarlem

Haarlem is a short ride from Amsterdam and has a working windmill museum, near a panopticon-style prison. Perhaps stop here on your way to Zandvoort an Zee (beach resort).

Rotterdam

Get here early and leave late. Take the Intercity Direct to the city by 10 AM. That’s the high-speed train, and don’t forget to pay for or buy the “toeslag” (supplement) and you’ll get there about 30 minutes faster for a minor extra cost. Or, take the slower, scenic route there in the morning and the fast route back to your lodging in Amsterdam at night.

Rotterdam is a very large city and has a lot to do. Rent a bike from Zwaan Bikes in Groothandelsgebouw on the next block west of the train station (my favorite in the world).

Go on the 75-minute long harbor tour operated by Spido that starts on the northwest side of the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus bridge).

In the evening, grab a bite to eat at Fenix Foods Factory and get a beer from Kaapse Brouwers in the same converted warehouse building.

Delft

Delft is a very pretty city to walk around. It’s very touristic so you will see a lot of shops selling the local blue porcelain. I bought lavender goat cheese here, and it was delicious. Climb the steps to the top of the cathedral in the Grote Markt (main square). If you like architecture, head over to the university, TU Delft. You can walk there from city center in less than 20 minutes.

Eat at Huszár which is a couple “blocks” south of the train station.

The Hague – beach alert!

If you don’t go to the beach, you could do Delft and The Hague in the same day, providing you aren’t spending time at museums and you have a bicycle to move a little quicker. Walk through the royal palace, Binnenhof.

Take a tram or a bike to the beach at Scheveningen.

Zandvoort an Zee – beach alert!

This is a small beach resort town on the North Sea. Walk from the train station to the beach and keep walking until you find a beach lounge you like. Then grab a seat and order a drink (it’ll take a while for someone to come over, so find a menu yourself because it’s typical for a Dutch server to not bother bringing you one unless you ask for it).

Almere

This one’s only for people who want to see a New Town in the Netherlands, or are really curious to know and see how polder works, and how the Dutch reclaimed an entire province from a sea (which is now a lake). Research the history: IJsselmeer, Zuiderzee, Flevoland (the province)

Riding on a ring of Rotterdam

Map of bike ride around some Rotterdam harbors

This map shows my bike ride starting from “My flat” and going west, then south, then east, and north.

Read more frequent sabbatical updates on my Tumblr.

Two Thursdays ago I took a two hour bike ride around the western part of Rotterdam and some of its harbors. I used “GPS Recorder” for the iPhone to track my trip, and it registered that I biked a little under 38 kilometers (24 miles). The trip is notable because it uses both the Beneluxtunnel and the Maastunnel (the river is called “Maas”, pronounced like the Spanish word “mas”), and the route one takes differs depending on where they begin and end.

My bike parked on the canal in front of my flat

Sometimes I park my bike on the canal in front of my flat, and other times there’s bike parking on the sidewalk. Look at the boat; in the back you see a car. Most shippers take a car with them so they can drive around the city at their destination. Some ships have the car already in a kind of tray that can be lifted by a crane dedicated for this purpose where they dock.

I started at my flat in the Nieuwe Westen neighborhood, across the canal from Spangen, about 10 minutes west of the Rotterdam Centraal train station. From there I headed slightly north to cross the canal on a bridge that carries a main road past the Sparta football stadium. Then it heads into the suburb of Schiedam and through a very pretty nature preserve.

Most bridges are moveable. This one is a bascule bridge and those red and white poles are the gates that close the road and the bike path.

Most bridges are moveable. This one is a bascule bridge and those red and white poles are the gates that close the road and the bike path.

Beyond the nature preserve the route winds past some “havens” (harbors) and reaches the north side of the Benelux tunnel. An escalator takes you and your bike down about three levels to a tunnel that’s separated from the northbound highway by a full-height wall. There’s an elevator, also, which “bromfietsen” (scooter) riders must use.

Riding south towards the northern Beneluxtunnel entrance

The north bike/pedestrian entrance to the Beneluxtunnel.

On the south side of the harbor you pass through a village, Pernis, in the city of Schiedam. To give you a sense of how connected small towns in the Netherlands are by transit, it has its own metro rapid transit station. This is the only part of the route where there’s not a dedicated bike path.

Abandoned house in Schiedam

An abandoned house in Pernis, taken from the bike path atop a “dijk” (dike). Behind the line of trees is the Metro line C and the A4 motorway, which is heading to and from the same tunnel I came out of.

After the village, the bike path goes south and up on an overpass to cross over a railroad and then takes you down to the east. The path parallels freight railroad tracks and a highway. Huge machines upon which the AT-AT walker in Star Wars was modeled are dormant in one of the many intermodal yards on the harbor.

The bike path has to cross the highway to the south side of it, and there’s a signalized intersection to make this maneuver. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a timed intersection in the Netherlands. Every one I’ve passed through and paid attention to has a sensor of some kind. In many cases this reduces the amount of time any one person has to wait (okay, that sounds impossible, but it’s also dependent on the time of day, the traffic volumes of each mode, and which road or bike path is supposed to have priority). As I pedal toward the intersection it turns green before I get there, so I don’t have to stop.

I have to make another crossing over railroad tracks and get to the other side of a different highway. There’s another overpass this time. I stopped on my way down because some workers were carrying containers on what looked like Transformers-sized forklifts.

Bike around the Rotterdam harbor from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

After the overpass is a path under the highway, and from here and to the east most of the harbor is far away. There are office buildings on the north side of this path, and a railroad yard on the south side. Between the office buildings are tracks so trains in the yard can reach the harbor. All of the tracks cross the bike path at an angle. Signs say “let op” (caution) and because a fence and hedges separating the bike path from the yard, it seems like a train could pop out onto the bike path at any moment.

Ten minutes later and I’ve reached a neighborhood. On the harbor side is what looks like housing for workers, and the other side is residential. I can see the Maastunnel’s ventilation shaft. One more corner turned and I can see the little house where “fietsers” (cyclists) and “voetgangers” (pedestrians; “voet” is pronounced like foot) take the escalator down.

There are separate levels for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s unclear where the road tunnel is, whereas the low rumbling noise I heard in the Beneluxtunnel gave away its position. The tunnel slopes downward toward the middle, so you can gain a little momentum but it seemed harder in the Maastunnel than in the Benelux tunnel because of what felt like a headwind (maybe the ventilation system is strong).

Maastunnel

Descending into the Maastunnel so I can ride north to home.

The Maastunnel was built from 1937 to 1942, and its 74-year-old age shows: the escalators have fascinating wooden steps. The walls along the escalators are adorned with photographs showing people using the tunnel, and other scenes of building the tunnel. The Beneluxtunnel was built in two phases, with the first group of two tunnels opening in 1967, and the second group of six tunnels, including the bike and pedestrian tunnel, in 2002.

Now that I’ve been riding around Rotterdam for four weeks I can always get home without consulting a map and it’s an easy ride home from the north side of the Maastunnel to home, and I can take several different routes that are all about the same distance and time.

The rate of change on city streets: USA versus the Netherlands

ThinkBike 2013

One of the people in this photo is Dutch. We’re on the Dearborn bike route installed downtown in 2012. The next downtown protected bike route was installed in 2015 serving a different area. However, the Dearborn bike route has become so popular that it’s size and design (t’s a narrow, two-way lane) are insufficient for the demand (who knew that bicycling in a city center would be so high in demand, especially on a protected course?) and there are no plans to build a complementary facility to improve the conditions.

My friend Mark wrote the following paragraph on his blog, BICYCLE DUTCH, relating the need to change a city and its streets to the way families change the contents of essential parts of their homes. In other words, cities and streets are like our living rooms and they must also change as we change.

Think about your living room, chances are you change it completely every 15 to 20 years. Because you need a wider sofa for the expanding family, or because you rightfully think that table has had its best years. Maybe the extra big seat for granddad is sadly not needed anymore. Of course, things can’t always be perfect: you have a budget to consider and it is not so easy to change the walls. Replacing things does give you the opportunity to correct earlier mistakes and to get the things which are more useful now. While you are at it, you can also match the colours and materials better again. Our cities are not so different from our living rooms. Just as families grow and later decrease in size again when the children leave the house, the modal share of the different types of traffic users changes over the years. These shifting modal shares warrant changes to the street design. So you may need some extra space where it was not necessary before, but if you see less and less of a certain type of traffic, its space can be reallocated to other road users.

What I really want to talk about is the rate of change in the Netherlands. I’ve visited Mark’s home in s’Hertogenbosh (Den Bosch), and we’ve walked around Utrecht.

One thing he told me, which is widely evident, is that the Netherlands is always renewing its streets. Or it has been for decades (maybe since World War II). They update street design standards regularly and streets that no longer meet these designs (or a few generations back) are updated to meet them.

Now, the two changes – updating the standards and updating the streets – don’t happen so gloriously hand in hand. Just like in the United States it takes a couple of years to come up with the right design.

The difference between our two countries is the regularity in updating the designs, and the regularity in updating streets.

I’ll lead with one example in Chicago and ask that you tell me about projects in your city that repair what’s long been a pain in the ass.

An intersection in the Wicker Park neighborhood got modern traffic signals, added crosswalk signals (there had never been any), and a stupid, sometimes dangerous little island removed. One of the four legs didn’t have a marked crosswalk. The state of Illinois chipped in most of the cost of the update – this was known at least four years before the construction actually happened.

When I wrote a blog post about the project for Grid Chicago in 2012, I found a photo from 1959 that showed the intersection in the same configuration. I also wrote in that post that the construction was delayed from 2012 to 2013. Well, it got built in 2014.

Milwaukee & Wood ca. 1959

Intersections like this – with difficult-to-see traffic signals that motorist routinely blow past, missing crosswalks, and curb ramps that aren’t accessible – persist across Chicago in the state they’ve been in for 55 or more years.

The “reconstructed bicycle route” that Mark discusses and illustrates in his blog post is known to have been updated at least once a decade. He wrote, “pictures from 1980, 1998 and 2015 show how one such T-junction was changed several times. The protected intersection went through some stages, but having learned by trial and error, the design we see now is one that fits the present ‘family’ best.”

Three books by well-known city transportation planners have all been published within months of each other. I read and reviewed Sam Schwartz’s “Street Smart”, and I’m reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s “Street Fight“. Gabe Klein’s “Startup City” is the third. All of them advocate for new designs to match the changing attitudes and needs cities have. Actually, the needs of the cities haven’t really changed, but our attitudes and policies – and the politics – around how to update cities has evolved.

I don’t know what can spur all of these seemingly minor (they’re no Belmont Flyover) infrastructural updates. I don’t think a lack of money is to blame. I think a lack of coordination, staffing, and planning ensures that outdated and unsafe designs remain on city streets.

P.S. The Netherlands “renewal” attitude isn’t limited to streets. The Dutch national railway infrastructure company “ProRail” (which is “private” but owned by the government) has been completely replacing all of the primary train stations. The Dutch have been rebuilding dikes and building flood control projects for decades, many under the common name “Delta Works”.

Here’s a photo in Nijmegen where the government was building a new, bypass canal that would ease a shipping route, create a controlled flood area, a new recreation area, but that would also displace homes.

What’s up from Europe: A train station that looks like a train station

Walking towards the Hoxton station on Cremer Street. 

Train stations – metro and commuter rail – in the United States, outside city center terminals, are often simply queuing areas, with zero amenities (some don’t even have a shelter). In some locales, people getting dropped off in a car will sit in the car with their driver (a friend or family member) until they see a sign that the train is arriving.

In Europe, train stations are places. Places to hang out, conduct errands, and eat, so that your time is enjoyable and, to put it frankly, used efficiently.

One of my favorite train stations in London was Hoxton serving Overground trains. Overground trains started less than a decade ago and provide near-rapid transit levels of service (meaning they come almost as frequently as Underground trains). They use refurbished track and are almost always elevated. Bombardier built the trains to look a lot like the newest Underground trains.

The station plaza on Geffrye Street. I have a feeling this street used to ferry cars, but now it forms a car-free piece of the walking and bicycling network. 

Overground trains have a lot of space for sitting, standing, and moving about – after all, they’re articulated giving them the roomy feel and allowing one to board at one end and find a seat at the other.

When you approach Hoxton you’ll see that you’re near a train station because of the iconic Transport for London “roundel” on the tracks over the street. Just before you arrive the walls break open and there’s a large gap that opens into a plaza with the Beagle café.

The plaza also hosts a Barclays Cycle Hire (Boris bikes) and plenty of seating to relax and wait for a colleague. The station entrance stands out with a large, glass canopy, and noticeable, polished-metal walls flank the doorway.

You know you’re at a train station now. Feel free to stick around before or after your journey.

A northbound Overground station at Hoxton. You can see in this photo the only feature I disliked about the station: the narrow corridor that doesn’t allow you to see around the corners. 

Oh, by the way, I’m not in Europe anymore – I got back on Saturday and the first thing I did was eat a burrito, something I sorely missed.

How do you enjoy the roses: Smell them or photograph them?

A tram in Milan, outside the Castello Sforzesco and near the Milano Cardona train station, where I arrived from a short trip from Como.

My mother is one to consistently tell me, a communications and photography obsessed traveler who bikes 60 miles per week with a camera around my neck, to “stop and smell the roses” instead of “stop and take their picture”. My 18,208 photos taken in the last 12 months are probably a testament that I’m doing more clicking than sniffing. But the photos I take are there to enhance my stories when I come home. I feel I enjoy my trips even if half the time my eyes are looking through the lens.

On my trip to Europe this year, I made a commitment to myself to not worry about costs – I had money to spend on a wonderful trip. This came after I spend 10+ hours calculating on the value of a Eurail Pass that would give me unlimited free trips on all local trains and discounted trips on high-speed trains. A simple rule eventually made the decision for me: the ticket took two weeks to mail and my trip was in five days. After all those calculations, and understanding the pass’s restrictions, I was moving towards a decision to buy my tickets à la carte, or as I needed them. I kept all of my receipts to monitor the cost of my journeys. Guess what? They came out the same: I spent $512.55 on 19 train trips (including metros; conversion made on January 25, 2011)*. A Eurail Pass that would have gotten me the same trips (and more if I wanted to) was $716 or $771. By keeping my mind focused on enjoying the trip instead of analyzing my costs.

Why do I bring all of this up now? Wired’s October issue has a “travel optimization” article and I love that the author was in a similar quandary:

Halfway through my visit I missed a text message that cost me $5,000 in lost income. At the moment the message arrived (or didn’t arrive), I was enjoying a eucalyptus steam bath with an old laborer who’d belonged to the Solidarity Union, which had helped defeat communism in Eastern Europe. His stories were thrilling, but were they $5,000 worth of thrilling?

Of course they were, I concluded on the flight back. When the mind of the traveler grows overly preoccupied with estimating opportunity costs, the capacity for discovery diminishes, displaced by the obsession with efficiency. The voyager may as well have stayed home, since he’s not really on a voyage anymore; he’s researching economics in the field.

That is exactly the state of being I wanted to avoid. And I did a pretty great job.

I’ve got another example: When it came time to pay the bill after dinner and drinks in Copenhagen, I opened my wallet and said (mainly because I was unfamiliar with how to convert kroner to dollars), “This is what I have”. Thankfully it was enough, although I had to visit the ATM a couple times per day in Copenhagen.

*Add on $85 for a flight from Milan to Hanover. I rode on trains operated by at least 10 different companies and agencies – it was one of the most splendid journeys of my life.

Bikes on trains, Bremen, Germany edition

As part of my “continuing coverage” of how bikes are welcomed (or not) on transit, I’m pointing out how bikes are accommodated on trains in Germany.

My friend and I rode our bikes from central Bremen (the name of the city and its state) to the Valentin submarine pens in the north part of the state (the smallest state in Germany), a 22 miles journey. View an approximation of our route through a rural part of North Germany. The map shows a ferry from the west side of Weser River to the east, which we took. I think it cost 1€ per person, one way.

On our way back we took two trains:

  • A shuttle train, essentially, from Bremen-Farge to Bremen-Vegesack. Operated by NordWestBahn. 18 minutes trip.
  • A Regionalbahn train from Bremen-Vegesack to Bremen Hauptbahnhof (central station). Operated by DB Regio. 23 minutes trip. This trip required an extra ticket, just for the bicycle.

Both trains have designated spaces for bicycles as well as “seat belts” with hooks on the end for wrapping around your bike and then to a pole or to the belt itself.

Our bikes on the first train to Bremen-Vegesack.

Our bikes on the second train to central Bremen.

The train station at our final destination, Bremen Hauptbahnhof (central station).

Find more related photos:

Where I went in 2009 through 2011

I think my trip to San Francisco this past weekend for visiting friends and Transportation Camp West winds up over a year of domestic and international travel. This post links you to all the recap entries and Flickr photo galleries for the awesome cities I traveled to, rode the train in, and biked through.

2009

September

December

Approximate 2009 travel distance: 3,792 miles*

2010

April

August

September

November

December

Approximate 2010 travel distance: 17,515 miles (does not include intercity train trips)*

2011

January

March

May

August

September

Approximate 2011 travel distance: 8,271 miles (does not include intercity train trips and one car trip)*

*Travel distances exclude biking, walking, and trips on transit.

Livable cities in Russia

When you blog, you “meet” a lot of interesting people around the world. Russian blogger Vladimir Zlokazov writes LiveStreets in both Russian and English. Although he doesn’t translate everything into English, what he does is high quality and methodically written.

His latest English article is a critique of a developer’s plan for a neighborhood in Yekaterinburg, population 1,293,537.

Academichesky – is promoted by the developer (Renova Stroygroup) as a project that utilizes the most innovative practices in architecture and urban planning. However the first built blocks clearly show that advertisment promises are not always consistent with the reality.

He offers suggestions for curb radius, intersection design, bicycle paths through intersections, appropriate locations for parking spaces (stay off the sidewalk!) and curb cuts. The draw for his particular critique are the beautiful 3D architectural renderings to show the suggested solutions in place.

“In places where pedestrian and bicycle crossings are located afar from the intersections additional measures should be taken to make them clearly visible for motorists. Such as using coloured asphalt for instance.”

Intercity bike paths, or “bike roads”

Imagine every suburb around Chicagoland connected to a handful of others by a “bike road.” In the Netherlands, it’s a strip of pavement about 1.5 American-car lanes wide but the bicyclist always has priority and any drivers must drive at the speed of the bicyclist. For cars, the road serves mostly rural towns, but for bicycling, it serves as part of a cross-country and intercity bikeway. On some parts of your trip to another town you might ride on bike roads, and others on bike-only paths.

This bike road helps connect Houten and Utrecht. I’m traveling north alongside a Nederlandse Spoorwegen Sprinter train. See more photos from my day trip to Utrecht and Houten.

The Cal-Sag Trail is a typical multi-use path in the works and will do something similar, connecting south suburban Cook County communities (like Calumet Park, Blue Island, and Alsip) along the Calumet River and the Calumet-Sag Channel. It will be car-free. While multi-use paths in Illinois are often used for recreational or touring use (many don’t lead to destinations, or are out of the way for convenient routes), the Cal-Sag Trail will be useful for social, shopping, and school trips as well as fitness. Additionally, it will connect to at least three existing trails.

When any path or road opens it needs sufficient wayfinding. The “United States Numbered Bicycle Routes” system began in 1982 to do for bicycling what numbered highways did for driving: make it easy to create and follow a route. Planning for the system was revitalized in 2010.

Several European countries (including Netherlands and Germany) have had such a system for years but instead of numbering routes, they number junctions. Starting at any origin shown on the junction map, find the junctions that connect the route segments to your destination and remember their numbers. Then watch for signs that point you in the direction of the next number. You only need to remember 2-3 numbered junctions at a time because there will eventually be a new map to remind you which junction is next. See photo and route example below.

This junction is number 34. To go to Houten from here, follow the directional signs, first to 33, then to 36, then to 01. The “bike road” photo above was taken near junction 36.

Welcome to the grand entrance of the Illinois Prairie Path to Elmhurst, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Aurora, and Batavia!

Another Chicago trail example

There’s a great example near Chicago of a trail that’s “80% there.” The Illinois Prairie Path begins in Maywood, Illinois, a couple miles from the western edge of Chicago, and a mile from the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Getting there from Chicago is a problem: it’s not connected to anything but 4-lane, fast-moving 1st Avenue. And bicycling to Maywood from anywhere in Chicago there is a lack of safe routes, regarding infrastructure and personal safety (a lot of Chicagoans would consider the center west side quite dangerous). I grew up the far western suburb of Batavia and have occasionally ridden the trail, but only once did I ride it while living in Chicago.

Another view of the trailhead. Photo by Carlton Holls.

I wanted to visit Fry’s Electronics in Downers Grove, just 4 miles from the trail. It took me over an hour to get to the entrance and then I missed the sign (or wasn’t there one?) for Finley Road and went too far. It was getting dark, so I decided to call the trip a small loss and boarded a Metra train at Glen Ellyn for downtown.

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