Cross-posted to Amsterdamize.

The Netherlands seems to have it all when it comes to people riding bikes: safety, facilities, normality, sensibility. But I’ve already written about that (and here, too), and since you’re reading this on Amsterdamized, you would have seen that in the 1,000+ photos Marc has published on Amsterdamize. The Netherlands hasn’t always had expertise about making it safe and easy for people of all ages to ride bikes. There was a period of time when bike use declined dramatically as the popularity of driving rose. In the three decades since the central and civic governments started acting to change this scenario, the country has learned a lot about what works.

Hans Voerknecht’s presentation shows bicycle use dropping (red line) from 1960-1975 and rising from 1975 to now.

The City of Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan promotes two goals that echo the sentiments of almost all North American cities and the Netherlands:

  1. Increase the number of people riding bikes
  2. Decrease the number of injuries and fatalities.

People riding home from work on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. Before stopping in Chicago, ThinkBike paid a visit to Toronto, Canada.

Regardless of what the press release claims as the role of the ThinkBike workshop, it seems to me an opportunity for the Netherlands government to share its expertise on achieving these goals (and possibly drum up some business or economic partnerships for the country). For more on bicycling conditions in the Netherlands, I urge you to read John Pucher’s excellent paper, “Making Cycling Irresistible” (PDF). The country’s four representatives (think tank, private consultancy, and municipal planning) also want to promote imaginative and innovative solutions for Chicago bicycling.

This post is about the “opening ceremony” on Thursday morning, which was open to the public. I took great notes during this part!

Previous write ups on ThinkBike from friends:

Before the four representatives got up to speak, there were introductions:

  • Geoffrey Baer, documentarian and from WTTW channel 11, introduced us to the two-day workshop. He told attendees that in Chicago there were once 88 bicycle manufacturers (Schwinn was founded here). There was once a mayor that ran on the platform that he was “not the champion cyclist, but the cyclist’s champion.” The mayor-to-be rode his bike 100 miles on the campaign trail.
  • Luann Hamilton*, Deputy Commissioner at Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), talked about how she got into bicycle planning in Chicago that I doubt many people had known. She started at CDOT as a transportation planner. For the first five years of being on the job, there was not a word or mention about bikes. But then she got a “blue note” from the mayor’s office asking about bike racks, specifically in front of the Board of Trade building. Now, many years later, CDOT has installed over 12,000 bike racks, more than any other American city.
  • Hans Heinsbroek, Consul General in Chicago, wanted to ensure everyone knew that the Dutch didn’t invent the bicycle, but a German named Karl Drais who created the velocipede. “The Dutch are merely responsible for putting the bicycle to vast use. [The Netherlands] is the birthplace and utopia of cycling.” More tidbits from Hans. Unflattering to the Dutch, Hans broke the ice by saying, “As you know, Dutch is not a language but a throat disease.” In any case, the Dutch know English very well.

Now it’s time for the Dutch experts to tell us about the good stuff.

Arjen Jaarsma, Balancia

Arjen talked little about bicycling. Instead he talked about eco-cities and sustainability. Because of this, I’ve moved my summary of his presentation to a different post.

Hans Voerknecht

Two parts of the Dutch bicycling philosophy are joy and safety. Hans wants us to think bigger than 1-2% ridership (expressed in portion of workers commuting by bike). The Bike 2015 Plan has a goal of 5%. Currently, Chicago has a 1.15% rate (workers 16 and older riding their bikes to work) according to the 2009 American Community Survey – slightly above the nation’s rate of 1%. In the whole of the Netherlands, the bike to work rate is 27%. We should aim for 10%.


How does joy fit in? “I’ve been driving. I don’t feel free siting in a cage in a traffic jam.” People of all ages bike in the Netherlands. Girls aged 12-16 cycle 7 kilometers daily! (The United States only tracks cycling rates to work for people 16 and older.) “My father is 83 years old; he’s not allowed to drive but he rides his bike.” [Read more about 8-80 criteria]


Perceived safety is secondary to joy in the Netherlands. (I would say if not already first priority in America, it should be. We can work on joy simultaneously.) How does one make a situation where riding a bike is perceived as a safe thing to do? (Please comment if you don’t understand these – as a transportation planner, this is firsthand knowledge for me.)

  • There cannot be a large speed difference between adjacent road users.
  • There must be forgiving situations.
  • There must be recognizable infrastructure.
  • There must be a legal system that protects vulnerable users. Drivers are 100% liable for collisions with children on bikes (because children cannot help but to behave unexpectedly and the driver should always be aware of this). For other collisions, drivers are at least 50% liable.
  • There must be continuation of the bikeway through the intersection.
  • Use color!

The bike lane continues through the intersection (denoted by white squares) while intersecting drivers must yield (denoted by shark teeth – the triangles). Photo by Daniel Sparing.

Hans explained the three road types in the country and how bicycle riders are accommodated.

  • Highway – No bikes are allowed here. This is like our interstate system, which has limited and controlled access. Bikes are almost always banned on these roads, but some states, like California, allow people to bike on interstates when no substitute road is available.
  • Distributor – On these roads, there are separated lanes. There are many ways to implement this. In the extreme, bike lanes appear to be American-style off-street trails 20 feet away from the main roadway. Or the bike lane occupies the same roadway as the main lanes but is somehow separated or segregated.
  • Access – These roads have mixed traffic, but people riding bikes always have priority. Think permanent traffic calming or the ultimate “complete street.” This may include the woonerf and the “bicycle street” (car drivers are not allowed to overtake bike riders).

Bike lane adjacent to, but separated from, a distributor road.

A woonerf, or shared space. Many “traffic calming” devices prioritize people on foot and on the bicycle. Photo by Joel Mann.

Hans also talked about transit, but I’ve moved that to the end of this article because the final speaker, Ruud, also talked about transit.

Martijn te Lintelo

Martijn is the Senior Advisor of Mobility Policy, Department of Public Space, for the City of Nijmegen. Nijmegen is the country’s oldest city, celebrating “its 2000th year of existence in 2005”, with 160,000 residents. Its view on bicycling is entirely modern. He talked about a special piece of infrastructure in his town and how to design a bikeway network.

Martijn was quite obviously excited the bicycle bridge, called the Snelbinder (info in Dutch, some in English). He said it means “fast connection” but it also seems to mean a bungee cord that goes on a bike’s rear rack. The bridge span is only 270m long, but the connection is over 2km. There are multiple access points, including an escalator for bikes and their owners.

Just pull your bike right on to the escalator up to the Snelbinder to get across the  River Waal. Photo by Marko van Houdt

Martijn gave us some neat ideas about “bending the street” to improve connectivity and speed. It’s part of how to build a network “top layer.” The following is paraphrased from his presentation: “Where do cyclists want to go? [Are they the same places that drivers go? I doubt it; schools are a more prominent destination for people riding bikes.] Find and determine the hotspots. Then add some regional connections. Just draw a straight line between them – ‘wish lines.’ Then build a route on these wish lines using existing infrastructure/network segments/connections.”

Showing how wish lines work. I just started drawing on a satellite map of Chicago. This is an activity you would commonly find at a charrette, where you give attendees the opportunity to show what they want. The person in charge of planning the bikeways would essentially try to make this happen. I circled schools, sports arenas, shopping, work and entertainment areas, and some residential areas. This is not how it happens in Chicago – but I think we should try it out!

I hope I’m interpreting his idea correctly. Bending the street is one way to use existing connections to create better bicycle connections. Here’re two real-world examples in Portland: 33rd/Going, Williams/Killingsworth.

After bending the street, we can use more existing connections for bikes by removing on-street car parking. This would optimize street space for movement instead of storage.


Ruud Ditewig works for the City of Utrecht. He talked mostly about bikes and transit – “a very important relationship.” He showed on the big screen many photos of train stations around Utrecht, including the Centraal Station. Here people arriving by bike will find 9 guarded bike stations (u-stal) with 10,000 bike parking spaces. You might see a banner announcing “gratis stallen” (free parking).

The national train operator, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), operates its own bike sharing system called OV Fiets. Train passengers can borrow a bike using their OV-chipkaart, the contactless payment card they use to pay for train fares. During non-rush hours, passengers must buy a ticket for their bike for €6. Folding bikes are allowed at all times. Ruud showed a photo where you could count at least 4 passengers carrying folding bikes after deboarding.

Customer with folding bike at Amsterdam Centraal Station.

Hans V. told us that 40% of NS customers arrive by bike – “it’s their biggest customer group.”

A Nederlandse Spoorwegen train passes by a group of people riding bikes.

Bike parking is the Netherlands’ number one bike challenge. But at least when available at train stations, it’s often convenient by being sheltered and near the platform. Ruud also showed a photo showing a bicycle bypass on a narrow street with a bus route where bus stops would block the main cycling way.

Ruud shows a bicycle-only bypass at the bus stop.

The end

The opening ceremony closed with a presentation from Adolfo Hernandez of the Active Transportation Alliance (ATA), giving a speech verbatim that Randy Neufeld (formerly of ATA) had given at the David Byrne and the Future of Cities Forum earlier in the summer (you can read and watch that presentation).

Afterwards, many invited planners, engineers, consultants, and advocates met to form the Blue Team and Orange Team. Stay tuned for “ThinkBike – The closing ceremony” where we learn of their results!

*I used to work for CDOT, from 2007-2010, as a bicycle parking planner.