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Eugene Weekly : News : 10.27.11

Going Dutch

Will Eugene cycle like Utrecht?

by Alan Pittman

What would Eugene look like if it accomplished a bike plan goal of doubling cycling to 22 percent in the next 20 years? Maybe something like the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands where 28 percent commute by bike.

“No matter your age in the Netherlands, you cycle,” Ronald Tamse, an Utrecht city planner, told a group of about 50 people gathered by LiveMove at the UO Knight Library last week. “It’s perfectly normal in the Netherlands to see businessmen on the bicycle,” he said. “It’s not something cool.”

Tamse showed slides of everyone from people in business suits, to small kids to old women biking in Utrecht. In Eugene, 82 percent drive to work, compared to 39 percent in Utrecht. “You see a few cars, and you see a lot of bikes,” Tamse said.

With biking “here it’s something that starts to grow; in my country it’s a huge tree,” Tamse said. 

“The bikes are just as important as the cars in my city,” Tamse said. He said if he designs a road without the best bike facilities, he won’t have to wait for the public backlash. “My boss will ask what’s wrong with me.”

With so many cyclists, accident rates become very low, according to Tamse. “You have a certain power, you create a certain road safety,” he said.

With the high share of people cycling, safety also increases because “the car driver is a cyclist himself and is aware of your behavior,” Tamse said. 

Most cyclists in the Netherlands do not see the need to wear helmets, he said. “I’m 45 years old, and I never fell,” he said. Like other Dutch cyclists, Tamse said he rides slowly often talking and socializing with friends while rolling along.

With many bikes-only shortcuts, cycling is often the quickest and easiest way to get to destinations in Utrecht, Tamse said. “We do this not for health or the environment; it’s more convenient for me,” he said.

“I don’t need a car,” Tamse said. “I can tell you, I can’t drive a car.”

Tamse said drivers licenses in the Netherlands are difficult to obtain, often requiring taking a test multiple times. 

In accidents involving bikes and cars, Dutch law puts the  burden on the driver to prove he was not in the wrong, according to Tamse. “We have this law to make the position of the bike stronger,” he said. 

Children in Utrecht start to bike at 4 to 5 years old and often bike to school by themselves by second grade, Tamse said. For the children the independent mobility “becomes freedom,” he said.  

Tamse showed pictures of the main train station in Utrecht which has 17,000 parking spaces for bicycles. Many of the bikes are stacked on top of each other, and 10,000 of the spaces are guarded. Train riders often have two bikes that they park at either end of their train commute and also can rent bikes using their rail fare card, he said. 

In addition to the many separated bike paths along streets, Tamse showed slides of “woonerf” streets where children are encouraged to play in the street and where cars know they have the lowest right of way priority. On “fietsstraat” bikes have the right of way and ride in the middle of the street with cars following slowly behind as guests.

Tamse said children can learn to judge the speed of cars by 8 to 10 years old and need cycling experience for safety. If children are driven to school instead of biking at that age, “you’re taking away the possibility of this child to learn,” he said. “It’s not only about creating good infrastructure, it’s about teaching,” Tamse said.

Due to air and noise pollution, building new roads for cars is very unpopular, according to Tamse. “Just building roads isn’t possible anymore in the Netherlands,” he said. “The people of our country won’t accept it.”

Almost everywhere in Europe, leaders accept that car-centered transportation is a thing of the past. Even the mayor of Stuttgart, Germany, a major car producing city, has called for change. Tamse quoted Mayor Wolfgang Schuster: “Our traffic concepts of today are not sustainable and will be of no use for the future of our society and our planet.”