Bicycling Bliss Is Possible in a Big City by Leah Shahum

Separate bike paths like this one with a distinct red color, bold signage, and even bike-only signals make it clear that bikes belong. Photos by Leah Shahum
What would San Francisco look and feel like if more than one in three trips were made by bicycle within the city?

We got a sneak-preview into that scenario by spending a week in the lovely, bustling city of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, a city remarkably similar to San Francisco in size, density, population, climate, and its progressive spirit. And to a much greater extent, (for now at least), its embrace of bicycling.

SFBC staffers Dave Snyder, Mary Brown, and I joined nearly 700 others from 51 nations, including 70 people from the U.S., at an international bicycle conference, Velo Mondial, in Amsterdam in June. While attending the conference itself and meeting other bike devotees from around the world were stimulating, what proved most inspiring was simply riding and walking around this amazing city.

We saw with our own eyes what a city of 800,000 people looks like when 39% of all trips are made on bicycles. It looks - and feels - wonderful. And attainable.

A sea of bikes greets you at every train station in Amsterdam, where multi-modal transportation is more than an idea, it's a way of life.
Most simply described: Imagine the American transportation hierarchy turned exactly upside down, with bikes being vaulted from last place to first place on the streets. There you have Amsterdam.

The majority of streets have separated bike paths or striped bike lanes, usually painted red for distinction. Many intersections have separate traffic signals giving cyclists priority on the streets. Traffic calming - speed humps, traffic circles, corner bulb-outs - is everywhere, effectively slowing cars to safer speeds. Car-free streets abound in the city center. Literally thousands of bikes are parked at each train station. Drivers seem to go out of their way to treat bicyclists courteously; these drivers are probably bike commuters themselves sometimes.

As amazing as this bike infrastructure looked, what was even more moving was who was on all of these bikes: Children riding to school by themselves. Elderly people going to the store. Moms or Dads carrying two or three kids at once on a bike.

Unlike American culture, where the very young and very old are often excluded from independent public life because they may not get around easily on their own, in the Netherlands people of all ages feel safe and comfortable biking everywhere. Suddenly children and the elderly were visibly a part of the larger community because of their freedom of mobility. Not to mention the freedom afforded to parents who toted their kids by bike, defying the soccer-mom-trapped-in-a-minivan stereotype.

It was literally a different world thanks to the room made for biking and walking. The result was a whole new appreciation and use of public space.

Because less space is needed for driving and parking cars, merchants had more room on the sidewalks to sell their wares. Entertainers and art displays filled the public squares. And busy, outdoor cafes spilled onto the streets. Witnessing impulse buy after impulse buy at flower stands and food markets, I saw that nothing could be better for most businesses than slowing people down from 30 miles per hour to a casual biking or walking pace.

How did the Dutch accomplish all of this? Interestingly, they did it by following a path not so unlike the one San Francisco seems to be on now. As in American cities, the rise of the automobile in the 1960's hijacked the Netherlands' transportation system. But in the 1970s they recognized auto dependency's ugly side effects, such as environmental degradation and unsafe streets, and people began to rethink the balance and to commit to increasing biking for transportation. Effective activists pushed the government to invest in more space on the streets for bikes, resulting in a 73% increase in bike paths built during the 1980's. Today, it is easier to find streets with bike paths or lanes than without in Amsterdam.

Sure, we have a long way to go in San Francisco before we reach Amsterdam's success, but we have a lot going for us already. Nearly 50% of San Franciscans own bikes, and 70% say they favor creating more bike lanes. There is undoubtedly growing frustration with American-style car culture and interest in rethinking our transportation system. So how do we get there? It will take strong and steady organizing to impact not only the streets but also the minds in our city. Look at the changes on Valencia Street already. Thanks to the SFBC's successful campaign for bike lanes, it's no longer peculiar to see kids or older folks riding. The number of bicyclists has increased 140%, at times making up a whopping one-fourth of all traffic using the street.

With every improvement on the street and with every new rider, we're closer to becoming a city recognized not for honking horns and gridlock but for ringing bike bells...and bliss.