In car-clogged urban areas across the world, the humble bicycle is enjoying a second life as a legitimate form of transportation. City officials are rediscovering it as a multi-pronged (or -spoked) solution to acute, 21st-century problems, including affordability, obesity, congestion, climate change, inequity, and social isolation. As the world’s foremost cycling nation, the Netherlands is the only country where the number of bikes exceeds the number of people, primarily because the Dutch have built a cycling culture accessible to everyone, regardless of age, ability, or economic means. Chris and Melissa Bruntlett share the incredible success of the Netherlands through engaging interviews with local experts and stories of their own delightful experiences riding in five Dutch cities. Building the Cycling City examines the triumphs and challenges of the Dutch while also presenting stories of North American cities already implementing lessons from across the Atlantic. Discover how Dutch cities inspired Atlanta to look at its transit-bike connection in a new way and showed Seattle how to teach its residents to realize the freedom of biking, along with other encouraging examples. Tellingly, the Dutch have two words for people who ride bikes: wielrenner (“wheel runner”) and fietser (“cyclist”), the latter making up the vast majority of people pedaling on their streets, and representing a far more accessible, casual, and inclusive style of urban cycling—walking with wheels. Outside of their borders, a significant cultural shift is needed to seamlessly integrate the bicycle into everyday life and create a whole world of fietsers. The Dutch blueprint focuses on how people in a particular place want to move. The relatable success stories will leave readers inspired and ready to adopt and implement approaches to make their own cities better places to live, work, play, and—of course—cycle.
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About the Author
Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are co-founders of a marketing and communications firm focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of mobility through words, photography, and film. For many years, they have been developing written and visual content, including videos, with a focus on storytelling rather than relaying quantitative information. Collectively, they have written hundreds of articles based on the experiences of their family both at home in Vancouver and in cities around the world.
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STREETS AREN'T SET IN STONE
Rotterdam will be a beautiful city. It will be spacious, it will have the elegance of a metropolis: the speeding traffic, the broad boulevards, all the tall buildings will generate a sense of bustle that blends harmoniously with modern life. It will not be easygoing, but today we would prefer to see a row of gleaming cars than a carriage full of old ladies. Rotterdam will be our city, the city of twentieth-century people.
— REIN BLIJSTRA
Letter to the Het Vrije Volk newspaper, November 13, 1952
Few contemporary cities have endured the trauma of having their entire urban fabric erased overnight, but that was precisely what befell Rotterdam on May 14, 1940. In an ultimately effective attempt to shock the Dutch government into surrender at the onset of the Second World War, a ninety-plane wing of the Luftwaffe, the feared German air force, bombarded the city with 87 metric tons (96 US tons) of explosives, tragically killing nearly 1,000 residents, making another 85,000 homeless, and fully leveling all but 12 buildings within the 600-acre city center.
Prior to that catastrophic event, Rotterdam was a typical fine-grained Dutch city — founded in 1340 — with narrow and cobbled streets, low-rise buildings, historic canals, and a red-light district. But, like any other city, it wasn't without its challenges. While the port of nearby Amsterdam thrived during the seventeenth century, as can be seen in the city's elegant and orderly urban structure, Rotterdam's harbor didn't experience its own economic boom until the Industrial Revolution, over 200 years later.
"As a result, there were factories in the middle of the city, and a lot of pollution," suggests Dr. Michelle Provoost of the Rotterdam-based research collective Crimson Architectural Historians. "People lived right in the middle of that industrious climate, in small, dark, and unhealthy homes. There was a huge dissatisfaction with this pre–World War II city that we would probably not understand today."
That discontent with a mixed, messy city — especially among the ruling classes — manifested itself in an "urban renewal" plan similar to those seen in North American cities. As Provoost points out, planners in Rotterdam were already devising radical transformations to unclutter and "sober up" the city, even before the bombs fell: "They were tearing down huge parts of the inner city to create more space for urban traffic. The bombardment came as a shock, of course, and it was a disaster. But also at the very same moment some people were saying: 'This is a gift from God.'"
Postwar rebuilding efforts were fast and furious, embraced by planners, politicians, and city officials as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernize Rotterdam, untie its problematic "knots," and redesign it around society's newly mass-produced panacea of economic prosperity and personal mobility: the private automobile. They believed that the bike as a mode of transport — extremely common in this working-class city — would meet its necessary and inevitable demise. Rather than share the road with cars, Rotterdammers would trade in their pedals for shiny new motor vehicles.
"The story in Rotterdam is, only a few days after the bombing, the planners had the first renewal plan ready, as if they were waiting for the moment to turn it in a very modern city," claims Jeroen Laven, partner at the Rotterdam-based urban planning firm STIPO. "They were saying, 'Now we have the opportunity to prepare for this modern age with more cars, and solve a lot of the problems of the old city.'"
As in New York, and countless other places enthralled with Robert Moses' unsympathetic vision of the future, the old streets and canals were paved over with wide, multi-lane boulevards and long blocks. High-rise buildings with huge parking garages were prescribed and built, and a strict zoning code separated the city's core components: work, commerce, and living. The technocrats touted these concepts to a skeptical public as a matter of inevitable progress, on a scale and scope far more familiar in North America than anything seen in Europe at the time. "It was very effective, this myth that Rotterdam would reinvent itself and rise from the ashes like a phoenix," says Provoost. "In the juxtaposition between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, that is the identity of the city: dynamic, changeable, and resilient."
Aided by US president Harry S. Truman's Marshall Plan — which provided the Netherlands with over $1.1 billion (USD) in financial aid to rebuild the roads, railroads, bridges, and factories that had been destroyed — the rebuilding necessitated by this "gift from God" proved in some ways to be fortuitous. For instance, it allowed Rotterdam to modernize its harbor facilities, making it one of the first to invest heavily in the freshly introduced concept of containerization and establishing Rotterdam as the world's busiest port (until it was eventually surpassed by Singapore and Shanghai in 2004). As a consequence, Rotterdam also evolved into a multinational business hub, with many shipping, pharmaceutical, banking, energy, and chemical companies strategically locating their headquarters on the Maas River.
For over 20 years, this unparalleled experiment in car-first planning continued unchecked, until the early 1970s, when many Rotterdammers started to realize that the reality of the automobile age fell far short of the dream of progress they had been sold. Growing congestion, decreased air quality, plummeting cycling rates, and a plague of road fatalities, particularly among children — all seen as the "cost of commerce" elsewhere — were enough for them to demand a change from their elected officials.
Taking Back the City
"In the beginning of the seventies, all over the Netherlands there was a switch from large-scale to small-scale, from car traffic to public transport, and from the economy to the environment," recalls Provoost. Cities across the country were realizing that the rebuilding of their infrastructural framework, with an emphasis on economic growth, had become unbalanced. Instead of feeling a sense of ownership of their streets, Rotterdammers were left fighting for scraps of space on the sidewalk. They eventually decided it was time to rebalance the scales and take back their city from the technocrats.
And then, in 1973, OPEC announced that the Netherlands — the home of Royal Dutch Shell — was one of five countries to be targeted by an oil embargo, resulting in an abrupt gasoline shortage and compelling the nation's 3 million motorists to reevaluate their relationship with their cars. A dramatic spike in fuel prices forced many to reacquaint themselves with bicycles — the sales of which doubled — which, in turn, resulted in a collective desire for safer streets. This shift was reinforced by the national government's "Car-Free Sunday" policy, announced by Prime Minister Joop den Uyl as he cycled outside his official residence. Suddenly, for one day a week, Rotterdam went completely quiet, and its broad thoroughfares were returned to the public realm. "It opened people's eyes to the incredible amount of space that was reserved for the automobile," submits Provoost, "because suddenly you had these days when you could rollerskate on the highway, which — for everybody — was a real 'wow moment.'"
Laven adds that "It was an instant in Dutch history when you started noticing you can't take certain things for granted." According to him, though, something more pragmatic drove Rotterdammers' rejection of the modernist ideals that had been implemented. During the eighties and nineties, Amsterdam and Rotterdam both had 80,000 people working in their city centers. In Amsterdam, however, 80,000 also lived in the center, whereas only 20,000 lived in the center of Rotterdam. This made the inner city feel completely empty, especially on evenings and weekends. As more and more individuals started to complain about how boring the inner city was, the conversation began to shift. Rotterdammers began asking out loud, "How can we finish the inner city? How can we improve it?" They demanded to see accessible housing, vibrant public space, and more day-to-day functions return to the downtown, instead of seeing the life drain from it at the end of the workweek. Everyone had clearly been romanced by images of crowded Manhattan sidewalks, which never actually materialized in Rotterdam because of the problematic way the zoning code had pushed housing out of the city center. "The inner city became windy and uncozy, and people were very critical of it," reveals Provoost. "In the seventies, this critique came to a pinnacle, leading to the narrowing of streets to make them cozy again."
Thus began three decades of reversing the damage done in the name of urban renewal and retrofitting streets designed "according to the demands of modern fast traffic" to a more human scale. Wide, grass-lined boulevards were established down the center of many arterial roads, and these were integrated into a fast, frequent tramway system that would never get stuck behind single-occupant vehicles. Sidewalks were widened, and generously proportioned one-way cycle tracks were built on both sides, completely separated from automobiles. Perhaps more importantly, the zoning code was relaxed, housing was reintroduced to the city center, and thousands of new apartment units were built.
By building complete streets and complete communities, Rotterdam reversed many of its problems and its citizens' lives were all the better for it — thus reminding cities that the design of their streets aren't set in stone, nor are they frozen in time. Even the most car-centric city can be adapted for walking, cycling, public transit, and public life.
It wasn't just the city center that benefited from these retrofits. "In Rotterdam," Laven explains, "because of the bombing, the good cultural spots were spread out around the city, so you needed a bike to get from one place to another." Hence, the city's 4-meter- (13-foot-) wide cycle tracks eventually stretched to every corner. "The challenge was to connect the empty spaces at street level between those spots. So, if it were made attractive enough, you would cycle as in other cities you would walk." Provoost agrees wholeheartedly: "In Holland, cycling has been part of the culture, part of the way we get around, for such a long time that it's deeply ingrained and has been for at least a century. You don't have to have a helmet or special clothing. It's just a faster way of walking. 'Pedestrian plus,' you could say."
Rotterdam also made a point of building streets that were accessible to all ages and abilities. "We took some big steps to make it safe for children and elderly people to cycle," Laven says. "I have a feeling that we do better there than quite a lot of other cities." He credits this to the modernist influence, where wide avenues can easily be transformed into safe, pleasant streets with cycle lanes. Cycling's modal share in Rotterdam may be low by Dutch standards — about one in four trips are made by bike — but this would be an enviable rate anywhere else in the world, and it's growing quickly as officials work tirelessly to make the cycling experience more relaxed, intuitive, and seamless.
"Rotterdam has had this one advantage over other Dutch cities, being that there is much more space in the urban infrastructure," continues Provoost. While for many of its counterparts — especially Amsterdam — the increasing number of cycle lanes has come at the expense of the walking realm, Rotterdam enjoys a luxury uncommon in traditional European cities: "Here the bicycle infrastructure has been carved out of the car infrastructure, because that is possible. And that is an ongoing process. The City is continually finding more space for bicycles and pedestrians," she says, pointing to new plans for the Coolsingel, the main arterial road in the center, which was recently redesigned to lose half its car lanes and replace them with trees and sidewalks.
"What we are really grateful for, at this moment in time, is these North American–sized buildings and urban fabric," concurs Laven. "They give you so much space to improve the city. There are people who move from Amsterdam, and what sticks out here is that there's so much sky. You can see it everywhere. The sky is a symbol of opportunity. That really gives a lot of energy that this is a city of possibilities."
Seeing the City at Eye Level
Viewing Rotterdam as a place with limitless potential, Laven and his colleagues at STIPO have spent recent years studying the importance of repairing the urban fabric at ground level. After the war, the "blank canvas" created by the bombing removed certain architectural constraints — such as height, color, and context — leading to some stunning and innovative experiments with the built environment.
"Rotterdam is known as a place where you can see all of the postwar experiments that ever happened in architecture," he says. "The attitude was 'we have to rebuild the city. We have to do it fast because there is a shortage of housing. But it's okay if we make some mistakes, because we'll just demolish them and start again.'" This redesign placed an emphasis not on traditional streetscapes of the past — with buildings lining them — but on single objects. They built stand-alone theaters, hotels, and train stations, which, being isolated, broke the continuity of the street façade.
While some of these architectural experiments have helped shaped a rather spectacular skyline — including Piet Blom's Cube Houses, MVRDV's Market Hall, Rem Koolhaas's De Rotterdam, and the spectacular Centraal Station — most managed to fail Rotterdammers at the most basic level. The ground floor, or — as STIPO refers to it — plinth, makes up only 10 percent of a building, but determines 90 percent of the building's contribution to the experience of the urban environment. Simply put, the plinth is where life happens, and where pedestrians and cyclists experience the city and those people around them.
Recognizing these gaps in their streets, the City of Rotterdam approached STIPO about joining with the City administration to develop a plinth strategy for the city center, the very first of its kind in the world. This document also formed the basis for The City at Eye Level, a collection of nearly 60 stories written by professionals from such varied settings as Toronto, Tokyo, Mumbai, and Johannesburg. The free e-book — edited by Laven and three of his peers — outlines best practices on how to make great, human-scale streets by carefully considering their six key elements: the façades, buildings, sidewalks, streets, bikeways, and trees.
Laven's work is indisputably informed and inspired by his daily travels around Rotterdam perched on his upright bicycle, which he equates to a slightly faster and more efficient form of walking. He likens his wheels to an extension of his body, a sentiment to which many Dutch people can relate, and is firm in his belief that pedaling a bicycle is like taking a pleasant stroll through the arteries of his beloved city.
"Giving space to pedestrians and bikes is the same. You need to give people enough space to stroll in a safe way, and just enjoy the city as it is. For the Dutch, that's completely normal," he declares. That plentiful space is what will keep Laven and his family living in Rotterdam for the indefinite future: "It's a great city because there's space to live. There's space to experiment. There's space to cycle, too."
Leading an Urban Revolution
Experiencing the city at eye level, and then planning accordingly — as Rotterdam has done for the past half century — is a strategy increasingly applied to streets around the world. A new crop of "plangineers" are recognizing that in order for cities to be successful for the people that live in them, their approach needs to come from the ground up, and not from above, as their modernist predecessors tried to do and failed.
One of the more lauded and high-profile examples of this new attitude can be found in a former Dutch colony that is now the seemingly untamable global capital — New York City, formerly New Amsterdam. The "City That Never Sleeps" undertook a dramatic transformation that is largely credited to its darling — at least in transportation planning circles — Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation principal with Bloomberg Associates, chair of the North American Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), and coauthor of Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Building the Cycling City"
Copyright © 2018 Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface Introduction: A Nation of Fietsers Chapter 1: Streets Aren't Set in Stone Chapter 2: Not Sport. Transport. Chapter 3: Fortune Favors the Brave Chapter 4: One Size Won't Fit All Chapter 5: Demand More Chapter 6: Think Outside the Van Chapter 7: Build at a Human Scale Chapter 8: Use Bikes to Feed Transit Chapter 9: Put Your City on the Map Chapter 10: Learn to Ride Like the Dutch Conclusion: A World of Fietsers About the Authors Acknowledgments Bibliography