Alive in Utrecht

I was planning on writing a blog today about sustainability in Scandinavia and the built environment in Copenhagen and Utrecht, but my feelings for Utrecht are too strong right now not to write about it. I am writing today from a park along the side of one of the many canals that run through the city. I just waved to a couple paddling along the canal that I had waved to earlier in the day in a different part of the city. Hilariously, I had an ice cream cone in my non-waving hand and she had a joint in hers. I called out to them asking if they remembered me (hoping they spoke English) and they definitely did, likely due to the chuckle I gave them from waving in the first place. Utrecht has canals lined with beautiful architecture. It is filled with young people attending the university. The streets are packed during the day around the shopping districts. There is a diverse population. It has a bit of grit. And the people are proud of the bicycle and art culture that lives strong here. They go against the norm when designing and changing the transportation system, and they love their city. I love this city. It is active and lively, yet with a small-town, comforting feel to it. My professor even asked me and others if we are moving here now. But I digress…

On Wednesday morning, we jumped on the train in Malmo to Copenhagen’s airport. The train tracks run along the lower deck of the Oresund Bridge and then through the Oresund Tunnel that connect Sweden and Denmark. Getting through the airport was seamless and we were off to the Netherlands. We exited baggage claim at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport directly into a massive train station with at least eight platforms. When you think about the airports in the United States, most of them only have one transit line connecting to them at most. In the Netherlands, it seems that you can travel from anywhere in the Country to the airport. I even saw a platform for an international rail service to Paris. The train that was to take us to Utrecht was packed tight with evening peak hour commuters, but a few of us were lucky enough to get seats. Arriving in Utrecht, I saw an even larger and modern rail station (and later learned that this was the busiest station in the country even though Utrecht is the fourth-largest city). Exiting the station, you will immediately recognize that this City is the real deal when it comes to bicycle transportation. There are multi-level bicycle parking racks all over the place and the cycle tracks are packed with commuters, some looking like they are out for a stroll and others done-up in their best dress. I attempted to figure out how the bicycle network functioned, but I got overwhelmed. I really had to watch where I was walking initially to understand what was happening amid all of the chaos. In due time, I would be riding along with the rest of them enjoying the scene around me with a planned destination in mind. It was time to begin exploring once we had settled into the hostel and had our rental bikes. It took some getting used to riding a “dutch-style” cruiser bike with back-pedal breaks, as we were used to city bikes with handle-bar brakes. Add in the different bicycle infrastructure operations, and it was quite the overwhelming short ride back to the hostel from the bike shop. But finally, it was time for food along the canal…

After dinner, we first had to encounter a bicycle parking issue that was new to us. In Denmark, we could leave our bikes anywhere. In Sweden, there was plenty of bicycle parking near our origins and destinations. In Utrecht, we had to move our bikes out of the square in front of the hostel to a bicycle parking facility down the street. Through the hostel, the parking was free, but this was a surprising early impression from a City that seemed to be completely built around cycling. Looking back, this was truly the only issue, albeit minor issue, we had with cycling here. Some of us had some beers with a couple of locals attending the university. Adam is friends with them and introduced us to them. It was interesting to hear their surprise that we were coming to the Netherlands to learn about all the things they are doing right. They were surprised because in their mind, America is where it is at. But it was also because cycling is so engrained in their culture and they do not think of it as taboo like many Americans do.

Thursday morning, we had our first true test on the bicycle network and it was quite confusing. Jordan and I got split up from the group and I had to back her up off of one of Utrecht’s rainbow crosswalks. We eventually made it and parked our bikes with the rest of the group in a bicycle parking deck with two-level bicycle parking. We walked up the stairs to get to the lobby of the City Hall and noticed that the other level of parking, for cars, was nearly empty. The City Traffic Engineer and Planner, Ronald, told us that it isn’t a surprise at all. Everyone bikes, it is in their culture. It made me start to question if we could ever have the same culture in cities in America, but through this experience, and understanding that the Netherlands and Denmark used to be more about the car culture too, I know it is possible. They are lucky enough to have cities that mostly have grown within that magic 7.5 km bicycle commute threshold, however.

Ronald gave some great insight into Utrecht’s built environment and how as a team, they have moved past the strictness of the design manuals and are willing to think outside the box. It was amazing to hear some of his stories that I will definitely post on here eventually. As we walked through the offices, Ronald told us that no one has an actual desk, that everything is collaborative and that why should anyone have their own desk, everyone is working to make the City better so they should be working together. Quite progressive, and very “me” I must say. After lunch, we went out riding along the canals and to some new, but smart development happening on the edge of the City (right next to a commuter rail station). We crossed back over a new bridge and learned that we had just rode across an elementary school built into a bicycle bridge. Simply an amazing sight. We kept riding and seeing more innovative transportation projects, then the entire group followed me the wrong way and we got lost and ended up where we weren’t supposed to be, but we fixed the problem, and eventually ended up riding through the University of Utrecht’s research campus and into a park with a Pancake House along one of the centuries-old canals. The pancakes were great. The beers were great. And the company was fantastic. Riding back to the hostel after a great day an evening sent us through some mighty thunderstorms, but it just made the shower after a long-day of cycling around more enjoyable.

Friday sent us on more adventures with Ronald. We started the day out trying to find Ronald and his family’s house with only a paper map to reference. Through this exploration, we had to navigate a bicycle network we were unfamiliar with and a City that we barely knew. I got split up from Brandon and was on my own, but I knew the direction, knew I had to cross underneath a train station, and I eventually made it sweating my ass off. We went off from Ronald’s house to Houton, a master-planned community built around two commuter rail train stations, a bicycle-friendly network of local roads, and an arterial loop road around it. I can see what our professor meant when he said it was nice but a little bit creepy. Just too perfect. We had lunch and watched the many groups of children and commuters cycling past us and then we were off on a rural ride. We rode along the rural canals and some trails through a wooded area and popped out at a beach, which we decided was the perfect spot for a break. Some of us jumped into the water, others played some hacky-sack, and then finished the break with some ice cream. The ride back from there included amazing scenery and good conversation. I won’t go into the details of what happened after our Italian dinner because it was dance party time at the club and I know my professor is reading this… 🙂

Saturday was a day off for us and takes me to the time I began writing this post. It was relaxing day, when a lot of my time was spent walking the canals and watching the packed markets stay alive most of the day. Some of us made it over to the renaissance-era cathedral tower that is the center of Utrecht and enjoyed the weather, then went over to the park along the river with my friend’s in the paddle boat before heading back to the hostel for a debrief of our short, but plenty worth-it experience in Utrecht. We reflected on the many differences in from our experiences in Denmark and Sweden, and I think Gilly put it nicely when he said Copenhagen is designed to work for the cyclists who are interested, but concerned because it is easier to understand the movement of those cyclists around you, while in Utrecht the cycling is just required and part of the culture. Basically, you have no choice but to grow up riding your bike for your main form of transportation, but that it is not a chore riding in this town. A system where you can ride side-by-side your friends, and easily get to anywhere you need to go in 15 minutes or less. After the debrief and some famous Dutch frites (fries) with the crew it was off to bed in preparation for the 40 km ride to Amsterdam on Sunday…


And what a ride it was! (stay tuned)


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