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Portlanders find bike nirvana in Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — Clearly, we are not in Portland.

The Amstel River shimmers in the background as people stream by a crowded outdoor cafe on a welcome sunny Sunday in late fall. A gray-haired couple casually peddle their bicycles along the cobblestoned street and easily turn left onto a busy boulevard that bridges the canal.

Another couple, with a toddler nestled on a small seat in front of the handlebars, glide by. A few moments later, a woman carefully balances a wrapped package of food flat in one hand as she steers her bike over the bridge with the other. A pair of teenage girls, one riding sidesaddle on the back rack of their bicycle, giggle at a shared joke.

With undisguised pleasure, Roger Geller, Portland’s bicycle coordinator, watches the intricate street life of a city where bikes account for 40 percent of all trips, whether by car, bike or mass transit.

“You see people operate with extreme skill and confidence,” he says about all that the Dutch have done — from street design to driver education — to create one of the world’s finest cycling cities. “It’s a complicated dance, and everybody knows the steps.”

At first blush, Amsterdam seems as distant from Portland in miles — 5,008 as the crow flies — as in relevance. But among the activists, planners and politicians who want to turn Portland into Biketown USA, Amsterdam and just about any city in the Netherlands prove that a transportation system that takes the bicycle seriously can indeed work.

“You can create an environment,” insists Geller, “where 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds can ride and feel comfortable and healthy.”

Geller and several other bike advocates from Portland spent a week in the Netherlands last month in search of just that kind of inspiration — and to fire up city Commissioner Sam Adams, who joined them for part of the trip. Adams heads the city’s transportation department and says he wants to see a significant increase in bicycling’s share of the traffic load.

Of course, the Dutch are different in some ways. They live in a flat, compact country of 16 million that’s a sixth the size of Oregon. And cycling has been a big part of their culture for more than a century.

As a result, the Dutch reacted when rising car use clogged their cities in the 1960s and ’70s and increasingly squeezed out bicyclists. They also realized how vulnerable they were to oil shortages (the 1973 Arab oil embargo targeted the United States and the Netherlands).

The Dutch began a determined effort to figure out how to safely move bicyclists through city streets. They wound up rethinking the purpose of a street. Their innovations include separate signal lights for bikes, and bikeways that often run between the sidewalks and parked cars. Imagine transplanting Sunriver Resort’s system of bike trails to a bustling European city, and you have a glimpse of Amsterdam.

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This post was last updated: Apr. 11, 2006