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Coulda, Woulda, Gouda: Dutch Cycling Experts Come to Philly

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This post was contributed by Joe McNulty.

The Dutch. Oh sure, they’re all tall and beautiful with unpronounceable strings of vowels in their names, but did you know that weed is legal there?! Of course you did. That’s all anyone knows about the Netherlands. The only other anecdote people usually cite is that they looOOoove their bikes. And it’s true, the Dutch have a modal split that would make any transportation planner blush. In fact, their cycling policy prowess is so impressive that it’s become a major export in the form of ThinkBike workshops run by the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a crack team of mobility experts from the land of Gouda and windmills. Hey, that’s two more things people know about the Netherlands!

Philadelphia is the latest American city to host a two-day ThinkBike workshop sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in cooperation with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia Streets Department and Temple University. On June 18th and 19th, transportation engineers, planners, cycling advocates, and concerned bike commuters came together to tap into Dutch expertise while trying to solve mobility issues around City Hall and Temple’s campus.

Explaining that the ideal is finding equilibrium between accessibility, safety and livability, Tom Godefrooij began the workshop with a review of Dutch transportation policy and how the country has out-pedaled Denmark and Germany to claim the largest share of regular cyclists in Europe. Impress your friends with this factoid at your next party: There are more bikes than people in the Netherlands. (Kind of like Philly and, uh, abandoned properties).

Well, we can’t all be Portland, but Philly’s no slouch when it comes to cycling either. Aside from having the largest percentage of bike commuters among the 10 largest American cities at 2.16 percent, we also meet all the conditions and requirements for a ThinkBike workshop—most notably, the recently completed Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan for the City of Philadelphia. In fact, Byko and City Council’s new veto power over some bike lanes notwithstanding, Philadelphia has made great strides in making cycling a safer more appealing mode of transport, which has earned the city bronze status among the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Communities. But before we strike gold, we’ll have to tackle a few more conundrums, including the two subject sites of this workshop.

Any cyclist trying to circumnavigate City Hall knows the challenge presented by a five-lane roundabout, two of the busiest bus stops in the city and a network of streets that more resembles a highway on-ramp than a center square. Citing similar projects in Barcelona and Manhattan, the City Hall team saw opportunities to reclaim pavement for public space. Inexpensive methods of redirecting traffic include paint, flexible bollards, and amenities like tables and chairs in newly designated pedestrian spaces.

In addition to new bike lanes on Arch St., 15th St and a buffered cycle track on JFK Boulevard, the team also suggested bike boxes, which place cyclists in front of stopped traffic at intersections, bus stops on medians to reduce conflict zones, and a buffered cycle track hugging the inner lane around City Hall. Most interesting however, was the proposal for pedestrian scrambles at three key intersections. Also known as a Barnes Dance barn dance, a pedestrian scramble is “a pedestrian crossing system that stops all vehicular traffic and allows pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction, including diagonally, at the same time.” Oh, you mean what happens everywhere in Philadelphia anyway?

While any of these improvements would have to pass the engineering sniff test and find funding, they offer a vision of a transportation system designed to get travelers “not through, but to a place,” as Aaron Ritz of MOTU put it.

The other team looked at the cycling connections to and around Temple University. With an already impressive 8 percent bike-commuting rate among more than 40,000 students, faculty and staff, Temple’s cycling community is poised for growth. Traffic approaching from the west already has the established bike lanes on Spring Garden to 13th Street’s combination of bike lanes and sharrows, but an appealing east/west alternative is Fairmount Ave., where overly wide cartways provide enough space to carve out buffered bike lanes without removing parking or any travel lanes. Good thing too, because if you start passing Philly Flavors everyday you might need a little more room on your bike. Establishing a buffered, bi-directional bike lane on 13th Street with a southbound contraflow lane from Diamond to Spring Garden would help keep Temple cyclommuters off Broad Street, where more than 30,000 cars a day pass the campus.

Rounding out the suggestions were additional bike parking facilities, dismount zones at Liacouras and Polett Walks and hacking Zimride, Temple’s carpooling software, to accommodate bike-commuting. Instead of logging on to find a ride, users could meet up to cycle together, something even Van Gogh could click his wooden heels together over. And thus concludes our lesson in Americans’ popular impressions of the Dutch. Tulips!

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