Underground bicycle storage in the Netherlands.
Mike Honnold is a Caterpillar engineer based in Peoria. A member of Bike Peoria and former president of the Illinois Valley Wheelm’n (the “e” is non-existent), he rides thousands of miles each year. He maintains Where’s the Rack, Peoria?, an Internet-based map of Peoria-area bike racks and recently returned from a business trip to the Netherlands, where he rented a bike to get around.
Let’s start out with the logistics of your trip.
I started my journey by flying from Peoria to Chicago. The direct flight from O’Hare to Amsterdam takes from eight to nine hours. Once in Amsterdam, I rode the train 13 miles to Haarlem, my base of operations for most of the week.
Our supplier recommended staying in the city center near the train station, which ended up being a great decision since I was close to everything. My daily ride to work was approximately four miles via bike path, and the North Sea was only five miles.
My longest journey of the week (aside from the airplane, of course) was on the last day when I hopped on another train for a 63-mile trek south of Amsterdam to Den Bosch, the location of our Caterpillar plant. Everything was so well planned out that I was rarely farther away than a quick walk, bike or train ride from my final destination.
You rented a bicycle for the week. How did you choose Rent a Bike Haarlem?
I decided on Rent a Bike Haarlem because their store was about a block from my hotel, and they seemed to have a GREAT price on a good bike (13 euros a day) compared to other alternatives. (Google is a great source for reviews and other shop comparisons.)
The bike was everything and more than I expected. Granted, this was a utilitarian bike, so it was heavy as he** but built for the elements. They had a variety of options, single speed, 3-speed, 7-speed, so I went for the middle level and 3 speeds. Rent a Bike Haarlem also gave me a patch kit and pump that I luckily never needed to use.
The bike came with two locking options: your typical chain and another shackle lock attached to the bottom side of the seat tube that essentially prevented the rear wheel from turning unless you unlocked it.
“All stairways in Holland of any length have an additional ‘groove’ built into the stairway so it’s easier to push your bike up and down. Some were added in afterwards, but others were part of the original train station stonework. They thought of everything!”
I really wanted to buy a couple of these locks for my city bikes back here in Peoria, but was surprised to find out the required attachment points are not added to frames intended for sale in the United States due to little/no demand.
Parking is never an issue, because there are racks EVERYWHERE, and if you can’t find a rack, you are allowed to lock your bike up to anything that is not moving. Good thing, too: I had a hard time finding an open rack. I rode the bike to work every day and locked up in the factory-provided rack.
Everything I read says the Netherlands is ground zero for transportation bicycling.
Right away I could tell cycling was Priority Number One due to the number of bikes parked in the racks outside the train station. That many people would not be using bikes for transportation if the country made it difficult for them to be used.
“Most commuters in Holland ride a bike from their homes to the train station, park the bike, hop on a train to the station closest to the town where they work, and then complete the journey on a second bicycle. Due to this incredible need for proper bike storage, all of the train stations either have above-ground or underground parking–all provided free of charge. The underground parking I used in Haarlem had enough parking for 5,600 bicycles and was at least 80% filled.”
I was most surprised by how patient and yielding the cars and other cyclists were. Not once was I honked at, yelled at, given the finger or crowded out.
How easy is it for a first timer to navigate bicycle infrastructure there?
On my first ride from the hotel, I basically followed a few locals and observed how they handled the flow of other cyclists through the various stop lights, roundabouts and intersections. Once I felt comfortable with how things worked on the local scene, I ventured out and did a little bit of exploring on my own.
While it’s not hard to navigate the roads once you are on them, finding your way around is very difficult since there is no grid structure, and the roads go whichever way they were designed hundreds of years ago. I had a map with me, but even with the map it was hard to tell where you were at exactly. If I went back again, I’d probably borrow a bike GPS with European maps loaded up.
I see a lot of pictures on the Internet of everyday bicycling in the Netherlands, but the car must still be the dominant form of transportation.
Most of my travel outside of the cities was via train, so I had a lot of time to observe the countryside. Most of the major highways I saw had bike lanes following them in some regard—at least in the greater Amsterdam area. I can only assume it’s the same way around other major city centers.
“It was obvious to me all these train stations were built years ago during the “golden” age of train travel and had since been upgraded to fit the need for faster daily commuter travel. The train station in Haarlem is special because I guess it’s the best example of its particular architectural style.”
If you are not able to reach your destination by bicycle, the train network is very extensive. While those I worked with commented that they owned cars, most admitted they used them only for longer trips or instances when they do not have the time to ride to work.
Could you compare road-bike path intersections in Amsterdam with similar intersections in Peoria?
Most car-bicycle intersections in Haarlem are controlled by a push-button sensor mounted right next to the sidewalk. Pedestrians have their own push buttons because their crossings are timed differently than the cars and bikes.
When a bicyclist pushes the button, traffic stops in ALL directions, which allows the bicyclist to cross the intersection diagonally. Interestingly enough, this was the one concept I never got used to because I was constantly afraid of being sideswiped by an errant car.
But you generally felt safe riding in Amsterdam?
Let me put it this way: Locals riding Dutch city bikes never wear helmets. That’s how you can tell who is local and who is visiting. The only locals I ever saw wearing helmets were roadies intent on longer distances and higher speeds.
“The streets are so narrow in the older section of town that travel by car is discouraged unless you live in the area or drive a delivery truck. Retractable bollards keep cars from areas where they shouldn’t be. I believe this sign warns that the bollards could appear at any time, even if a car is parked over them.”
Once I felt comfortable enough with the flow of traffic, I started riding without a helmet so I would look more like a local and receive an increased level of respect from the general population. Along with my English, I’m sure there were ways I stuck out like a sore thumb, but to most I probably looked just like another Dutch rider.
Where did you spend most of your time?
Most of the central train stations are located in the medieval city centers. The city center is the place to be because towns in Europe are still focused around downtown instead of the suburbs.
To get to the plant I was visiting, I traveled past factories and commercial districts. Thankfully, biking was still a consideration because industrial areas feature bike lanes, signal lights and roundabouts to support commuters.
Could you have ridden a bicycle from the airport to the city center?
Certainly. I saw signs all the time in Amsterdam leading bicyclists to Schiphol, the airport, and I was ready for Amsterdam with routes planned out from my hotel so I could see the Anne Frank House.
Unfortunately, due to time constraints and arriving on a rainy Monday, I didn’t have time to make the journey on bike. If I had been a local, it would have been much easier to include some pedaling. That’s because most people leave a bike at either end of their daily commute and use the train to cover the distance in between.
That’s the reason why you see enormous bike storage facilities at the central city train stations. Nobody carries a bike onto the train for daily travel because they would become congested very quickly.
Why do you think the Netherlands pays attention to the needs of people on bicycles?
Simple answer: the people demand it. European cities are old, designed for transportation by foot, horse and cart. The old street layouts didn’t work well with travel by car, so bicycling continued to be a valuable mode of transportation. In addition, the cities are not as spread out as they are in the United States, so riding from one side of town to the other or from town to town takes minutes, not hours.
During my trip, I asked local residents how long the bicycling accommodations had been in place, but nobody seemed to know for sure. Fifteen to twenty years seemed to be the most common answer for the separated bike lanes, roundabouts and special traffic signals.
Did people ride bicycles to the facilities you visited?
While I didn’t get a picture of the rack at Den Bosch (major d’oh on my part), many of the employees mentioned riding to work at least some of the time when their schedules and the weather allowed.
At our supplier’s facility, guys in the shop were watching a live feed of the Tour de France and looking at bicycling magazines. ‘Nuff said.
How was the coffee over there?
Eh, it was ok, but not what I’d expect from the nation responsible for transporting most of the original coffee plants to South American and Indonesia on early exploratory/shipping routes.
“This was my first night in Haarlem when I ventured out to find something to eat. I knew I was in the right place when I saw the bike rental guy from Rent-a-Bike Haarlem ride by and recognize me.”
The biggest surprise for me was the free coffee/espresso supplied to all factory workers at the Caterpillar plant and our supplier in Haarlem. I’m not talking your low-end brown “shop-coffee” dribble in a wobbly paper cup—this was high-end espresso complete with steamed milk and/or mocha additions if you wanted them. Very classy and more grease to the wheels if any openings ever come up overseas ;-).
In all honesty, I enjoyed the wide variety of beers much more than the coffee, after work was over, of course.
How does bicycling in the Netherlands compare to other places you have traveled?
My best 180-degree comparison would be when I had to travel to Monterrey, Mexico. I was picked up by a Caterpillar security officer at the airport in a bullet-proof Hummer with approximately 3-inch-thick glass windows.
On the way to the airport, he gave me the rundown of where I was allowed and not allowed to go on my own without an escort; obviously bicycling was out of the question. Upon his departure, he gave me a small card with instructions of what to do if I was ever in trouble and needed help.
Only once did I see a pack/peloton of racers, but that was very early in the morning when traffic was least dangerous. I asked later, and they were riding with a police escort to prevent anybody from cutting off riders and taking them hostage.
You recently completed a 70-mile ride at 20 mph average. Why does a guy that strong bother with putzing around town on a one-speed?
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing better than the physical rush of completing a long ride at that speed. Aside from the obvious physical benefits, knowing you’ve ridden a bike further in one day than most people ride in a year is quite satisfying.
Mike and his one-speed Falcon prior to a recent Bike Peoria meeting. Notice the indoor parking at Blue.
Riding around town on my one-speed Falcon city bike is a different story because it gives me a sense of freedom and a desire to explore my surroundings.
I don’t know about you, but when I drive my car around Peoria, I rarely experience those feelings. Most times, I just want to get to where I’m going as quickly as possible so I don’t have to be in the car any longer than necessary.
In all honesty, my favorite ride up to this point in the summer was the Friday night when my wife and son were out of town, and I had absolutely NOTHING to do. I hopped on my Falcon and ‘’putzed” around town, ate dinner in the Heights, sipped a beer at Rhodells, and explored the south side with no particular destination in mind: a good time.
What does Peoria have to learn from the Netherlands? Any quick wins that could be applied here?
In my opinion, Peoria is so far away from matching what the Netherlands has that we may never catch up (never say never, however). Americans/Peorians like their cars, and unless we can change that culture, the governments responsible for bicycling accommodations will continue to try and separate us by directing bicycles towards off-road trails/lanes.
To make matters worse, Peoria is so spread out that using a bike as transportation is out of the question for most residents because riding from location to location becomes a matter of fitness and ability.
As far as quick wins go, I think Peoria could make leaps and bounds by replacing all the ancient Bike Route signs from long ago with sharrows painted on the road. Sharrows are easily visible to both bicyclists and cars and would quickly indicate to drivers which roads cyclists should be on. Paint is relatively cheap, and the result would speak volumes to the community.
Peoria could also revisit the city bicycle map, and make sure the new version is widely available in printed and electronic formats. I’d like to see that suggestion in the upcoming bicycle infrastructure report from Alta Planning + Design.
If you could convince Peoria to introduce one bicycle-related idea from the Netherlands, what would it be and why?
One easy thing to do would be to include bicycle parking at all buildings, even if the parking consists of a simple two-bike post/ring rack. If people cannot find secure locations to lock up their bikes and know they will be there when they come back, the chances of them riding a bike to work and/or social events will be drastically reduced.
I see no need to “introduce” Peoria to the concept of bike lanes, because I know our local leaders are aware of what they can do and how much they could benefit our local cycling community. Unfortunately, proper bike lanes are expensive, and realistically only become possible as an addition if other road projects are being implemented at the same time.
Any thoughts on the Rock Island Greenway trail? What would you like to see Peoria do next to help people on bicycles?
I think having the trail completed with the bridge is AWESOME. My son and I get out there on the trail at least four to five times a week, and now we have the option of heading south in addition to the usual northern Alta leg.
I am also excited to see so many new trail users out there. On a nightly basis, I probably pass at least 50 other trail users: a nice mix of bikers, walkers, runners, skaters and even the occasional roller skier.
As a quick win for the city, I would like to see time spent evaluating the trail and strategically placing wayfinding signs along the way so it is easier for people to find their way to different locations around town.
I’m not talking about businesses or destinations right along the trail—I mean facilities that might be off the beaten path to draw people away from the trail and drive demand for MORE bike lanes in town. As far as long-term goals go, I would really like to see additional bike/pedestrian bridges placed over Pioneer Parkway, Prospect, and War Memorial.