Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cities Come and Gone

Having just arrived in Australia, the second of four continents on my itinerary, I've a particularly poignant moment at hand to provide a brief re-cap of cities come and gone.  A sort of backwards glance back at las cosas observed, utilized, and duly noted.

Being a Watson Fellow is a privilege.  It's an extraordinary opportunity to explore the culture of a people, to learn the simple habits that constitute a composite human structure.  The fellowship allows me the liberty to gently drift into the lives of people who don't know me, who get to know me, and who say goodbye with less than a brief glimpse of me and my often mysterious journey.  Mysterious not because I don't explain what it is I'm doing; rather, mystifying because the trip is so unrealistically true.  They, and I, often can't really believe what it is I'm doing. 

If anything can ground my trip it's concrete.  Asphalt carefully poured; pieces of ground meticulously planned; concrete praised and lauded around the globe.  A double wide bike crossing at an intersection on Norrebrogade just in advance of the bridge across the lakes, these tracks were widened in the wake of a death caused by a bus.  A young woman was squeezed out of an overflowing bicycle track by herds of Danish cyclists.                         

When you're there, it seems so simple and so normal.  Not the culture; and not the people, exactly.  People are complicated everywhere, simultaneously driven and fickle, both oriented and drifting in the same moment, yet almost always kind.  In places where I didn't speak the native tongue, history and cultures often hung around me like a damp cave, both comforting in it's immensity yet crowding in the same moment. 

It wasn't the people or cultures that were simple.  Rather, it was the bicycle infrastructure.  It simply existed.  There was no apparent struggle in the atmosphere, no serious commitment or work went into using it; no dues had to be paid and no traffic had to be fought. The infrastructure just eased me into the city, allowed me to take experience life at 18k, carried me through to the city's best and brightest spots.  

I didn't encounter much debate about the merits of a raised bicycle tracks versus on-road facilities.  The cyclists were just kinda happy with what they had.  Not all of them, but the vast majority.  Parking was almost always on the outside of a raised, separated bike specific lane (with the occasional scooter excepted) while cars and buses and trams negotiated the prized space in the center of the roadway.  Women and children rode along without hurry or worry, and I never once saw or heard of an accident between a bicycle and a car amongst the bicycle people I met while in the City of Copenhagen.   

The cyclists in Amsterdam waited in queues at light after light; or they didn't.  They broke rules.  They rode backwards in the bicycle tracks. They ran into me on their bicycles.  They rode with squeaky bikes and unreliable brakes, and generally played by their own set of rules.  And people complained.  Publicly.  But new bike tracks were always in construction, and as the head of cycling policy for the city of Amsterdam told me, it would be political suicide to stand against an increase in bicycle spending.    

The library in Amsterdam was amazing.  An 8 or so story modern monstrosity dedicated to public learning and enlightenment.  Even better was the bike/ped specific bridge that led patrons from the Centraal Station to the entry way and front steps.  Hundreds of bicycles lined the guardrails along the canal, while thousands more slept quietly in a secure underground parking garage.  

Bicycles were clearly a priority in the Netherlands.  No one gave you queer looks for carrying a bike on the train, and even when I took the train to Rotterdam for the "Ride yer bike or Walk the plank" alleycat, the wheels disassembled and chained to the frame in an effort to give the look of a folding bike, the train conductor simply asked me to buy a ticket for the bike--which I did.  I then had a whole car to myself. 

As with Denmark, the infrastructure was predominantly built to keep bicyclists and pedestrians on the inside of parked cars, leaving the cars and trams and buses to negotiate busy street centers. 

Still, bike lanes aren't extinct in Amsterdam.  You can find the occasional stretch of inner city road lined with a simple stripe designating the cyclists' space.  
Bikes maintain their own specific place in the Netherlands.  In traffic circles, they've their own space, their own colored pavement, and their own right of way.  If the triangles are pointing towards you, ya'd better stop. 

Most of the bicycle tracks are designated by red pavement, a different type of surface that tends to be softer than asphalt and much less slippery.

Traffic signals and stop signs are often abandoned in favor of right of way blocks, simple white squares that protect users within their confines through conditioning, mutual understanding, training, and grave consequences for perpetrators creating accidents in motor vehicles.  In the Netherlands, if you hit a bicyclist with your car you are always at fault.  And you pay dearly. 
When there's construction, a way is made where often no way seems possible.  Cyclists depend on the routes they use day to day, and even a simple detour can cost precious minutes, the same valued time that makes the bike the transport mode of choice for almost half of inner city Amsterdamers.  
The ways in which convenience and speed are catered to by the municipality are manifold; to ease the anxiety of lights that seem endless, the city has installed countdown clocks.  Why run the light if you know it's gonna change in 19 seconds?   

Mostly, though, the places I've been are beautiful.  Sure they're grey and rainy at times, often choked with traffic and drifters and one-timers trying to get over.  Such is life.  

It's really about seeing what's there, which is to say that Copenhagen and Amsterdam are very unique places, places filled with sights and sounds and wonders that so much of the world stands before in awe.  Among those magnificent creations are the most incredible public bike infrastructure systems in the world.

It often seems like the Watson is just a series of departures.  The following particular point of leaving was the Eurolines Bus terminal at the Amstelveen station in Amsterdam.  

That bike never made it to Australia.  Instead, it will be on an airplane bound for the United States by the weekend.  Try as you might, you can't take everything with you on this thing; some stuff is just too big, even for a trip that allows big dreams, and even grander adventures.   


  1. i thoroughly miss anthony taco siracusa

  2. miss u too, mate. thanks for teaching me stuff about where I live in your blog post, well captured :-P

  3. You guys are the bomb, which is why I, of course, miss you too.

    Sasha--James is something of the equivalent of Jon Drikell in Amsterdam. While Jon can't be duplicated in any meaningful sense, his cheerful attitude and love for bikes is certainly akin to my friend South African James.