by Bill Millard
Event: New Amsterdam Bike Slam Symposium: Global Trends in Sustainable Mobility
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.11.09
Speakers: Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY; Eric Niehe — Ambassador, Netherlands Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and project leader, NY400; Walter Hook, Ph.D. — Executive Director, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy; Willem de Jager — Director of Sustainable Mobility, RABO Bank, Amsterdam; Paul Steely White — Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives (moderator/speaker); Heather Allen — Senior Manager for Sustainable Development, Union International Transport Public; Ruth Oldenziel — Professor, Eindhoven University of Technology; Eric van der Kooij — Spatial Planner, City of Amsterdam; Christopher O. Ward — Executive Director, Port Authority of NY and NJ; Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Pieter de Haan — Traffic Psychologist, Institute for Shared Space; Herman Gelissen — Public Bicycles OV Fiets; Arjen Jaarsma — Balancia; Jeff Olson, Alta Planning; Pascal van der Noort — Velo Mondial (moderator/speaker)
Moderators: Paul Steely White — Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives; Karen Overton — Catalyst Coordinator, Partnerships for Parks, and founder, Recycle-a-Bicycle; Caroline Samponaro — Director of Bicycle Advocacy, Transportation Alternatives; Andy Clarke — Executive Director of American Bicyclists LAB; Nazli Parvizi — Commissioner, Community Assistance Unit, Mayor’s Office, NYC; Pascal van der Noort — Velo Mondial
Organizers & Sponsors: Transportation Alternatives, NYC; Velo Mondial, Amsterdam
Cosponsors: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Richard Koek, courtesy ny400.org
The 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival provides the occasion for Dutch-American cultural exchange — and, as diplomat Eric Niehe said, not only celebrating but also publicly investing in future relations, fostering a common cosmopolitan environment of entrepreneurship and tolerance. Along with the gifts of 200 orange bikes and a Ben van Berkel/UNStudio-designed pavilion at the Battery, plus a competition between planning/design teams to imagine ways to make New York bike-friendlier (won by Team Amsterdam’s combination of Dutch city planners and American designers), this all-day symposium gave architects, planners, public officials, scholars, and activists a chance to trade ideas about combining infrastructure, culture, and public education to build an environment that citizens gladly navigate on two wheels.
The Dutch love bicycling, but not just because their land is flat, because of some aversion to obesity, or because their practical modern design prizes qualities associated with bikes (energy efficiency, health). Like other industrial nations, the Netherlands went through a period in the mid-20th century when bike use was declining; reviving a flagging bike culture took conscious effort. From the 1970s onward, public and private officials have made a bike renaissance a priority, and today the nation has more bikes than people.
RABO Bank’s Willem de Jager reported that many leading Dutch corporations have jointly agreed to remove 10% of the cars from the rush-hour roads. Taking a bottom-up, voluntary approach and embracing alternative transportation (bikes, walking, and public transit), flexible hours, telecommuting, encouraging employees to work closer to home, and greened-up corporate vehicle fleets, these firms have not only made a dent in congestion levels costing roughly $7 billion annually in lost productivity and health expenses; they’ve become more desirable employers. Balancia’s mobility consultant Arjen Jaarsma emphasized that there is no such thing as cycling planning in isolation; it is part of an integrated approach to traffic safety, legal/regulatory mechanisms, air-quality policy, and related concerns. Sustainable mobility, Velo Mondial’s Pascal van der Noort summed up, needs a political choice for a long-term balance among “emission-rich, emission-poor, and emission-free” modes of movement. “The car with petroleum,” he said, “remains in the 20th century.”
Surprise appearances by the Port Authority’s Chris Ward and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan ensured that local visions weren’t overshadowed by the Dutch experience: Ward ventured several ambitious predictions about ways New York’s infrastructure may adapt to a future where intellectual and cultural production, not the troubled finance industry, is likely to be the region’s chief driver of economic growth. Sadik-Khan recounted the city’s widely emulated recent achievements in transforming streets from vehicular corridors to spaces for people, earning applause from the audience by declaring, “I don’t look at biking as alternative transportation. I look at it as transportation, period.”
This philosophy is well-aligned with the Netherlands’ low-key, utilitarian bike culture, which treats bikes as a matter-of-fact transport-mode choice by members of the whole population. As global bike-culture hero Gil Peñalosa (Bogotá parks commissioner and brother of mayor Enrique) has said on a number of occasions, cycling facilities are adequate only if they are safe enough for eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds. The predominantly male, risk-tolerant riders who were out in force at Sunday’s NYC Century Ride bring enormous energy to local sustainable-mobility efforts, but they cannot be the sole constituency for urban cycling infrastructure if New York is to reach Dutch levels of non-automotive mode share. We’ll need more protected lanes, practical bikes suited to moms rather than messengers, efficient and affordable bike-rental programs like the smart-card-based OV Fiets system, ample secure bike parking (the 2009 Bicycle Access Bill being a good start), and law enforcement against vehicular violence (the Dutch legal approach, several panelists mentioned, recognizes all users’ equal right to the roads and protects the most vulnerable by presuming motorists are at fault in auto-bike crashes).