My favorite thing to do while visiting another city is to just observe the locals. This is especially true when I’m in a new city specifically to learn about their bicycling culture. You can learn a lot about how good or bad a city is for cycling simply by watching how people use and interact with their bicycles while going about their daily lives.
Last Sunday, I spent a long time just sitting and watching people on Jodenbreestraat (map). This street is fascinating; both for its historic and cultural significance and for the example it sets for what could be the future of a major Portland street.
The street itself is steeped in history. In the 1600s, Rembrandt lived just one block from where I sat on that sunny afternoon watching people and their bicycles. By the 20th century, Jodenbreestraat — which translates to “Jewish Broad Street” — was a bustling Jewish neighborhood. World War II changed on all that. After its residents were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis Jodenbreestraat became deserted and all but forgotten. Then in the 1960s, as the force of car culture began to overwhelm Europe just like it was doing in the U.S., the Amsterdam city government hatched plans to turn Jodenbreestraat into a major highway. The city widened the street and demolished nearly all of its houses.
But just as construction ramped up, the people revolted. We learned from a local bike advocate during a tour that large-scale demonstrations and riots against the highway plans took place on Jodenbreestraat in 1975. The people won. The city government stopped construction and the highway was never built.
Today Jodenbreestraat is an amazing mix of locals, tourists, bicycles, cars, and buses. And, unlike most of Amsterdam’s narrow, winding, canal-lined streets, it could actually be replicated here in the states.
The width of Jodenbreestraat (probably about 60-feet curb-to-curb) is similar to many streets in Portland. Its cross section includes wide sidewalks, cycle tracks, median islands, and two standard auto lanes in the middle. Obviously, since this is central Amsterdam where over 50% of all trips are made by bike, bicycles make up the majority of traffic on the street.
Here’s a closer look at the street design:
There are many things I love about this street. The block I spent time on was a major shopping area with department stores, a pharmacy, a food store, cafes, and many other large (for Amsterdam) retailers. But as you can see in the photos, there is zero space to park a car. If I wanted to drive here to do my shopping, I would have to find a space (impossible) and then pay dearly for it. I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that around 60% of the customers at these shops come by bike (many also walk or arrive by bus/subway).
Bikes are everywhere on Jodenbreestraat. The median islands and the large sidewalk space in front of the main stores were filled with parked bikes. Rather than clutter the street with steel bike racks, most of the bike parking was just a painted square with a bike symbol (keep in mind all the bikes in Amsterdam have kickstands).
I sat for a long time and marveled at how scores of people pulled up, did their shopping and other errands, then deftly packed bags and boxes on their bikes and pedaled away…
Of course we don’t have this rate of bicycle use in any Portland neighborhood. But we might someday. And my perspective is — we get what we build for. If we continue to design our commercial streets primarily to maintain current levels of auto traffic and auto parking, that’s exactly what we’ll have in the future. On the other hand, if we allocate more space to people and bicycles (both of which are much easier to accomodate than large automobiles) we’ll create more vibrant commercial areas similar to Jodenbreestraat.
What street in Portland could you imagine this type of cross-section on? Sandy? Foster?