A Bit of Amsterdam in Chicago

I know I love Chicago because whenever I return from a trip, no matter how cool the cities I visited, I’m happy to be back and Chicago shines a little brighter for a couple of days.  I must say that after Amsterdam, though, the bicycling situation in Chicago is looking especially bleak.  At least I can retreat to the Lakefront Trail, where the bicycling conditions are Amsterdam-level easy, pleasurable, and safe.

I took these photos before I left for my trip.  I was worried that cold weather would have set in by my return, but today is sunny and in the 60’s F!

When you return from traveling, do you feel better or worse about bicycling in your home city?   If you’ve visited a bicycle-paradise city like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Bogata, did seeing the possibilities make you more hopeful for the future or just make you want to run away to said bicycle-paradise city?  I’m not yet sure where I fall.

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27 thoughts on “A Bit of Amsterdam in Chicago

  1. Adam Herstein says:

    “At least I can retreat to the Lakefront Trail, where the bicycling conditions are Amsterdam-level easy, pleasurable, and safe.”

    At this time of year, sure, but have you ridden the Lake Front Trail in the summer or during a stint of unseasonably nice weather? It’s terrible. The path gets far too crowded – especially around the North Avenue beach area. Walkers, joggers, bike commuters, roadies, seasonal recreational cyclists, and kids on bikes all share the same narrow path. There are too many people going too many different speeds, and that makes it quite dangerous. The roadies are particularly bad there – they just whiz by at 30 MPH with no warning, and often ride on the wrong side to pass you. No thanks, I’d rather bike in the streets.

    • LGRAB says:

      I’ve biked on the trail during the summer hundreds of times. A lot of biking in Amsterdam required being slow and steady, while watching out very carefully for pedestrians, children, faster and slower cyclists, scooters, and cars. In the very dense downtown areas, I even had to get off my bike to walk sometimes due to the congestion. This type of set up – full of shared spaces, narrow paths, and uncertainty – can foster a safer environment because it requires users to approach travel with a different mindset from the typical American get-out-of-my-way mentality.

      • Adam Herstein says:

        Doesn’t Amsterdam have mostly cycle tracks specifically for bikes where cars and pedestrians are prohibited, though?

        • LGRAB says:

          There are *a lot* of separated cycle tracks (soooo nice!), but they did not seem like the majority. There are a lot of regular painted bike lanes, the streets along the many canals are mostly too narrow for any separation and people often walk in the street, and the paths through the parks that I saw are mixed use. Also, scooters are allowed to use the cycle tracks and those suckers go fast.

          • Adam Herstein says:

            Fair enough. Congestion is usually a good thing, since it slows everyone down. But in general, separating traffic by speed – cars, bikes, peds – will be safer than mixing them all together.

            I find that congestion just doesn’t work on the Lake Front Trail as you described. Sometimes walkers aren’t even looking for bikes, and the joggers are almost all wearing headphones, so they can’t hear if a person on a bike is coming up behind them. The speed bikers typically come within inches of hitting me, and if the trail is crowded, they just weave in and out of traffic instead of waiting. Maybe the LFT needs a speed limit? :-)

    • anniebikes says:

      But doesn’t a crowded path signify that the Lakefront Trail is working?

      • Adam Herstein says:

        Does a crowded highway signify that it’s working? Working and popular are two different things. The Lake Front Trail is popular – so popular in fact that it gets overcrowded in the summer months. But just as adding more lanes to a crowded highway won’t ease traffic, widening the Lake Front Trail will not help much either. It will just attract more people to the trail and it will soon become crowded again. Separating traffic, however, would. If there are separate paths for walking and cycling, then faster moving traffic can be separated from slower moving traffic, thus making the system safer. It’s the same reason that cycle tracks are safer than just marked shared lanes on city streets.

  2. anniebikes says:

    I can understand the misty-eyed reverie when returning from bicycling nirvana. Some of it comes from the mindset, which is still on vacation, but the jet lag tells you otherwise. It took some adjustment for me when I returned from Switzerland and Provence, where trains and cycle paths were the norm. Yes, it feels like going backward upon returning. Traffic is cranky; trucks squeeze by. But I don’t feel hindered by the less than ideal bike infrastructure here. On the contrary, It’s made me even more hopeful about getting people on bikes and advocating for more paths. Fueling the fire…

  3. Simply Bike says:

    I usually feel worse about where I live when I return home from a trip. A sure sign that I’m in the wrong location? Sigh…

  4. Palm Beach Cycle Chic says:

    I also usually feel worse :( I am annoying to no end to my local politicians about bike infrastructure and I fall on deaf ears. I went to Amsterdam and to Bogotá where my bf is from. We have plans for sure to go there in the near future again (Bogotá when airfare goes down a bit) and believe it or not finding a bike to borrow or rent is near impossible if no one you know has one. You have to go “find the gringo” who has a bike tour shop in the center of town but it was too far away and so we just walked Ciclovía.

  5. Dennis Hindman says:

    Dottie, I have never been in the Netherlands, nor do I know where you rode in Amsterdam, but its my understanding from watching this Mark Wagenbuur video that most of the bike paths in Amsterdam are away from the canals:

    The Dutch city that most resembles the wide streets and tall buildings of Chicago is Rotterdam–which has a pathetically low bicycling modal share of 25% (below average for a Dutch city). Here’s another of Mark’s videos that shows cycling in Rotterdam:

    The Rotterdam video shows something that I have never seen in a bike lane on a arterial street in Los Angeles: a child of elementary school age, or younger, cycling. I have only seen this occur in LA during a CicLAvia event when there are some streets closed to motorized traffic, or along one of the 55-miles of mixed use cycle paths. That is something that should be demanded for cycling in the States, comfortably safe infrastructure so that anyone from 8-80 years old can bicycle anywhere they want to go. This is done for pedestrians, why not for the no less vulnerable bicycle rider?

    • LGRAB says:

      Yes, that’s right. The streets next to the canals are too narrow for separated lanes. These were some of our favorite streets to ride on, as they were typically quiet and car traffic drove slowly and patiently behind us when necessary.

      While in Amsterdam, we biked around with Henry of Workcycles and his family. His four year old son biked with great skill, not only on the bike paths, but on big streets and left turn lanes. I love that all of that was perfectly safe.

      Thanks for linking to these videos.

      • Dennis Hindman says:

        The Dutch have not always had extensive bicycle paths throughout their cities. Most of the bicycle paths in the Netherlands were created after the early 1970’s. There is no reason why the U.S. could not do something similar. Fortunately, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making the strongest commitment yet of any mayor in the U.S. towards putting protected bicycling infrastructure along major streets.
        Here’s a video created by the Dutch Cycling Embassy on how the Netherlands was able to reverse both declining cycling and increasing traffic injury rates by integrating high quality bicycle infrastructure into their transportation network:

        Mark Wagenbuur has his own video about the history of cycle paths in the Netherlands:

        • The reason most cities in the US don’t do something similar is due to completely different cultures, social mores, and attitudes about cyclists and cycling.

          It’s a “bridge too far” in most cases.

        • The reason most cities in the US don’t do something similar is due to completely different (to the Netherlands) cultures, social mores, and attitudes about cyclists and cycling.

          It’s a “bridge too far” in most cases.

  6. Scott says:

    Bike paradise city sounds good.

  7. Welcome back Dottie, looking forward to stories from Amsterdam!

  8. zenophile says:

    Actually, it was two trips to Europe that made me look at Chicago with eyes of new possibility. After my first trip, I decided to get my bike fixed up with puncture-resistant tires, lights, and panniers, and ride year-round. After the second trip a year later, I realized that I could treat Chicago as if I were a tourist and enjoy the beauty just as much. OK, I agree with other posts about the day-to-day hassles and corruption of our city, but I doubt that those are any less present in Prague.

  9. welshcyclist says:

    Bicycling paradise is to be found everywhere, as long as you have a bicycle fit and ready to roll. For me, no matter where I am, I’m happy to ride. Yes, it would be nice to ride in sunshine, as I did in Malta, and Spain, but the joy is to be out there riding, enjoying the weather, in all it’s guises (except snow and ice), the scenery etc., to be able to commune with the environment, immediately at hand. That’s why I’d dearly love to cycle tour my home country of Wales, the British Isles, Europe….dare I say it, the world?

  10. Dennis Hindman says:

    Dutch towns are considering a proposal to heat bike paths during the winter:

    That would put the Dutch even further ahead in making bicycle riding more irresistable compared to other countries in the world.

  11. Cameron Adams says:

    Welcome home. Paradise may be tempting, but Chicago, Nashville and other American cities need advocates you.

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  13. Fred Smith says:

    When I came back from a cycling trip to Amsterdam I was even more disappointed by London’s cycling infrastructure. I realised what is possible and how badly designed London’s is :-(

    I’m determined to rent a bike in New York when I’m over there next week :-) Maybe I’ll feel better about London after a holiday…

    • LGRAB says:

      You’ll have to let us know how NYC measures up!

      • Fred Smith says:

        Hey, I’ve just found the Discus bit which tells you when people reply – I’m so slow. New York was great, hired a bike for about $35 for the day from a store on the upper west side & cycled right round Manhattan, took the ferry across to Staten Island (then took the ferry straight back) over the Brooklyn Bridge, back over Williamsburg Bridge, up to Central Park & around the cycle route inside, I crossed 110th street, up to Columbia University then back to the bike shop to drop it off a little exhausted. I was a really cool way to spend a day in New York!

        • LGRAB says:

          Wow, sounds like a great ride! We managed to bike only a bit while visiting NYC – maybe we’ll try something ambitious like this next time. :)

  14. Anna Carrigan says:

    I just returned from vacation in Rome and I am so happy to be back on my familiar roads and more predictable traffic! My bf and I rented bikes for 2 hours, which at the time I thought would not be near enough time, but when we returned we vowed never to ride bikes in the city again. TERRIFYING TRAFFIC, and no infrastructure where we were anyway. Other areas of town seemed much more accessible, but still out of my league.

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