Thursday, October 10, 2013

Munich, Amsterdam and Pittsburgh: Differences as seen through Bicycling N'at


Bicycling is popular in both Munich and Amsterdam. In Pittsburgh, we see a newly encouraging number of brave, lonely souls pedaling amongst cars and pedestrians.

In Pittsburgh, the bicyclists wear helmets. And some loose approximation of athletic-styled gear.

Vanishingly few helmets are glimpsed in Munich; in Amsterdam, a helmet would look positively ridiculous. And it being October, most persons on bicycles in our two European experimental-groups are merely "dressed for autumn".

But this is where obvious similarities between Munich and Amsterdam bike culture end.

Munich at any given location carries perhaps four times as many bicyclists as the 'Burgh does at its most prime location and on its best day.

Munich also boasts about 4,000 times as many bike lanes as Pittsburgh, or three times more than seem warranted as a practical or political function related to its true number of bikers. And it may be misleading to call them "bike lanes", they're really "bike tracks" and they're omnipresent.

Pedestrians be aware! The Munich bike tracks are usually raised up right even with the sidewalk, yet only painted or labeled in intersections. The trick is, milled asphalt is for bikes whereas tile, brick or stone pavement is for pedestrians. And these bike tracks are not just on "major" streets but on most secondary residential streets as well. Near any significant intersections, the Munich bike lanes acquire burgundy paint and sprout whole new left-turn lanes in most busy intersections.

Bicycling in Munich
Zoom they go! Munich bikers enjoy utilizing their clear right-of-way along the bike paths, and in all sorts of intersections, unless a traffic signal tells them to halt. (A traffic signal with a picture of a bicyclist on it next to a pedestrian.)

Amsterdam biking on the other hand is an entirely different kettle of fish

I'd say there are actually about four times as many actual bicyclists on Amsterdam streets than on Munich streets, or sixteen times as many as Pittsburgh. It doesn't take much to have more bicyclists than Pittsburgh, but in Munich they're still a supporting player on the grand stage of cars and pedestrians.

We can illustrate it like so: in Amsterdam, there are simply piles of bicycles along the side of streets.

"Where did I park my bike?" "Oh jeez, I just threw it in that pile of bicycles, and now that pile is so much bigger! Boy, this reminds me of that Seinfeld episode, only different."

(Is how I imagine it must go. I'm a Pittsburgh bicyclist. A green one. The riverfront trails are nice...)

As an American might presume from their respective national and civic reputations, there is a lot more order in Munich, Bavaria (clear lanes for all modes of transport, traffic signals, traffic signs, clearly and uniformly market street signs, all individuals moving quickly, less eye contact, a little like New York that way) and a lot more free flow in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (boats are about the only thing with a convincing right of way along the canals; most modes of transport seem equal before the law assuming there is a law, cars seem perpetually outnumbered.)

Speaking of the law, I believe I saw the cops once in Amsterdam. They were wearing blue uniforms trimmed with white, and with geometrically precise hats and badges on their breasts. The possible cops were traveling in tight formation, the four of them on their bikes, two women in front and two men in back.

Munich police I think I also only saw once; they were wearing olive green leather jackets, ferocious boots, and were calmly but curiously addressing what might have been an alleged trespass of some kind at Oktoberfest.

Bicycle Dutch
Getting back to bicycle infrastructure, Amsterdam does possess a lot more of it than we are accustomed to, but mainly just at significant intersections. Red bike lanes will spring into being. Curbs slope at right angles. White lines appear to signify things on the ground. The difference is, Amsterdam bicyclists are more likely to ignore the bike infrastructure, even the ones toting babies.

And Amsterdammers rarely put as much effort into speeding around as the M√ľnchners. Unless, of course, they are on a scooter or a motorcycle, which is a somewhat common way to avail of the civic bicycle infrastructure yet enjoy some of the deference instinctively paid to armored, motorized machines.

One way Amsterdam cyclists cope with their communal, multi-modal organized chaos is to chime. It's a very soft chime, a demure "zhing zhing". Just enough for somebody to sense, "Hmm, it's almost as though there is a bike somewhere in roughly that direction, and he or she seems mildly mindful of a traffic situation." It's my belief that every time it looks like they might come within 8 feet of another sentient life form unaware of them, Amsterdam bikers "zhing zhing". They might even be using echolocation. ("Them bikers is smart, they use radar.")

And when I say multi-modal, I mean all major modes. Don't get me started on the light rail differences (European rail goes directions other than South) or the rest of public transit.

In conclusion, we see that "bike friendly" can mean any number of different things, that is, express itself in personalities organic to many cultures. Just like "business friendly" or "technology friendly".

And we also see that, suffice to say, the next time someone tells you Pittsburgh is a "world class city," they are talking about natural beauty, history, sports, friendliness, or access to the global stage -- all of which are fantastic amenities. But right now it's impossible for Pittsburgh to measure up in terms of things like population density, high-end shopping options and all manner of transit systems and infrastructure*. For anyone who appreciates either biking or simply getting around without a car, these must be very major disincentives to invest very much time here.

+ UPDATE: Null Space finds a good recent video about cycling in the US by a Dutchman.

(*And perhaps in terms of other forms of "infrastructure", period. I have a strong impression these cities aren't still flinging their poop in their waterways. A topic for a future post, and a project in a future pipeline.)


  1. I'd be interested to know which of Munich and Amsterdam has lower accident, serious injury, and fatality rates among bicyclists. Just based on some other studies I am aware of, I'd personally bet on Amsterdam.

    1. I second that interest! Brian, if you're right, strange and wonderful how echolocation and good-willed, informal "coordination" may sometimes work so much better than many rules and regulations.

    2. Although it seems likely that taking tons of projectile mass out of the coordination mix might be far more important than good willed intermovement or cultural expectation, as you might have been thinking.

    3. So just a few basic themes I have gathered from looking at some bike safety studies:

      1) The biggest determinant of bike safety is usually driver behavior, and the biggest determinant of driver behavior is usually the number of bikes in the traffic mix. The basic mechanism appears to be that drivers are best-behaved when they are aware there are bikes around and are accustomed to dealing with them. In other words, the more bikes there are, the more drivers will be looking out for bikes and prepared to safely share the roads with bikes.

      2) Dedicated bike lanes may do less to improve bike safety than many assume, and may actually increase the serious accident rate at least in some common cases. Possible mechanisms include changes in bicyclist behavior (e.g., riding faster) and increased risk at key conflict points like intersections. That last point actually goes along with (1) because among other things, drivers may be paying less attention to bikes and behaving more poorly at conflict points like intersections when there are dedicated bike lanes removing bikes from normal traffic flows.

      But even crediting (2) as a real concern, all this gets very complicated when you consider these points together on a long-term basis. In particular, bike lanes can greatly increase possible bicyclists perception of safety, which can lead to a lot more bike riding, which can lead to greater real safety per (1).

      So in U.S. cities like Pittsburgh, where bike riding by international standards is very low, it could well be a better strategy to invest a lot in dedicated bike lanes, with the expectation that the safety benefits of increased ridership will outweigh the potential safety drawbacks of dedicated lanes.

      But in the Munich versus Amsterdam case, apparently Amsterdam already has a higher bike presence, AND they appear to be also getting the benefits of slower speeds, greater awareness among other road users, and so on. So that is why I would bet on Amsterdam having better accident statistics than Munich.

      However, again that doesn't mean Pittsburgh can go straight to an Amsterdam-like situation. Still, there may be some applicable lessons if all this is true. The basic point would be that Munich is not necessarily the ideal end point, and while we may need a lot more dedicated bike lanes to get more people riding, we should perhaps also be looking for opportunities where cars and bikes and pedestrians could be more mixed together (preferably at relatively low speeds).

    4. As an addendum, it is probably also worth noting that not all serious accidents involving bikes also involve motorized vehicles. Bicyclists can have serious accidents involving pedestrians (which can harm either the pedestrian or the bicyclist or both), and serious accidents involving no other party at all (just falling down, running into something, and so on).

      That's part of why if bike speed increases significantly on bike lanes/paths, there may be offsetting negative safety effects, even if the risk from motorized vehicles specifically is reduced.

    5. That all makes sense to me, Brian. Over a week in Munich I witnessed the aftermath of one serious bike-car accident and one seemingly innocuous pedestrian-bike frackup. Over two days in Amsterdam I've witnessed nothing more serious than two cars honking at each other.

      As a 'Burgher I have limited familiarity with light rail. Tell me, is it commonplace for light rail to slow down deferentially when it looks like a pedestrian might possibly be considering crossing a street?

      On the down side, Amsterdam organized its entire street grid and city plan to capitalize fully on water traffic and trade -- which does not exist anymore (except for a lot of lame-looking Just Ducky Tour knockoffs). Combined with how all streets are labeled with brown signs bearing a thin white font posted haphazardly against brown buildings only every third or fourth city block, and it's a little hard to get around.

      Oh, and the red light district is right alongside the major government offices.

    6. I'm going to go with the co-location of government drones and officially-sanctioned prostitutes not necessarily being a coincidence.

      I don't know any formal stats or anything like that, but my experience in European cities has also been that streetcars and such will often defer to pedestrians and bicyclists. That said, I think there may be informal rules to all that which I didn't necessarily understand, and I also suspect my experiences may have been biased by spending most of my time in walkable, tourist-friendly areas.

      That said, the mere fact a lot of those places can seemingly operate safely with all sorts of different modes mixing together without a lot of official rules to govern their interactions (or without anyone bothering to enforce whatever official rules might exist) has informed my thinking on these issues considerably.

  2. I've ridden (literally) thousands of miles on Pittsburgh streets, but my only significant accident was solo (hit gravel at the bottom of a steep hill). And I cannot imagine how f***'d up I'd have been if not for my helmet (as it was the folks at Shadyside Hosp. thought I'd wiped on a motorbike). In fact, my only other accident of any notice ended with me skidding helmet-first into a telephone pole.

    Which is to say, I'm baffled by the Dutch prejudice against helmets. 0% of my accidents involved careless American drivers, and 100% would have involved head injury if not for helmets. I suppose there's something to be said for going really, really slowly (that goes to clothing as well), but at 10 mph I'd just as soon drive.

    Also, I don't know how one could ride in Pittsburgh and never exceed speeds that would be (extremely) unsafe without a helmet. Even on a clunky, Dutch-style bike, going down Liberty Ave. is a ~20 mph experience, and that's plenty fast enough for a pothole to turn into a coma.

    1. There must be many factors which lessen the perceived advantages of helmets, and one is surely the absence of hills.

      The steepest gradients in A-dam involve the arching bridges over narrow canals. I spotted one cyclist really laboring up one of those from low-momentum... given she was also holding an umbrella overhead with a whole arm.

    2. If you look at something like the debate over bike helmet laws in Europe, you'll see a lot of people arguing that wearing helmets discourages riding, which is bad from an overall public health perspective, and maybe even a bike safety perspective on the theory that more riders leads to safety. You'll also see theories that helmet-wearing may adversely affect driver or rider behavior, and so on.

      Personally, I am persuaded that wearing a helmet is a very good idea. But I wouldn't necessarily try to impose such a requirement on other adults if it really might deter them from biking (with kids, on the other hand, I think they should be required).

    3. Cyclists should always were a helmet and an Italian detector.

    4. MH, you'll be the death of me. I'm going on record as saying: neither that parade accident, nor the sensational spectacle we're about to witness (paging talk radio!!) ever would have happened in Holland.

      Partially in this case because nobody's in that big of a hurry, that if they hit someone they'd hospitalize them. If they hit a pedestrian, it would be terribly rude; the pedestrian would almost certainly stumble, and stumbling always involves at least some chance of a fall. We don't know the fact s about this accident victim's concussion but I'm imagining a severe jolt.

      I love the idea of more Americans getting into more upright-bicycling, it probably conveys to every one in streets as well as to the bikers themselves a sense of balance, proportion and poise.

    5. It's got nothing do to with me. I don't ride bikes because the last two times I tried, it caused me huge migraine headaches of a kind I've never had before or since. And I don't do Columbus Day parades because my deep respect for Native American cultures and their traditions of leaving Saturday morning for rest.

  3. I have insights into cycling in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Chengdu, China. Those two cities, as well as Amsterdam, are often the tops in the world in terms of bike favorability. Likewise, Beijing. Been to them all with extended trips.

    We have a long, long, long way to go.

    My big wish is that we can get bikes onto the bus ways and into the PAT tunnels too. Open up the Wabash Tunnel and the light rail tunnel under Mt. Washington, and the bus ways, east and west, and we'll be making some headway.

    1. That's not the wrongest thing I've heard all week only because this has been an exceptionally wrong week, national politics-wise. The busways are for buses and need to be kept that way as they are the closest thing to rapid mass transit in the whole East End.

    2. That's not entirely fair. National politics and Wander asking to be in a mayoral debate he isn't sure he can come back to the country for are both wronger.

  4. A bike is equally as fast and rapid as a bus on many stretches.

    Bikes do not need to slow down buses.

    1. In city traffic sure. The whole point of the busway is to let the bus move faster than city traffic. I guess bikes are better idea than the guy who wants to turn it into an HOV lane for cars, but the idea was to keep the buses from from traffic. It works very well as it is.