Wednesday, September 11, 2019

How To Get Past the Conflict Between Bike Lanes and Car Parking.

The Netherlands is a paradise for bike riders, right?

It is now, but it has not always been thus. You've all seen the photos of Amsterdam, full of bike riders. But not too many people have seen this street view, near Amsterdam's Central Station in 1987:

Not that long ago, many Dutch streets looked a lot like American streets (but much narrower): clogged with cars, rife with noise and air pollution, and dangerous for walkers and bike riders. People, especially young people, died on those streets at rates surpassing those of the silent epidemic of American traffic fatalities today.

How did the Dutch transform their streets from a public health threat to the public health booster they are today?

I took this question to Stephan Schneijderberg, a traffic and urban planning expert who works on infrastructure and construction projects for BAM, one of the Netherlands' largest construction companies. We meet over coffee on the campus of Delft University.

Schneijderberg - high energy, with curly dark-blonde hair and eyes the color of a Dutch spring morning - starts by recounting that in the post-war years, the automobile appeared on Dutch streets first as a luxury item and a status symbol.

Then, as the country grew more prosperous, car ownership became common. And soon enough, there was a congestion problem, not to mention all those fatalities.

In time, Dutch people started to realize that there is value, not all monetary, in a city core that is walkable, bikeable and breathable: a place where you want to be. The oil crisis of 1973 also helped remind the frugal Dutch that car ownership is expensive. So from the 1980s they set about restricting cars from city cores, and converting "gray" space (parking lots) in downtowns into green spaces, into outdoor seating areas where you can share a drink and a meal with your friends, and into "blue" waterfront space, renewing the life of canals or harbors that had previously been filled in for car parking.

Schneijderberg is happy to share his considerable knowledge on the urban planning and engineering that accomplishes those goals. But I was also interested in the social process whereby Dutch cities and towns arrive at the decision to convert parking space into spaces for people.

Those who are advocating for similar changes in American cities know that these decisions can be fraught with antagonism. I wanted to know in particular who put up resistance to building more livable cities and towns. And how to manage that resistance so that municipalities can move forward.

I wasn't surprised to hear that a lot of the braking action comes from car drivers ("What about my parking space?") and owners of stores, especially independent retailers. What was surprising to me is that this kind of struggle is still going on all over the Netherlands, even today. An example is Bergen op Zoom where Schneijderberg lives, where pedestrianization of the downtown core in 2017 caused a commotion, as he puts it rather drily.

What is the main sticking point?

"Everybody is afraid of change," says Schneijderberg. He adds that no matter how golden the vision is, how vibrant the shopping district could become, the first steps are hard and scary. If you own a store, and you've honed your business model with reasonable success for many years, you're reluctant to trade that in for a different model even if the new way promises to get you more customers.

Dutch store owners, like American ones, feel the pinch of online retailing, and they are, understandably, deeply worried about this new competition. No matter how many studies you produce showing that swapping on-street parking for bike lanes either improves the bottom line, or doesn't change it, store owners will insist that the parking spots stay in place, even as they feel that the status quo is precarious for them. And even in a country where many trips can be done faster by bike than by car, people still hew to their cars; indeed Schneijderberg himself confesses, with a wry smile, to preferring a parking spot right in front of his house, if that's at all possible.

It all sounds like an impasse, a depressingly familiar picture of bike lanes advocates pitted against store owners and residents and visitors who are unable or unwilling to let go of the on-street parking.

How do the Dutch get around that impasse?

"Polderen," says Schneijderberg.

Let me step back and explain that Dutch verb. A polder is a piece of land, surrounded by a dike, from which the water has been pumped out to keep the land dry. Half of Holland is polder. In the old days, many of the famous Dutch wind mills were used for the pumping. But then as now, there is not a single person or entity that can do this by themselves: not the farmers, not the city folk, not the rich family on their estate. Either everybody works together and pitches in, or everybody gets wet feet.

So the process of polderen involves diverse stakeholders getting together and hammering out a consensus. It takes forever. But eventually a workable consensus emerges, and everybody moves forward with that, together and with conviction. The Dutch, who after all did manage to keep their feet dry so far, are really good at polderen; as an example I offer the successful "purple" coalition governments formed by Dutch conservative and labor parties in 1994-2002 and 2012-2017.

In the context of building a town for people not for cars, what does polderen look like?

It takes all the stakeholders being willing to negotiate. The process must be inclusive. Think of the merchants, the bike riders, the people who rely on their cars to get around, the very young and other people who don't have a driver's license, and so on.

Schneijderberg points out that these groups need not be monolithic: for instance, people who ride their bike for sport have different needs from people whose bikes are their only transportation. Retailers think differently about parking than restaurant owners who may see the potential of outdoor seating.

Participants must be open to each other's needs: this is a collaborative process rather than one of competition, distrust and antagonism. After all, we really all want the same thing: a vibrant city or town where it's pleasant to live, work and play, and, you know, one that makes our friends slightly envious when they come to visit us.

Once a consensus has been reached, Schneijderberg advises pilots. Trying it out is the really only way to find out if the solution actually works for that particular location. Put a pilot in place, whether it's a bike lane, a pedestrian zone, extra handicap parking spaces, or adjusted parking rates to encourage turnover, and try it out for 6-12 months. Learn from the mistakes, and iterate, using that same process of polderen.

This all sounds good, but how do you actually go about this?

It turns out there are facilitators who do exactly this kind of work: help stakeholders get past their mutual distrust so that they can go forward rather than get stuck at the same place over and over.

One such facilitator is the sociologist Miki Kashtan of the Center for Efficient Collaboration, who has developed a method called Convergent Facilitation, a pathway designed to build trust and dislodge the gridlock. Sounds a lot like polderen! The Center has facilitators and consultants, and they offer training sessions as well.

Another avenue for learning how to implement polderen is U.lab. Developed by Otto Scharmer of MIT's Sloan School of Management, U.lab is an online course that teaches how to effect social and organizational change in a collaborative fashion by learning to approach your collaborators (who are not your adversaries) with both an open mind and an open heart, and through compassion and courage, create a new possibility.

It seems to me that those of us who are seriously into making change need to consider taking on this kind of training, or hire the collaboration consultants. Because resolving the gridlock in the discussion around our public spaces will also resolve the physical gridlock. Then we can set about building something exciting in our common space.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

September bicycling events

Here are four events that are of interest to Princeton's bike riders, plus a volunteer opportunity with the Bike Valet parking team!

September 7, 2019, 11am - 5pm
Hinds Plaza

Princeton Public Library and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey present Festomato, a celebration of New Jersey organic tomatoes.

Festomato features activities for all ages including crafts, cooking demonstrations, speakers, a canning workshop and children's programs. Plus live music from three bands and plenty of food and drink selections made with tomatoes to taste.

Event details here. .

The bike committee is offering Bike Valet parking at Festomato - if you want to join our convivial team of bike valets, please sign up for a one-hour time slot here. Thanks!

Saturday, September 14, 7:30 - 11:00pm
Lawrence Hopewell Trail 6th annual Full Moon Ride
Mercer Meadows Park (rain date September 21)

The LHT's 6th annual Full Moon Ride will be a magical event, featuring a ride through "Asteroid Alley" with twinkling lights in the tree canopy, live music, a campfire, and more. Co-sponsored by the Mercer County Parks Commission, the event runs from 7:30 to 11 p.m., starting in the picnic pavilion area of Mercer Meadows Park. Before the bike ride, attendees are invited to bring a picnic dinner, decorate their bikes, or enjoy a campfire. Special musical guests will entertain you at the Campfire and along the route at specific locations. Adults and children of all ages are welcome at the activities prior to the bike ride, with the expectation that adults supervise their children at all times. The full moon bike ride itself is open to adults and children aged 12 and above.

For each person riding the six-mile Full Moon loop, the admission fee is $20.  Register by September 2 and enjoy a reduced rate of $15 per rider.  There is no fee for participants who want to enjoy the evening but not ride, though a donation is requested. The admission fees received will fund help the work of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail. Please visit the LHT website to register online.

September 20, 12.30 - 3pm,
Princeton Climate Strike
Palmer Square
Children around the world have staged school strikes on Fridays, calling for urgent climate action. On Friday, September 20, they invite grownups to join them for a Global Strike for Climate. (As a bike rider, you are already part of the climate solution!) Support our students, and join the Princeton Climate Strike. Details and RSVP here.

September 28, 9am - noon
Ride Along the River
Bulls Island, Stockton NJ

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network hosts this annual bike ride on the old canal towpath along the scenic Delaware River. Riders will enjoy beautiful fall views of the River in the Bulls Island area (Stockton NJ), and learn about the issues DRN are working on to protect the River and its communities.
Riders will have the option of a 18-mile or 25-mile ride on the towpath. Registration is required ($35 for adults, $25 for children). Details and registration here.

Friday, June 14, 2019

All-pedestrian Crossing: Your Feedback Please

The traffic light experiment will stay in place until Friday, June 21, 2019. Do give it a go, on foot, on bike, by car, then give your feedback at

Pedestrians have been enjoying the all-pedestrian phase of the traffic lights at Nassau and Washington / Vandeventer this beautiful and mild Friday evening, some even venturing to try the diagonal.

And if you stand at the center of the intersection, you can scan all the way around, your view unobstructed by any cars (and your person quite safe, for 40 seconds). Click on the photos to expand.

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Monday, June 10, 2019

All-pedestrian crossing for a week

For eleven days, June 10-21, 2019, the intersection at Nassau St (Rt 27) and Vanderventer / Washington will have an all-pedestrian cross phase as a test.

This means that all car traffic is stopped while you walk across the intersection in any direction, including the diagonal. Pedestrians must push the button to get the all-walk signal.

For bicycle riders, Princeton's website has the following advisory:

What to expect as a cyclist?

  • Cyclists may proceed on a Walk signal by dismounting and walking as a pedestrian. 
  • Cyclists may ride through the intersection on the green signal for vehicles.          

Car drivers must obey the "No Turn On Red" signs.

This idea of an all-pedestrian phase has been proposed before; here is a post on PBAC's blog from February 2015, from which we have borrowed the photo above.

Try it out! If you can, try it in all three modes, as a pedestrian, a bike rider and a car driver.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

addendum Re: he proposed the carbon tax and invented the recumbent bike

>  RIP David Gordon Wilson, 1928-2019.

Oops!  Wilson wasn't the inventor of the recumbent bike.
But he helped bring it back from obscurity, which is where
it had been parked since roughly the 1930's. 

"Jersey Bents" is a shop in Hamilton Square specializing
in everything 2-wheeled and recumbent.  

The banning of recumbents from bicycle racing in 
1934 had the effect of putting the recumbent bicycle
design in the closet for fifty years, until it was re-discovered
there primarily by MIT professor David Gordon Wilson
and his student.

Friday, May 3, 2019

May is National Bike Month

For National Bike Month, the Whole Earth Center and other area merchants thank those who choose their bikes rather than their cars when coming into town. They do this through "Random Acts of Community": by standing on a randomly chosen street corner at a randomly chosen time, and handing the first six bike riders who pass by a package of gift certificates from our cool local businesses.

Check out participating businesses here, and for hints, we'll refer you to the @WholeEarthNews twitter feed, and their FB page.

As a reminder for Bike Month, the Riverside School already celebrated its Bike To School Day; the dates for the other elementary schools are:
May 10 for Community Park School,
May 15 for Littlebrook School,
May 20 for Johnson Park School.

And for parents and friends: Bike To Work Week is 13-19 May, 2019.