In early July I took a trip to Europe for two weeks, visiting London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt am Main, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Paris. I had only been to Amsterdam and Paris prior to this trip.
I love seeing how other cities do transportation – everything from how pedestrians are treated to how well public transportation is integrated. As a whole, most European cities feel very well-integrated when it comes to transportation: a stark contrast from many American cities where transportation systems in the same city often seem to compete with, not complement, each other. For instance, in London, the Oyster card can be used on the Tube as well as the Greater Anglia service I used to visit my friend in Essex.
Speaking of the Oyster card – it is a very good deal. If you’re going to London, get an Oyster card; it’s worth the £5 deposit. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the card is that it will never charge you more than the daily pass price for the zones in which you’ve traveled. So instead of paying for a daily pass each day, I just loaded £50 on the card and payed as I went. If I used so much transport that a daily pass would have been a better deal, the card wouldn’t charge me more than the daily pass price. I find this to be an incredibly user-friendly method of charging for transportation; instead of trying to take more money, the card always gives you the best deal.
The London Tube itself is a great system. I had heard several complaints about it, but my experience left me satisfied with a few bumps: trains that braked too quickly and one incident where the doors wouldn’t open for a few minutes. There’s no air conditioning either, which wouldn’t generally seem like a problem, but London was going through a heat wave when I visited! In general, I was satisfied with the service and how quickly the trains came. I never waited longer than 5 minutes for a train.
Cycling in London
I rode a Boris (Barclay’s) bike a few times around London. The system is nearly identical to Divvy here in Chicago, except I had more issues with the bikes in London. It was often hard to find a bike, with many racks being empty or broken. The buttons to obtain a bike were often broken, too, meaning that a bike could have only been taken out by a subscriber.
Cycling in London is a lot like in American cities. Sometimes there’s a protected lane but it doesn’t connect to any meaningful network. Most of the time there is just a narrow painted line. And it certainly wasn’t any easier having to ride on the other side of the road!
And my favorite poster from the London Transport Museum:
I don’t really have to talk about how amazing and hospitable Amsterdam is for people riding bikes.
There are some bike lanes “à l’Américain,” but even when you have to use them, there’s no element of fear. As an American, I routinely would worry when getting in front of a car: “Oh my god, gotta get out of the way, they’re going to start honking!”
Nope. Even without any bike infrastructure, nearly everyone rides a bike at some point and is therefore more patient and sympathetic to those on bikes. Bikeyface actually did a really good post on biking in Amsterdam addressing this American tourist “they’re going to get me!” attitude.
Here is a really good video about how the intersections are designed for everyone:
And here’s another one from Streetfilms about biking in Amsterdam:
You may remember a month or so ago the New York Times featured an article about a bike parking “problem” in Amsterdam and then dragged it out with an letter and even more comments from some angry New Yorker about bikes clogging up the streets.
Honestly, there does need to be more bike parking in Amsterdam. It can be very hard to find parking. I was told the Centraal station bike parking “garage” can hold a few thousand bikes, but there needs to be capacity for many more. The great part about bike parking is that it uses so much less space than car parking. The real problem is that people have to move somehow, and the government decided to prioritize bikes over cars.
There were times when we had to circle around to find a place to park (I haven’t done this for a parking spot in ages!), but it was never that bad. What is getting bad is bike parking here in Chicago. We’ve really got to ramp up installation of bike parking, in many places, there just isn’t enough.
Frankfurt am Main & Heidelberg
First, we took an ICE train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt. The ICE trains are really nice, especially given how little I paid for the trip (it was around 40 €).
I was in Frankfurt for a weekend, so the city was a little quieter. Luckily we were staying near the Zeil, a huge pedestrianized street.
The Zeil is full of shops and restaurants and places to be. It’s a great example of a thriving pedestrian street. The area in between the stores is filled with trees and restaurants and makes the area feel more intimate than the space would permit.
We also visited Heidelberg, a beautiful city about an hour’s train ride from Frankfurt:
Aside from being a beautiful city, it’s also got its fair share of pedestrian and cycle infrastructure that makes it pleasant to bike and walk in:
The street above is a “bike priority street,” as I interpret it.
The S-Bahn that ran through Heidelberg also had room for bikes on the train (no racks, but there was room and a symbol near the doors made it known it was for bikes):
Strasbourg is a beautiful, intimate city. It is one of France’s most bike-friendly cities, and I see why. The center city of Strasbourg (the island) is designed with “filtered permeability,” an urban planning concept which posits that it should be easier to walk and bike through a network of roads than to drive. Basically, it is easy to get through the city on a bike or on foot, but driving is a bit more difficult. It creates a great atmosphere for biking and walking:
Those on bikes also get their fair share of infrastructure:
CDOT should take a look at the above photo and closely inspect the bollard there. That’s how you keep cars out of a protected bike lane.
And of course, there’s the tram in Strasbourg, which was unnecessary for travel within the island itself, but mixes well with the environment:
I was most excited to see two things in Paris: the new Berges de Seine where a riverside highway was repurposed for pedestrians (they just call them “people” over there) and new “zones de rencontre.” I remember seeing the old highway when I studied in Paris 3 years ago, and the transformation is great:
It’s incredible to me that the riverside highway was so quickly repurposed and designed for the people. Paris has opened more if its beautiful public space for everyone to use, not just the Parisian minority that drive.
I also saw the preparation of the Paris Plages, which I missed by a few days.
Paris Plages (“Paris Beaches”) is a city-run program that creates beaches along the Seine. I didn’t get to experience it this year, but here’s a photo from the Paris website:
I may have “Paris bias,” a condition I made up to describe the fact that I tend to compare everything about cities to Paris, because I have huge respect for what the Paris government has done for its residents. The city has so much public space and cultural assets and does a wonderful job integrating them all, programming events, and repurposing public space that really enhances the quality of life.
Paris is also experimenting with more shared streets, another example of the city’s commitment to livability.
Right now, these streets are little more than markings, but it shows the city’s commitment to making its streets safer for all users.
And of course, Paris is no longer Paris without Vélib’. The system is starting to show its age (even though it isn’t that old!), but it still works great. There were many stations that didn’t have any bikes or were completely full, so rebalancing is still a bit of an issue. Some of the bikes were broken, too – I occasionally would find the one remaining bike at a station, only to see the bike chain lying at its side!
Fortunately, though, biking through Paris is fun and fast and the city is making it safer to do with new infrastructure.
Finally, I did have the chance to ride Métro line 1, a newly-automated subway line. The concept for the project began in 2004 and was operational late last year – that’s 8 years of work to automate the busiest subway line on the network (over 750,000 trips daily), all without having to shut down the entire line for any significant amount of time.
The subway line feels just like line 14, another automated line on the network opened in 1998. And it was recently announced that line 4, the second-busiest line (over 740,000 trips daily) will be automated. Work will start next year and complete by 2022.
I already can’t wait to go back. European cities offer many lessons in how to create a livable city for residents, and we should be taking a few of their cues. This fall, I’m planning to go to Vancouver, which I’ve heard is one of North America’s “most livable” cities.
I’ve got many more photos from my trip to share, and you can find them over at my Flickr.