Guest blog post by Sustain Charlotte volunteer Karen Reilly
Family commitments kept me from Sustain Charlotte’s Open Road Day this past weekend but taking a virtual ride down “Ike,” Charlotte’s first protected bike lane brings me back to one of the most exciting times in my life (before a husband and 3 kids!) and something I never would have dreamed I’d be reminded of here in Charlotte….my college semester bike riding adventure in Holland!
On a sunny Aug Southern CA day in 1990, I left my parents, my boyfriend and my small suburban town (that I’d never left before!) just outside of LA to spend the Fall semester of my junior year of college studying at the University of Leiden in Leiden, Holland or The Netherlands as it’s also called.
To get the most out of my experience abroad, I wanted to immerse myself completely in the Dutch culture. I chose to live in a Dutch student house (instead of the American dorms with a bar on the first floor!) so I could interact with and live like the Dutch students my age. I wanted to eat like them, talk like them, dress like them and… get around town the way that they got around town!
And how they got around was a far cry from what I was used to back in SoCal, sitting on clogged freeways and waiting through 10 traffic lights to get a few miles across town in my little black VW Jetta. My main mode of transportation for the next 4 months was MUCH more fun, MUCH safer and MUCH more efficient! It involved what quickly became my best friend in Holland…my bicycle, or “omafiets” as they call it in Dutch!
Now if you’re picturing some slick-looking, expensive, high-tech street bike… get that image out of your head. “Omafiets” means “granny bike,” and that’s just what this was with the high handle bars, a basket in the front and back-pedals. (No bike shorts required!) But I didn’t care because that’s what everyone else was riding too. And I didn’t miss hopping on the freeway in my little black VW Jetta. Not ONE day of those magical 4 months!
This dependable little granny bike got me EVERYWHERE! To school…to the store … to the train station…out to dinner…EVERYWHERE! I rode in the rain, (and it rains almost every day there!) in the wind, at night…it didn’t matter! It’s the lifestyle and you quickly grow to LOVE it!
The best thing about it was…I NEVER stopped for cars! They stopped for me and the 10 or so people always riding to my right, left, front or rear on our little granny bikes!
What makes biking around Holland so enjoyable and safe is the large network of interconnected, well-paved protected bike lanes that weave all around and in and out of every city and town. Maybe you’ve heard about bicycle vacations in The Netherlands? Bikes have the right-away on Dutch streets and you won’t find a city building without 100 or so bikes parked outside. They are essential to the Dutch lifestyle largely because of high gas prices and a need for public safety on their narrow, busy streets. Check out this BBC article to learn more about how and why bicycles and bike lanes have become so important in Holland.
I was excited to return home to the CA sunshine for my Spring Semester but found myself longing for Holland for months to come! I missed my new Dutch friends, the beautiful old buildings, the winding canals and windmills, the friendly people who already embraced sustainable living, and the OUT OF THIS WORLD cheese and bread that helped me pack on an extra 5lbs.
But back in my little Jetta, sitting on the 101 freeway that is a parking lot most hours of the day, with my Pearl Jam blasting from my grainy speakers, what I missed most was my little old granny bike! My trusted friend that safely got me almost anywhere I needed to go on these wonderfully efficient, protected bike lanes that are the essence of Holland!
I’ve always wondered if this magical Dutch lifestyle…where bikes, not cars rule the roadway…could exist throughout the United States. Considering Holland is probably half the size of the entire state of North Carolina…it’s probably unrealistic.
Ike the Protected Bike Lane introduced Charlotte cyclists to a safe cycling experience during Open Streets 704.
But thanks to Sustain Charlotte’s Bicycle Program and Ike the Protected Bike Lane, we can all start to envision bikes and cars safely coexisting on our city and suburban neighborhood streets in well-divided, well-marked, designated lanes where one mode of transportation does not infringe on the other! Where more of us might forego sitting in bumper to bumper traffic for a leisurely bike ride across town to the store or to work, without putting ourselves, our loved ones or other motorists at risk! Where our lives would be healthier and our city would be greener and more sustainable for us all and future generations to come!
Thank you, Sustain Charlotte or “Dankuwel!” as they say in Dutch!