From a bicyclist’s perspective, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Randstad — a part of the Netherlands encompassing Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague — seem to have little in common. There’s hardly a hill anywhere in this Dutch region, while a trip around the Bay Area feels like a roller coaster ride. But a closer look shows plenty of similarities. The places are almost identical in population (7 million), and both stand as forward-looking places dedicated to making bicycles an integral part of their transportation systems — although the Dutch have a 30-year head start.

That’s why a dozen Bay Area transportation leaders journeyed to the Netherlands to investigate innovations they could bring home to make bicycling more safe, convenient and prevalent in their hometowns. They were seeking the 27 percent solution — the social, health and environmental benefits (as well as significant cost savings) found in a country where more than a quarter of all trips are made by bike.

The week-long tour, sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation, focused on improvements the Dutch have implemented on city streets since the 1980s, a period in which the rate of biking has more than doubled throughout the Netherlands. The delegation—elected officials, transportation engineers and community leaders from San Francisco, San Jose and Marin County—pedaled many kilometers each day getting an in-depth look at world-class bicycling policies and best practices.

How the Dutch Do It

They visited an elementary school in suburban Utrecht where the principle said 95 percent of students aged 10-12 arrive by bike—and judging by the sheer quantity of small bikes parked all around, so do a lot of the younger kids. Dutch parents feel more comfortable letting their kids ride thanks to bike lanes separated from auto traffic on busy streets and specially designed residential streets (called bike boulevards in the U.S.) that accommodate both bikes and cars safely. In Utrecht, specially trained instructors visit elementary classrooms to demonstrate safe biking techniques, and all students visit Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete with roads and sidewalks where they can hone their skills.

The delegation also toured Java Island, a new community in Amsterdam where bike and pedestrian trails wind past houses while autos park on the periphery. The area has become very popular with families, because kids can run free through the neighborhood, as well as with childless households, who appreciate the quality of life in a place not dominated by motor vehicles. Convenient bikeways and streetcar lines lead directly to the heart of Amsterdam, making it easy to leave cars at home most of the time.

Forty one percent of all trips in central Amsterdam are now by bike, compared to 10 percent by car. Throughout the city car use has declined 14 percent since 1990 as a result of transportation policies that make biking and walking more convenient, comfortable and safe.

Even more than Amsterdam or Utrecht, the Bay Area visitors were excited by what they saw in Rotterdam, which has recently boosted biking to 22 percent of all trips in a city that is reminiscent of the U.S. with wide roads crowded with speeding traffic. While not considered exemplary at all by Dutch standards, the industrial port city is a great role model for the U.S. because of its post-war, car-centric planning and urban design. “This is what we’re up against back home,” explained Bob Ravasio, a realtor and council member in Corte Madera.

Bicycling in Rotterdam is growing at the rate of 3 percent a year, according to city officials, who attribute the rapid rise to new bikeways that are physically separated from motorized traffic whenever possible. These measures provide bicyclists with a greater sense of safety and ease, expanding the ranks of riders beyond young men to include more women, children and older citizens. Indeed, women account for 55 percent of all riders in the Netherlands, compared to less than a third in the U.S., and Dutch citizens over 55 bike at rates comparable to other age groups.

The single biggest reason for Dutch success in making biking safe and popular is their policy of separating bike lanes from moving vehicles on busy streets, either by physical barriers such as curbs or bright painted markings on the pavement. Other key innovations are: 1) traffic calming measures, which remind motorists to share the road with bikes and pedestrians; and 2) special safety features for bicyclists at busy intersections, including bicycle-only traffic signals and special bike boxes where riders wait for a green light in clear sight of motorists, rather than behind or to the side of idling cars. The Dutch also make sure to provide plentiful and secure bike parking, especially at transit stops and train stations.

Zach Vanderkooy, the tour leader and coordinator of Bike Belong’s Best Practices Program, noted, “The Dutch are not somehow exceptional people when it comes to bicycling. Everything we see here is the result of deliberate decisions. Even little things, like paint on the street, add up.”

Bringing Best Practices Back Home

On the last day of the tour in Amsterdam, the group weathered chilly winds at a sidewalk café overlooking the harbor as they discussed how to apply all they had learned back at home. David Chiu, president of the San Francisco city council summed up the general consensus this way: “It’s one thing to read statistics about the Dutch biking at ten times the rate we do in the U.S. It’s another thing to see it…There is actually a road map of do-able public policies we can adopt to get us where the Dutch are today.”

Yet everyone agreed there are distinct differences between the two places that go beyond the Netherlands’ flat landscape and the Bay Area’s legendary hills. Right away, city officials on the tour mentioned decreasing pots of money available for bike projects in budget-strapped California. Add to that skepticism from motorists, merchants and developers about any changes to the streets. This delegation was, after all, from the State where America’s love affair with the automobile first began, and many of them hold positions where they experience people’s outrage about bike projects up-close and personal (even if it is only a small minority).

Still, the overall mood was excited and upbeat as everyone headed home. “They faced some of the same issues here [in the Netherlands] that we do,” offered Manuel Pineda, Deputy Director of Planning for the San Jose Department of Transportation. “We can concentrate on two or three corridors that can be a showcase to get people excited, to get things going, to show what’s possible.”

What Difference Does a Year Make?

So how are the Bay Area transportation leaders feeling now a little more than a year later? And, more importantly, what have they been able to accomplish so that more people in the Bay Area bicycle more often?

Their mood has remained upbeat, even in a period where anxiety about budget deficits is mounting and some politicians belittle bicycle projects as “frivolous”. And they’re hard at work on significant improvements to make bicycling safer and more convenient.

In San Francisco, David Chiu led efforts for the city to adopt an official policy goal of boosting bike traffic to 20 percent of all trips by 2020. San Jose, with the help of city council member Sam Liccardo, enacted its first bike master plan, projecting that bikes will make 15 percent of all trips by 2035. San Rafael, Marin County’s largest city where Damon Connolly is on the city council, updated its bicycle-pedestrian master plan with ambitious new provisions.

Accompanying these worthy planning-document objectives, there are actual improvements appearing on the streets of San Francisco Bay Area communities.

The Streets of San Francisco

Since returning from the Netherlands, San Francisco officials have installed 2.5 miles of protected bike lanes similar to separated Dutch bikeways on stretches of four streets. Another 2.6 miles are in the works right now, and separated bike lanes on Market Street, San Francisco’s main commercial thoroughfare, have been expanded. This adds up to a good start on a 21st Century bicycle system.

“Without a doubt, the local leaders studying the best practices in the Netherlands had a real impact here in San Francisco,” explains Leah Shahum, executive director of the Bike Coalition. “They understand that bike improvements are not just about transportation, but about improved cities in general. It’s a whole different conversation because of the experiences they had.”

“A number of bicyclists told me that the new lanes make them feel legitimized,” comments Bridget Smith, Director of the city’s Livable Streets Program. “For the first time they feel they belong in the streets. They are safer and won’t be honked off to get off the road.”

“Bikes are popular here to the point of Mom and apple pie,” Smith observes. “Our real challenge now is the economic crisis; it’s not easy to ask for a new line of funding.”

Ed Reiskin, who was recently appointed to run all transportation services in the city as Director of the Municipal Transportation Agency, concurs that “money is the single biggest challenge.” But he goes on to note that bicycling in the city is growing at a double-digit rate, and that his experiences in the Netherlands, “were certainly an inspiration to implement the bike plan. There’s nothing happening in the Netherlands that could not be done here, at least in theory. Seeing it can be done is a big step toward getting it done here.”

New Ways to Go in San Jose

San Jose, a city of 950,000 with many districts that resemble suburbs more than what we think of as urban neighborhoods, is moving forward on four major bike projects in 2012, says Manuel Pineda, Deputy Director of Planning.

*A new bikeway running from the downtown train station to San Jose State University that features colored bike lanes similar to those in Dutch cities.

*The River Oaks Parkway, which separates bicyclists from moving traffic on a route that connects two other bike trails on the north side of the city.

*Two new bike boulevards, which are residential streets where bicyclists and pedestrians are given priority over non-local auto traffic. At some intersections, cars are channeled onto busier arterial streets while two-wheel and two-foot travelers can proceed.

“Coming home from the Netherlands I realized that we were not focused enough on bikes,” says Pineda, who now bikes to work at least once a week. “We have great vehicular capacity in the city, now we want great bicycle capacity. Bikes can’t just be an afterthought in how we design our streets.”

For city council member Sam Liccardo, visiting the Netherlands inspired him to think big. “For me, the holy grail will be when we have separated bike lanes running across the city on two corridors, north-south and east-west.”

In the meantime, the tour has given Liccardo new ammunition in local debates about bike funding and projects. “I now use a lot of what I learned as I spar with people here on issues like adding speed bumps to create better bike and pedestrian conditions, or to answer engineers who say bike paths make people less safe.”

Encouraging More Biking in Marin County

Bob Ravasio wondered about the reaction of his colleagues on the Corte Madera town council when he came home electrified about what’s happening in Rotterdam and other Dutch cities. So he put together a power point presentation to share what he learned with the council, city staff and the public. “Much to my surprise, the audience applauded,” he exclaims. “I was completely unprepared for that. People don’t do that at Town Council meetings!”

Although facing budget pressures, Ravasio is pushing forward on a number of local bike projects as part of Marin County’s Master Plan, including opening a old rail tunnel between Corte Madera and Mill Valley, which would “generate enormous increases in bike traffic.”

Damon Connolly also received an enthusiastic response from city staff and council colleagues in San Rafael about what he learned in the Netherlands. “Now we are seeing how bike improvements can be made on any project that’s done around town. That’s a paradigm change from how things were done.

“This can include stuff like signage, painting the pavement colors, safe route to school programs for the kids, not just infrastructure,” Connolly explains. He’s thrilled about a new bike-pedestrian trail that connects the northern part of town to the rest of the city and about a newly opened rail tunnel to Larkspur, which cuts 20 minutes off the trip between the two communities.

Returning the Favor: San Francisco Hosts Dutch Transportation Experts

Four of the Dutch bike experts who met with the Bikes Belong tour the previous year visited San Francisco last summer for a ThinkBike workshop, sponsored by the Dutch Embassy, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco Bike Coalition. The Dutch planners met with San Francisco city officials, bike advocates, disability advocates and citizens at the two-day event, in which attendees divided up into groups to tackle some of the city’s biggest bike transportation challenges.

“In two days they did what normally takes a year,” notes Leah Shahum. “There was real agreement in the groups, which included members representing all groups at the meeting. I’m not saying it’s a done deal on these issues, but it’s a way forward.”

“It was exciting to have the Dutch here working alongside us on our toughest problems,” says Bridget Smith. She remembers one discussion about complications on a street where bikes were to have priority. “The Dutch asked why are we trying to make every vehicle a priority on a street when it was supposed to be a bike priority street. ‘How’s that going to work?’ they asked.”

Thoughts from Some Bay Area Transportation Leaders About What They Learned in the Netherlands

Ricardo Olea, San Francisco City Traffic Engineer: “I’ve noticed in the short amount of time since the trip, there’s been some movement, both locally and nationally, toward changing the design standards of cities closer to watch the Dutch do. Also, I’ve been in a lot of brainstorming sessions where I cold bring in ideas that I saw in the Netherlands.”

Sam Liccardo, San Jose City Council: “The trip allowed me to see how things really could be here. You see the You Tube videos about Dutch biking and hear the stories, but you can’t imagine it until you’ve seen dozens of bikers stopped at stoplights in the morning. Business executives in suits on bikes. Pregnant women on bikes.”

Bridget Smith, Director of San Francisco’s Livable Streets Program: “I learned that the key to talking about biking and walking is not ‘Do it because it’s green’ or ‘Do it because it’s fitness’. Rather, ‘Do it because it’s fun’. Since I got back, I cycle a lot more and even bought one of those Dutch commuting bikes.”

Damon Connolly, San Rafael City Council: “One thing that really struck me in the Netherlands was the impact of education about biking. And the trip was a great opportunity to visualize what’s possible.”

Ed Reiskin, Director of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: “My thinking is broader than it was before I went. The Dutch are comprehensive in their approach to transportation as a whole. They did not talk about bikes in isolation.”

Manuel Pineda, San Jose Deputy Director of Planning and Project Delivery: “One of the key things we learned in the Netherlands was how many people like to ride on trips in the 3-5 kilometer range [1.8 - 3.1 miles]. Most people aren’t going to ride 20 miles a day. I was also pleasantly surprised how receptive the design staff here was to these new ideas.”

Bob Ravasio, Corte Madera City Council: “The trip showed me what you can really do with bikes as a viable form of transportation. Some council members here prefer to see funding steered to automotive use. However I think the townspeople are largely behind me on this. As more young people move into town, this will get easier.”

Jay Walljasper, editor of OnTheCommons.org and author of All That We Share and The Great Neighborhood Book, writes widely about cities, community, sustainability and travel. On The Commons is a commons movement strategy center. This piece was first published yesterday at Bikes Belong.