I didn’t think we would take a trip to the beach in the middle of the Netherlands

Day 3 in Utrecht! Once again, we ventured with Ronald into the wide unknown! Well, actually, it was just a unique suburb of Utrecht, but of course to us, everything is brand new 🙂

As Marc is fond of doing, we were instructed to make our way to some address to meet for the day. Since the bike ride was a bit longer, I got to think a bit about our short time in Utrecht. The bike was slowly becoming less awful, meaning that I think I almost died only once on the way out to Ronald’s house. The upright, step through style was definitely growing on me, but I couldn’t get over the pedal brake hurdle. Also, wayfinding is not as easy in the city if you don’t know what the end destination is (i.e. knowing the name of Ronald’s neighborhood would have made a heck of a difference!).

However, the small mob of us made our way to Ronald’s with minor incident (did you know that it is actually humid in the Netherlands??). From there, we got to go see an entirely master planned community! The suburb Houten was one that the government decided to expand Utrecht with. This meant that the entire transportation network was designed to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles first! The city was built with a ring road for vehicles outside the city (only about 5 km in diameter), with access roads into the interior, but no roads cutting completely through the city. There is a network of bike and pedestrian paths connecting the entire city to itself and to Utrecht, encouraging people to leave their vehicles outside and use other means for their daily lives. The train station had bike parking only… hundreds of spots. The scary thing: The majority of them were full!

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Just one half of one of the rows for bike parking in this train station!

While in theory and on paper, this idea looked really good, a lot of the class felt that the suburb was somewhat… eerie? I’m not sure that is the right word, since we visited in the middle of the day, but it was interesting. There certainly seemed to be a different feel between the planned growth area that we saw in Houten and the organic sprawling feel of the city center. Something for the engineer in me, who LOVES organization and rules, to note.

It seemed like Marc heard my silent frustration with the wayfinding in the city, since after visiting Houten, we took a nice ride into the Dutch countryside. Paths that might not even be marked on a map in the United States had excellent route markers, and we even learned what a dead end marker looked like! (Very helpful to know!) In our wanderings, we even found a canal with a great beach! Most of the guys jumped in for a swim, while I courageously volunteered to watch the bikes. I may not have done a great job since my eyes have closed for another beachside nap, but hey, everyone’s stuff was FINE.

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Beautiful ride along a canal outside Utrecht with the fam (and thanks for the pic Adam!)

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A dead end sign! Learning this actually helped me navigate in Ireland when I was driving on those country roads

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Our break at the beach!

Honestly, the ride back was the type of ride that convinces me that our bike facilities NEED to be improved in the States. It was so relaxed and easy to cruise back into town on all sorts of wonderful bike and ped bridges in time to enjoy our last evening in Utretch. Of course, that obviously meant another dinner on the canal and a stroll through the city to admire the lights under a full moon. This class was just terrible to suffer through, seriously.

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The group saying goodbye to Ronald! It was a sad moment, since Ronald was so incredible to have for our time in Utrecht.

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All the lights coming on along the canal

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The Dom Tower on our last evening in town

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Alright, these bikes were ok… but that is the most praise I will give them

Hey everyone! I just want to let you know that I have been typing these posts up each day, but adding pictures is super time consuming – thus the delay between posts! Sorry I am so far behind… Hopefully its still an adventure to read!

Well, biking in Utrecht got a bit easier over the next couple days, but it wasn’t without its challenges. The first morning we were tasked with making only a couple of blocks to City Hall on our own. I started out with a couple other people and lasted only about 30 seconds before getting lost with Robert. However, it turned out alright since we got stuck at one of the more interesting intersections in the city. I skidded into the crosswalk accidently (still not used to the pedal brakes!), looked around and realized I was in the middle of a rainbow painted crosswalk with Miffy the Bunny on the pedestrian buttons!
It just happened to be one of the many awesome things that Ronald, a traffic engineer with the City of Utrecht, shared with us at our meeting. He gave an excellent presentation on the history of the city, the ways the city is getting planners and engineers to work together, and on various transformations of existing intersections that weren’t necessarily by the book (like the rainbow crosswalk).

Note: Since I am posting this after the class finished, I can say now that his presentation was the most directly related to my studies as an engineering student. It sparked multiple conversations between myself and other students and served as the inspiration for one of my class project podcasts. If anyone is interested, I have a great set of notes and Ronald’s slideshows… I really recommend it to engineers that want to challenge the way that things are designed in the States.

To back up all his talk, Ronald took us on a bike tour of the city. While it initially seemed more chaotic, the system is probably better described as free-flowing. Marc and I talked about it, and the difference is that people don’t really stop biking. In Copenhagen, cyclists followed the lights. In Utrecht, cyclists did whatever they could safely get away with. Over time, that made sense, though it was a bit overwhelming at first.

All in all, we saw some great projects in the city. One of my favorite stops was a bike and ped bridge that crossed a canal, but was also incorporated as the roof of an elementary school! We got to that area close to the time school let out, so it was neat to see all the parents that walked or biked to pick their kids up. I may be wrong, but I don’t remember seeing a single car, and there definitely wasn’t a parking lot.

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We also wandered through the center of the city where we got to briefly check out the Dom Cathedral and Tower. I may be a terrible person for saying this, but honestly, one of my only thoughts was “I KNEW IT. HOGWARTS IS REAL!”

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Come on, doesn’t everyone think this looks like Hogwarts??

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This piece in the cathedral was disfigured during the Reformation!

Out in the suburbs, Ronald showed us the way that streets are being redesigned to prioritize bikes over vehicles. On many roads, there is a wide bike lane on both sides of the street with only a single vehicle lane in the center. This does not restrict travel to one-way, but rather forces drivers that are approaching each other to slow down and safely negotiate the space. My favorite project of the day may have been a five legged intersection that was originally up to be expanded. Instead, the city made large portions of the intersection shared space. There are fewer paint lines, more obstructions, and yet we saw no close calls while we observed the intersection. Ronald shared a story about a traffic engineer from Amsterdam who saw the intersection and said it needed to be redone to meet standards. Ronald’s response: “I don’t care. Seems to be working just fine and no one except you is complaining.”

After a short detour on which all 16 of the students managed to get lost together in Utrecht (families gotta stick together!), we got to experience Dutch pancakes, which I did not know anything about! These things are at least a foot in diameter, and can have ANYTHING on them. You have to try one if you ever get to the Netherlands. I also recommend the restaurant we went to – we got to enjoy a few beers along a beautiful rural canal before getting caught in the rain biking back. All in all, another wonderful day of class 🙂

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Lost, but at least the fam is together 😉

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The few of us enjoying the canal before the thunderstorm came and soaked us haha

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Canal time with our awesome guide, Adam!

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See! Thunderstorm! But we survived, and the conversation was awesome (seriously, thanks for the awesome conversation Robert)

A bit nervous (aka scared) to bike

Alright, a post without heavy content! I know that yesterday’s was probably a bit boring to those not interested in sustainable developments, architecture, or hydrology, but this one is just going to be a nice little rant about my first impressions of the Netherlands 🙂
The day after our Malmo tours was spent mostly traveling – planes, trains, and bicycles! We got to start out with a walk to the train station, all of us loaded down with all our luggage… I am so glad I took Marc’s instructions to be self-contained over cobblestones very seriously! I’m loving the backpack life!

Then we got to cross the famous Oresund bridge, which is famous for both the engineering and the diplomacy involved. The 5 mile long bridge leaves Malmo, touches down on a man-made island (which has an interesting biological and ecological story as well), then transitions to a tunnel before stopping at the Copenhagen airport. Definitely geeked out a bit… I might not be majoring in structural engineering, but I can appreciate a great bridge 🙂

After a fun flight (during which I learned to either avoid or travel to Falls City, OR, depending on how I feel about CRAZY redneck towns… Thanks Taylor!), we landed in Amsterdam, trained to Utrecht (difficult with lots of luggage during rush hour, but not impossible), and arrived in time to get our bikes.

First off, I had zero expectations for Utrecht… going to be honest, I don’t think I had ever heard of the city before reading the syllabus for this trip. But oh my goodness, the city was absolutely stunning. GORGEOUS canals everywhere with thousands of people dining along the water. Beautiful brick buildings as far as I could see. A cathedral towered over the square with our hostel. Thousands upon thousands of bikes, parked in garages in double layers, along the canal in stacks. Complete sensory overload.

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Dom Tower over Utrecht

Second, we got new Dutch style bikes (upright, step through, baskets in the front). They were so much heavier than anything I have ridden. After the last week and a half, I can ride a bike. Maybe not compete in a downhill mountain bike competition or in a road race, but I can get from point A to point B. This thing almost took me down. I was wobbling like I needed training wheels. They only had three speeds, and the biggest issue – pedal brakes. These bikes were incredibly difficult to stop. It is not instinctual to pedal backwards to stop. I found myself constantly reaching for the hand brakes, only to find that the one we did have was simply not very good. Our debrief the first night in Utrecht was primarily complaints about these heavy bikes.

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Cassie modeling our new Dutch style bikes… I’m pretty sure she was laughing at our attempts to ride these bikes

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Sam and Caroline also getting in on the modeling action (which, let’s be honest, Sam is always in modeling mode!)

Lastly, the bike network seemed to be absolute chaos. It seemed that bicyclists went anywhere and everywhere they pleased. I have been talking like we rode miles in the system and discovered all these awkward things about our bikes, but really, we only lasted 5 minutes in the system on the journey between the bike shop and our hotel. I didn’t realize how safe and organized Copenhagen really was until we got to Utrecht.

While these bikes and the system made us all really nervous the first night there, we felt a bit better after enjoying dinner right on the canal in the center of the city. Of course, we only put ourselves through that since it was a great place to observe thousands of bikes, not because of the view. Promise.

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Dinner along the canal

How to: Sustainable Neighborhoods

Spending the Fourth of July in a foreign country is a bit of a different experience than it is in the States. I’m not gonna lie, I was craving a nice burger, potato salad, and cold beer. While we didn’t quite get there, we had a great day, both learning and just spending time together with the fam 🙂

Have you all heard about the sustainable development that is going on in Malmo?? If you aren’t familar with Malmo at all, this is the city with the Turning Torso (which is kinda cool, but not my favorite bit of architecture…. I get the feeling it would also be somewhat difficult to get used to the slanted windows form the inside!). There is also a long bridge, the Oresund Bridge, that connects Malmo to Copenhagen, but more on that in the next post 🙂

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Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden

Anyways, we got to see two of the more famous developments in Malmo. First up, the Western Harbor district. I could bore you with lots of stats, but if you are into sustainable practices in development, chances are you have already heard of this place. Everywhere we turned, there were new things that encouraged (or demanded) more environmentally friendly practices, such as lower electricity use, less dependence on vehicles, and increased recycling. Some of the highlights, in addition to the features shown in the pictures below, include:

  • beginning as part of the Bo01 European Housing Expo of 2001. For the expo, dozens of different architects and developers were used to showcase the diversity in design and construction of sustainable housing. This means that there is nothing “cookie cutter” here. Everything is unique, which makes each corner exciting.
  • storing energy for heating and cooling in aquifers nearly 90m deep. We only heard a brief talk on the subject, but it is one that I would love to discuss with some of my professors.
  • green roofs. I’m not sure what the percentage is exactly, but it seemed like more than half of the roofs were green. I understand what exactly it means in terms of total runoff when I hear that these roofs can retain 50% of the rainfall they catch (remembering all those tables of coefficients in hydrology!)
  • 0.8 parking spaces per home (now down to 0.6 in the newer portions of the Western Harbor). WHAT??? How can they get away with it? It’s just part of the encouragement to use other modes of transportation from homes to transit.
  • a stunning waste/recycling removal system. Once again, I didn’t learn enough about this on site to satisfy my curiousity, but the gist is that there are central collection tubes throughout the development that people dump into. Trucks then “vacuum” the waste out of the tube from outside the development, which keeps large garbage trucks outside the development.
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Solar tubes for heating water on the roof (not solar panels)

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Waste removal in the dense development so that garage trucks don’t have to come into the center

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Green roofs!

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An example of a “road” shared by cars, bikes, and pedestrains

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Canal through the center of the West Harbor district for primarily aesthetic appeal, though some of the runoff is managed with the open canals

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Shift from residential to commericial

Even as cool as many of these techniques were, many of us found a few critiques. There wasn’t any space dedicated to urban farming, though some homes had private spaces to grow food. The most bothersome piece was the single socio-economic class represented, which was the upper class. We got into a great discussion about the cost of building more sustainably, which means that these projects are just naturally pioneered by the wealthy. There was not a lot of diversity in the people that we saw, which made it feel almost a bit eerie to me.

Obviously, there were tons of excellent and sustainable ideas in the West Harbor development, but to me, an engineering student, the second development was even more fun…. Hydrology everywhere! I recorded as many quick facts and figures as I could, so this is accurate to the best of my knowledge, but you should look at Malmo’s Augustenborg neighborhood if you want more information!

The neighborhood, which was orginally built as affordable housing, had developed a bit of a reputation for smaller crime. It was dirty, no one wanted to live there, and the basements were constantly flooding. In the late 90s, the city renovated the neighborhood, starting with the drainage system, which has boosted the neighborhood socially, economically, and aesthetically. Some of these changes include:

  • installation of green roofs on many buildings to reduce the overall runoff.
  • using open channel systems to reduce the cost of maintainence and repair to the system.
  • placement of overflow ponds and wetland plants to store excess water.
  • sizing the system for 100 year storms rather than 15 year.
  • installation of water-conserving washers in the buildings.
  • recycling sheds to assist residents in proper recycling procedures.
  • distribution and installation of free cupboard hangers for recycling in individual homes.
  • dedication of space to urban farming.
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Bumps in the ditches to slow down the water during rainstorms and prevent erosion

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Once the canal fills up, the water drains into a pond with wetland plants for treatment and detention!

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This whole area can (and has been) flooded during rainstorms

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Urban farming is, of course, one of the staples in the ecocity

There were a lot less critiques for this second neighborhood! It was a great example of how to improve specific things in a community that make it more sustainable, but also more inviting. It is also worth pointing out that we were really nitpicky at the first development… These neighborhoods are places that we woud be lucky to have in the States, even with their few downfalls.

All in all, it was a great day in Malmo. The weather was beautiful and we got to have a “family dinner” for the Fouth (no BBQ, but some cold beers can go a long way!). Next stop, Utrecht, Holland!

Back to the coast

After our AMAZING day biking through Denmark from Copenhagen to Helsingor, I am going to admit, I was more than a little concerned about another very long bike ride from Helsingborg to Lund in Sweden. This bike ride was going to be longer, the weather was looking dreary on Sunday morning, and I was a bit sore from the collision the day before (though my bruises still have nothing on Cassie’s!). However, my 40 mile bike ride was cut short in the middle…. Due not at all to biking, but a random nectarine!

If, somehow, somewhere, you get a chance to bike in Sweden, go ahead and take the opportunity. The entire class brought our bikes over to Helsingborg on the ferry. Half the class opted to take the train down the coast to Lund, but since I have a stubborn streak a mile wide and don’t like to back down from a challenge, I decided to take to the countryside (after, of course, a brief visit to yet another castle… no city seems to be without one here!)

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Karnan fortress from the bridge overlooking Helsingborg

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The city from that same bridge

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Up close and personal the fortress (unfortunately, due to time, this was as close as we could get!)

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Another picture of all our bikes, spread out across another square!

Even though the clouds were coming in strong over Helsingborg, they cleared up just after we left the city and headed south. The first half of the ride took us through much more of a rural countryside than I had biked through yet. Eventually that gave way to a sandy bike and pedestrian path along the coast that dumped us into a nice fishing marine, which turned into another trail along the coast, and finally a full separated bike lane along a “busy” road before the halfway point of Landskrona.

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Random stop in the countryside

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Beautiful marina along the coast

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The gang waiting for me when my chain fell off my bike on a hill

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Another random beautiful building

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I took a nap here on the edge of the ocean… it was a great thing

While it might seem like I bring all this up just to share some of the pictures that I managed to take (which might be partially true  ), the major point I am trying to make is that Sweden took us through almost any type of bike facility that you could dream up in about 20 miles. The ride itself was very pretty, as I already said, but it felt much different than the ride the previous day through Denmark.

If our guide, Adam, hadn’t been within sight, I certainly would have gotten lost on my way through the countryside. Wayfinding was a bit difficult. The routes were marked only with the name of the next town, not matter how small. Without a map denoting the smallest of those towns, it would have been really easy to take the “extra scenic route” (which may or may not have happened to Marc and Mindy!). Within the city of Copenhagen, I wasn’t really concerned with wayfinding, simply because everywhere we rode was either a separated bike facility on a street or a trail that followed a major road. I must admit, I wasn’t looking specifically at that between Copenhagen and Helsingor, but I don’t remember thinking how lost I felt either.

As I said earlier, the facilities varied quite a bit as well. There was a short stretch where we biked along a rural road, which is where I felt the most uncomfortable. However, compared to how I feel sharing the road in the States, I wasn’t worried at all. Drivers seemed to be very aware that bicyclists were likely to be on the route and weren’t traveling fast at all. The separated trails were really nice as well. Our route was not along an extremely busy highway, but just through the countryside. It was quiet enough to ride along next to someone and chat about anything, whether it be our views on biking infrastructure in the States or our favorite movies. The change in facilities and the overall peacefulness of the bike ride made it an excellent way to spend the day. If biking in the States was like that, I could see so many more people biking around just for fun on a Saturday.

Despite my intentions to do another 15 or 20 miles to the next city, I ended up having an allergic reaction to a nectarine when we stopped for lunch. (After some light internet research, I think I am allergic to the pollen that is in the air during the season for nectarines, peaches, and a bunch of other delicious fruits 😦 ) Three of my classmates and I ended up taking the train from Landskrona to Lund so I could get some Benedryl from another classmate in Lund.

We soon found out that multimodal trips are not quite so simple in Sweden as they were in Demark. In Copenhagen, 18 of us took our bikes on a commuter train shortly after rush hour and caused no issues, even though our bikes were overflowing into the pedestrian space on the train. When the four of us tried to board in Landskrona, we were denied entry to the first train that came due to lack of space (though it looked far from capacity where we stood on the platform). When we finally got on the second train, it was a very unpleasant journey. The car was crowded and people seemed annoyed that we would attempt to bring just four bikes into the car. When we finally caught up with the first half of the class in Lund, we learned they had just as much difficulty bringing their bikes on the train in Helsingborg.

Moral of the story: bike across the countryside in Sweden. It is gorgeous! Just make sure you know your route and don’t add a train trip unless you really need to.

To bike or not to bike: that is the question

So, according to our class, Copenhagen is really easy to bike in. The city is built for it. Roads make sense, bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians all follow the same rules, and traffic lights fill in the gaps. I was sure that out in the countryside, all of that was going to change. Without the extremely high ridership and tons of funding, biking about 30 miles from Copenhagen to Helsingor on Saturday was just going to be the worst.

Well, this is one time where I will happily admit that I was wrong! (And let’s be honest, that really doesn’t happen very often! 🙂 ) Biking up the coast proved to be one of my favorite days on the trip so far. I was a bit concerned about the ride. It was going to be the longest ride of the trip that I had done and looked intimidating on the map. Our many adventures along the way made it very comfortable and enjoyable, even with a slight accident along the way.

I have to admit, Saturday was the first moment that I really questioned the validity of NOT wearing helmets. That’s right, we haven’t been wearing helmets at all this trip. Somewhere along the gorgeous bike path next to the train line in the woods, there was a nice downhill section. Two of my classmates in front of me collided at the bottom of the hill. It had been raining and they both just fishtailed into each other. They went off in separate directions while I tried to navigate my way through the destruction (I am really happy to say that I made it all the way through the collision… It was me trying to stop on the other side after a high speed weaving section that didn’t go so well). Everyone behind said it looked pretty crazy from behind, as three of us just disappeared off the trail into the woods. Luckily, the worst thing that happened is a few bruises and some stained shirts (Guys, slug gut stains are seriously the worst). Like I said though, there was a moment between the trail and the ground that I really wanted a helmet. They are not part of the overall culture here, and that is part of what makes bicycling so accessible. Anyone can hop on a bike at any moment and go. I’m a bit scared to ask this, but what do you all think about helmets?

Aside from the slight detour I took, the trip was just fantastic! The bike trails themselves were wonderful. They were very well marked, nice and wide, and relatively flat. It was just an overall good day to be out on a bike. Since this is a class, we had to stop and see some of the attractions, I mean, learning opportunities along the way!

They turned a parking garage into a playground and workout structure! Swings and trampolines and stairs were all kid friendly, but they also had workouts posted or timers for residents of the complex that wanted to get outdoors to workout… Such a great use of space. We may have also stopped at the world’s oldest theme park…. I really can’t make up a transporation related lesson for that detour, so I will just say that it was a ton of fun! My thrill seeking self was more than happy to jump on some roller coasters around lunch time!

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This is a parking garage in one of the new developments in Copenhagen… Parking on all levels except the roof, which is a playground! Some residents were working out on the stairs doing timed intervals with the integrated timer!

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Playground at the top!

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800 year old tree outside of the world’s oldest amusement park! Nice to stop and scope it out for gnomes or something

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Got to ride this roller coaster… some people even got the memorable keychains, though that was more for Seth’s bravery than

A gorgeous ride along the coast up to Helsingor made the distance worth it. I can’t reiterate to you enough that I am NOT a cyclist at home. Short trips only. Riding in such a beautiful place, away from traffic, made all the distance worth it. Didn’t even matter. After dinner, a few of us volunteerily hopped back on our bikes to see the outside of the Hamlet castle! We might not be able to build these incredible historic castles in the States nowadays, but we can make the trips themselves as enjoyable as our journey was.

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Absolutely stunning setting at Kronborg Castle

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Biking around Kronborg Castle in Helsingor! The castle is the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Gorgeous castle… Luckily we got there for the sunset!

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Kronborg Castle

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The barracks and outbuildings outside Kronborg Castle

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This hostel was SO good! The owner was really, really kind to al of us… even let us do a load of free laundry to clean up from our minor collision earlier that day!

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Absolutely stunning sunset on the beach back at our hostel! (It was only about 10:30 by the time the sun finally started to set!)

Getting back to the big idea

This isn’t a good sign… the last two posts have been two days apart! Sorry for the extended break. I know all of you are just hanging onto the edge of your seat, waiting for updates from me! (Seriously, thank you all for reading this! I truly appreciate the interest and support from everyone at home!)

Anywho, the long break means that I have way too much to catch everyone up on! The plan is to rapid fire some shorter posts in order to get caught up! David, you might actually make it through some of these 🙂

The biggest change since the last check-in is that we did make it to Sweden! I am still deciding on my feelings towards the country…. Denmark turned out to be pretty amazing. Our last day in Copenhagen got rained out, but it gave the class a great chance to discuss all of the amazing things that we observed/learned/heard/felt about the bicycling infrastructure in the city (non-transportation nerds, this is your warning for the rant about to come!)

Personally, I LOVED bicycling in Copenhagen. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a hard core bicyclist at home by any stretch. In Copenhagen, it was so incredibly natural and easy. Getting around was just so dang efficient and safe. Cycle tracks on both sides of the street. Traffic lights for bicycles. Clearly defined rules that everyone follows. I seriously felt like an expert in just a week. The last day was a bit rainy, so I went out on a bike ride on my own in the afternoon. I am happy to say that not only did I not break any rules this time, but it just plain fun. Feeling safe and confident on a bike was one of the best things ever. One of my roommates said that she remembered why she loved biking as she moved around Copenhagen (thanks for sharing Steph!).

On a side note, the only downside to this is I have become incredibly spoiled in a very short amount of time! Tourists standing the cycle lane (which I am 100% certain I did on the first day!) were just the worst. Anything less than a raised, separated bike lane is now somewhat questionable. Sharing a bridge with traffic… ugh. (Ok, I might not be quite that bad, but it’s pretty close.)

But each of these great components of the infrastructure do not individually create a great bicycling city. One of the most difficult things for me as an engineering student is imagining how we can actually bring some of these lessons and techniques back to the States. I really don’t mean to be the Debbie Downer of the group, but I am more familiar than most of my classmates with how transportation projects are funded, the concerns of maintainence workers, the way that change in a system is handled by the public makes me more pessimistic about the level or speed at which change can be implemented at home.

That has definitely been on of the good things about this trip – bringing together students and professionals from many different backgrounds to discuss that goal. I’m happy to say that we even all get along really well while we talk about things too!

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Just one of our many great meals together… Thank you again to Henrik and Eva for your kindness and hospitality!