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

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