Not in the city of bikes with Pete Jordan—Portland, Amsterdam, and bikeability

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My map of Amsterdam from an October 2012 visit

In his second book, In the City of Bikes, Pete Jordan describes Amsterdam cyclists as anarchist everyday heroes who take one thing primarily for granted, like air, or, for Americans, cars, or maybe “freedom.” That thing is, of course, the bike, and to be able to ride it in their city without being physically endangered, or otherwise impeded by, cars. The first thing is riding a bike, everything else is unimportant: red lights, helmets, working lights, car-only streets, even an art museum’s insistence on using part of its space for art, as though that were something separate and opposed to bike commuting. He identifies a cycle, if you will, that has appeared over and over again since the bike began to define the city in the 1890s:

—Police authorities declare cyclists to be out of control

—Police officers issue citations to biking scofflaws

—Cyclists initially voice shock and dissent

—Cyclists ultimately acquiesce and become more law-abiding

—A few months or a year after the campaign, police declare victory and terminate the crackdown

—Cyclists—slowly but surely—resume their disorderly riding habits

—Eventually, police authorities declare cyclists to be out of control

—The cycle repeats


He quotes a medical student who explained why he blasted through red lights: “I just think that the rules here are so evolved that it’s actually permitted.” Broken windows theories be damned, Jordan seems to be arguing, cyclists do what they think is right regardless of whether everybody is doing it. Speaking from my own experience riding a bike in a variety of cities, this makes perfect sense. Legislating and enforcing paternalistic safety requirements for bicyclists for their supposed benefit is absurd since the most self-evident paths to cyclist safety are reducing car traffic and increasing bike traffic. A friend who lives in Seattle was explaining to me their adult helmet law, an anomaly of the progressive American city, which encourages safer biking, but also discourages helmetless biking, and therefore somebody who might otherwise be on the street on a bike. In my mind the potential visibility of the dissuaded helmet-less biker is infinitely more valuable than a helmet. A joke comes to mind that I heard repeated on the Bike Portland podcast (then Portland Afoot), about making people wear helmets in sidewalk dining areas, or the ones increasingly replacing parking spots in the street itself. Those who don’t think they are always about to be hit by a car are more likely to be hit by a car, regardless of helmet wearing, sufficient lighting, reflectors, etc. I’m no psychologist, this may be paranoid thinking, but, to me, wearing a helmet creates the illusion that bicyclists are more like cars than people—they have a kind of fender on their heads after all. Automobile culture’s insistence that bicyclists protect themselves from cars is a kind of defensive act, shedding the blame by insisting that a bicyclist’s vulnerability is a function of his or her irresponsibility NOT the inherently violent nature of hurling a ton of metal at 30 miles an hour mere feet from where people garden, yards from where they sleep, and in the precise spots where they amble along peacefully by the power of their own pedaling.

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The account of the medical student is one of the book’s hundreds of quotes from newspaper articles and primary sources. Jordan’s exhaustion of his subject is at once impressive and utterly accessible. The writing is great and unpretentious and full of inspiration for the budding urban planner or daily cyclist. I am neither, simply because there are days I only leave the house to walk the dog, and I don’t think I can have a civil conversation with a developer (is that a pun?). What I do do, as did Pete Jordan once, is work menial jobs, spend as little money as possible, and self-publish writing about it. So while there is so much that is interesting to me about my experience of reading the Belmont Branch of the Multnomah County Library’s copy of In the City of Bikes, it is the perceived ability to see a version of my future self, and be in his head for four hundred pages, that is most captivating element of the book.

Essentially the question becomes: what does a twenty-something vaguely anarchistic self-published writer do when he’s forty, and how do those choices reflect his worldview, and vice versa?

It’s really great to see one of us, so to speak, New-York-published—the voice of the little guy mainstream and mass-marketed, a little bit of the shelf devoted to unacademic, unjournalistic, non-Iowa-fiction-workshop non-fiction (more on this). It’s a compromise between the comprehensive, authorial feeling mainstream publishing gives with the individualistic, subversive authenticity we associate with Pete Jordan’s story. In many ways it is a perfect story. We of the next generation decide who are the heroes are from the last, and we can follow their choices to reach their successes—by doing so we may even develop their individual paths into roles, new templates for existence.

In other words, I can’t complain that Pete Jordan is writing books for Harper Perennial and not distributing xeroxed pamphlets about the history of cyclist activism to bikers stopped in the green paint at major intersections in Portland—because that’s my job for the present and indeterminate future. So, for those of you who don’t wish to read this ‘zinester graduate tome about the history of bike riding in Amsterdam, I am pleased to share some salient moments from the book that relate to Jordan’s former residence, whose bike future is somewhat in the air at present: Portland, Oregon.

Of course, America and Holland are vastly different, especially when it comes to modes of transportation. So when Portland and Amsterdam both fought the increased presence of and deference to cars in their cities in the 1970s it was because, in Amsterdam, cars were beginning to reshape city life, and, in the United States, because californicating freeway enthusiasts wanted to destroy neighborhoods by demolishing houses entire blocks at a time. The Dutch were resisting the Americanization of urban space; Portlanders were resisting a perverse Disneyland-esque cartopia that endeavored to put a freeway within ear’s distance of every part of the city. However, to be anti-freeway is not to be anti-car—to be the latter would be blasphemy, as was being anti-freeway in the Eisenhower Administration. For this reason, the story of Amsterdam, through its story of bicycles, is a kind of fable to bike riders of these United States.

Indeed, much of Jordan’s book sounds fabalistic: a Dutch princess disallowed to ride a bicycle in the 1890s until she turned 18, at which time she could be seen about town ecstatically pedaling her cruiser; the bicycle-imbued and -powered resistance to the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam; people employed full-time to fish bicycles out of the canals; and a dada-inspired anarchist movement in the ’60s against the proliferation of cars that ultimately turned the tide of urban policy back toward bicyclists by the 1980s. That a generation of individuals who value the ability to ride a bike in a city prevailed in creating sweeping change is a fable, as is the very idea, to Americans, that in the Netherlands nobody wears helmets; that a population of bicyclists could ban cars from streets through activism is an utter fantasy in America, just as is the idea of riding your bike and feeling safe.

Cycling in Amsterdam took a turn for the worst in the ’60s as car use doubled. An article entitled “Safety of Cyclist Exists Only in His Dreams” (p. 293) quotes a 56-year-old office worker, who tells the reporter, “Mister, when I’m riding my bike, I’m never sure of my life.” Upon arriving safely every day at the end of his half-hour commute he “heaves a sigh of relief.” I’m sure Amsterdam at its worst is still America at its best, which is what we presumably are experiencing in Portland.

Another journalist, writing in 1971, was asked to commute by bike for a month instead of by car as he usually did, and write about his findings. Pieter Niehorster found, “the cyclist is the stepchild of the big city” (p. 345). He found that “motorized transport is pampered. The cyclists must suffer at every turn. Therefore, cycling in Amsterdam means riding in a city that is consciously pumping more and more carbon monoxide into its air. Its no picnic.”

Another fantasy, Jordan later provides, is a picnic—in the middle of a freeway. This was after military support of Israel during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1973 led to sanctions against the Netherlands and United States, and oil shortages in both countries. The Netherlands did such unheard of things as banning Sunday driving for non-essential professionals, which gave anti-car advocates the symbolic power to pedal the freeways, and one imaginative group of youths to hold a picnic in the middle of one. “When three squad cars eventually arrived to move the picnickers along, the youths initially resisted,” writes Jordan, quoting one who shouted “Wait, we’re not ready. We haven’t cooked our French fries!” (p. 355).

So, too in Portland were the early ’70s a time of revolt against car dominance and the phenomenon it leached upon: suburban development. Portlanders said no to both, and federal funds were reallocated to fund light-rail. Movement was created to ensure livability and limit the effects of post-war automania. That’s no fantasy, and its the pride of any Oregonian to know it happened.

Bicycle advocacy has come a long way since the 1970s, and Portland has been at the forefront in this country of integrating bikeability into its vision for the future, and I don’t wish to generalize about a history I am not wholly familiar with. However, the pro-development current administration, and cultural barriers to how far bikeability can disrupt car traffic, are making the present moment in Portland seem very similar to Amsterdam in the ’70s.

I ride the world-famous SE Clinton Street Bike Boulevard for most any trip I take, as do most people who live east of the river and south of Mt. Tabor when they head toward the city center. It is a crucial route that funnels through a diagonal bisection of Ladd’s Addition onto the Hawthorne Bridge. However, it also runs parallel to Division Street a mere two blocks away. For any out of towners trying to visualize what this means: Division Street is the street that Pok Pok is on, and so Clinton Street has become the street that tourists try to park on while circling the block. This quaint neighborhood had a half dozens condos dropped on it, with little parking provided for their new denizens, and it has become an internationally reputed restaurant scene. And an ice cream place that is now a chain, whose northern location was visited by Joe Biden, the Vice President.


In other words: big fucking deal! The downside is mostly related to motorist microaggressions that I would prefer to do without as I share the world famous SE Clinton Street Bike Boulevard with Mercedes SUVs about to drop $200 at the world famous street-cart-turned-Anthony-Bourdain-shooting-location. I’m not bitter, I swear. It’s an opportunity to show, as was done in August, that bikes and the people that ride them matter, and can influence the way we envision and live in our city.

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Riding a bike in Amsterdam is no longer a revolutionary gesture, but we can learn from the activists who made it one in the 1970s. We can learn from the proclamation of one, “Death to the holy cow, away with it! There’s but one solution for the parking problem: shove those cars out of the city. An end must be put to the terror of the so-called experts who believe that the city can’t be closed off [to cars]. Nonsense. It’s not me but they who are radical. What’s more radical than continually tearing down chunks of the city to appease the traffic?” (p. 349). And then, “capitalism has become so dependent on the automobile that if you battle the car, you’re fighting the system.” If that was true for Amsterdam in the ’70s, imagine how much more that means in this country.

Riding a bike is not only empowering because it takes you with something that the dadaist Provo group endearingly referred to as “almost nothing,” and lets you go anywhere, only constricted by where cars may it too dangerous to go, with no bus fare, no gasoline, almost nothing. But riding a bike is so much more empowering since it allows individuals expression of their values—day-to-day life in this country alienates liberal Americans from belief in environmentalism, walkable, safe neighborhoods, equality (people are mostly known to each other through an expensive commodity, or lack thereof), and even the notion that a healthy, active lifestyle can be integrated into their daily lives. So while I feel threatened to a certain extent when I ride down Clinton with a truck rumbling behind me, or a tourist pulling out in front of me, I recognize my physical presence on a bike to be a message that I as a human individual have a right to coast at 10 miles per hour in this street, just as they as individuals have the right to go 40 on Powell 5 short blocks away. I can’t be bitter about people driving cars to do what they think’s important, just as I can’t blame Jordan for writing a mass market paperback instead of a handmade treatise on bike advocacy.

It’s not Dishwasher Pete’s job anymore to distribute radical information about improving life for the little guy—it’s ours.



One thought on “Not in the city of bikes with Pete Jordan—Portland, Amsterdam, and bikeability

  1. I’m still stuck in the ironic riddle of the relationship of my environmentalist/anti-capitalist stance to the car. I’m happy enough to, and do, ride the bus and bike a lot of places I go for my daily life within the city of Portland. But as you know, the car, or rather, the truck, is for me not simply a symbol of economic prosperity or totemic freedom, but is my actual lifeline and only back-up plan in case of unknown disaster or simple series of unfortunate events that could potentially dislodge me from my home and current meager livelihood. Without a job that pays more than just enough to pay bills with, it’s tough to have any vision of reasonable survival should anything suddenly disrupt my stasis. So I have a fucking truck, because me and sophie could live in it if we had to, and we could survive anywhere, and we wouldn’t be trapped somewhere. When the car isn’t used for daily rush-hour transport of the worker-flesh to the work factory and back home again, it can be a powerful tool. It can go across the lines, diagonal, off pavement, stay put in a secret spot. Without my truck, I would not feel secure in this world, because if you have a truck, you can’t be homeless. If you have a truck, you can take your dog and get the fuck out of there if you have to. The possibility of not being able to do that is the scariest thing I can imagine. *

    Trucks, however, ain’t great for all those natural resources I’m apparently so passionate about preserving. Besides needing my physical safety and emotional independence ensured at all times by the fact that I have a four wheeled home with a sleeping bag and extra batteries inside it I can hop into at a moment’s notice, truck is most important to me because I explore forests. You need truck to explore forests with dog. There is no other way to do it. I don’t need truck to drive around the city, even though I do it sometimes. I need it to drive OUT of the city. Out. Remember what John Muir said about how to convince people to strive to protect wild lands? He told people to GO to them. Go to the wilderness, and you will learn its value and want to protect it. But what about the fact that now, people GOING to the wilderness is the thing destroying it? Even in the time since I was a kid, backpacking has become insanely more popular, and its hard to find a “wilderness” area without a trailhead parking lot packed even on a wednesday (the way that camping supplies and gear is sold and marketed now is another subject that deserves attention). Even if people follow the rules, “wilderness” is sensitive land that’s supposed to be left free of the print of human’s foot (Whether or not that’s a valid philosophical or ethical perspective is also something that needs a lot of delving into), and heavy traffic essentially damages it, and then causes the area to have to shut down to be restored. Even without going to wilderness areas, just driving ( a lot, a long way, in trucks and four wheel drive jeeps) to go into the woods is a problem, isn’t it? But what should we be doing? We have to go to the woods to save it, but our going there destroys it?

    *As I was writing this sentence two gentleman laughingly inquired as to whether I was “creating an app.” I laughed and was like “WTF??” and they were like “the vest fooled us.” I am currently dressed exactly like an Oregon grandpa; maybe the fact that I have glasses now makes it look ‘tech-hip’??? lolololol.

    P.S. I’m experimenting with long form discourse. Thoughts also welcome on this tactic.

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