Los Angeles bike enthusiasts look to Rotterdam for inspiration

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Meredith Glaser is a svelte 31-year-old from Long Beach. A couple of years ago she found a job as an urban planner in Rotterdam, the second-largest city in the Netherlands. She’s learned to tolerate the wind and snow. And she’s fond of riding her bike on Rotterdam’s impressive bicycle infrastructure.

Before the second world war, Rotterdam had narrow streets and typical Dutch row houses. But in 1940, the Germans bombed it to rubble. Rotterdam was rebuilt for the car, with wide boulevards that resemble Wilshire or La Cienega. “The tragedy gave us space to redevelop the center,” explained Jeanette Baljeu, Rotterdam’s Vice Mayor in charge of transportation.

“Bicycles and cars shared the streets,” said Baljeu. But the new, wide boulevards developed problems. “Children were used to playing in the streets. They started getting run over,” explained Glaser. There were also car-versus-bike fatalities. Then came the oil crises of the 1970s. “We decided to take back space from cars to make bicycle lanes; to make it safer for all,” said Baljeu.

Rotterdam segregated the lanes with wide buffers and curbs, to keep cars far away from cyclists and pedestrians. Today, fatalities are extremely rare. Compare that to Los Angeles, where fewer than two percent ride a bike, yet 24 cyclists are killed every year.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was reminded of this in July, 2010, while riding on Venice Boulevard. The bike lane–really just a painted line along the parked cars–was blocked by a stopped cab. As the mayor tried to pass, the taxi pulled out. “I hit my head and shattered my elbow,” he explained.

That focused him on the bike Master Plan. “We did nearly 80 miles of bike lanes this year.” Villaraigosa also worked to exempt them from the morass of California environmental law. “The system’s broken when you need an environmental impact report to re-stripe a lane,” he said. Still, aside from a half-mile test project on Figueroa, there are no plans for Dutch-style protected lanes.

Long Beach has gone further, with real bike lanes on Broadway and Third that have a curb to keep scofflaw motorists from driving or parking on them. “If you remove the element of car-versus-bicycle crashes, people use bikes more,” said Long Beach’s Mayor Bob Foster.

Like Long Beach and Los Angeles, Rotterdam is part of a sprawling complex of cities. The Randstad–Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, the Hague and 30 smaller towns in the West Central Netherlands–has seven million residents spread over three-thousand square miles.
All Randstad cities have rail connections and robust bike infrastructure. Glaser enjoys giving tours of Rotterdam’s, which includes a bike-only tunnel under the Maas river.

Glaser is hopeful that one day Angelenos will build safer bike lanes. Combine Southern California’s weather with good bike infrastructure, she said, and everyone will ride. “I think California is one of the more progressive states. I think it has a promising future.”

Roger Rudick is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles. His novel, “Story of a Comfort Girl,” is available on Amazon. This piece was produced as part of KCRW’s Independent Producer Project. For more information, visit www.kcrw.com/ipp.