Amsterdam has more bikes than cars.

Multi-Modalism Is a Privilege That Too Few of Us Embrace

I traveled to Europe for the first time in October, basing in Amsterdam because I wanted to experience a city built for multi-modal transportation. How heartening to see the possibilities: adults of all ages cycling to work, ready rail service to nearby towns, having officers stop traffic so pedestrian throngs could cross the street.

A prosperous city in a country with a relatively high tax rate, Amsterdam has its priorities in order. Whether walking with my family or jogging early in the day, I was surprised by how bicyclists rule, sailing along with no apparent intention of stopping. I learned to gingerly cross roads designated for cycles, trains and pedestrians, in that order. History shows it wasn’t always so – and that Amsterdam evolved into the Bicycle Capital of the World during the later 20th century only through “fierce activism” and a growing number of pedestrian deaths.

Amsterdam has more bikes than cars.

Amsterdam has more bikes than cars, with a climate not markedly different than our own.

Back home in St. Paul, I am face to face with the reality that what Amsterdam accomplished may be impossible in the United States, where the automobile equates with status and a freedom we assume to be our birthright as Americans. Evidence?

  • Arguments online —and at Union Park District Council meetings — over remaking Ayd Mill Road into a short cut that works for cyclists and walkers, too.
  • Three years on, I still hear grumbling about the street parking lost to bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue.
  • More than 100 comments are choking NextDoor.com about the temporary protected bike lanes on Grand Avenue because they’re near Kowalski’s, a high-end grocery store that will get crowded over the holidays.

“Is the city being taken over by bicyclists?” one woman asks. “It is a disaster.” Another person laments that his trips to the Kowalski’s wine shop have been slowed down.

The lengthy debate about whether drivers ever should be inconvenienced and how many cold-weather cyclists St. Paul actually supports seems to miss a key point: The #63 Metro Transit line runs right past Kowalski’s. Couldn’t any of these frustrated drivers ride the bus?

Change is hard, and hard-won

Over eight days in Amsterdam, with a side tour to Bruges, I saw executives, older people, families, young adults and workaday folks like me walking, cycling or riding the rails. The racial and class distinctions that I observe on transit in the Twin Cities — especially on urban lines like the 21A, where I am a distinct minority, as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman — did not appear to exist.

When transit is reliable and cycling lanes are readily available, and when driving is the least convenient option, as it is in Amsterdam, middle-class people will reevaluate their use of cars. As it is, to proudly declare myself “multi-modal” in a two-vehicle family is to show the inherent privilege of that choice.

Nighttime cycling in Amsterdam

The only vehicles on the street where we stayed in Amsterdam were delivery trucks, early in the morning.

A woman my age who has to ride two buses to her job because she can’t afford a vehicle lives a life very different from my own. I walk to my job less than a mile away because I choose to. I rode the bus throughout much of the Thanksgiving weekend because I didn’t want to drive my fuel-efficient car on icy roads. That woman riding two bus lines is not “multi-modal”; she is poor or working class, getting by — and getting around —as best she can, on a Twin Cities transit system that is anything but predictable.

What difference can people of privilege make, beyond the obvious support for pro-cycling and pro-transit groups or lobbying legislators for more equitable transportation funding?

We can start, step by step — and conversation by conversation — to shift the assumption that driving everywhere is both a norm and a right, or a choice that has no consequences for the planet. That begins with education. “You can’t force this on a society that has been auto-dependent,” a neighbor told me recently. “You can urge people to use their car less. But you have to make it simple and reasonable.”

Consider these:

  • The environmental argument: Talk about vehicle emissions as a key source of climate change in Minnesota, as I did recently at a Midway Chamber of Commerce meeting when the talk turned to the dilemma of tight parking for some networking function. Let’s encourage folks to ride the bus!
  • The exercise argument: How often do people complain that they have no time to work out? Commuting by foot feeds my commitment to daily exercise, and the winter cyclists plowing their way over snow-packed roads surely have no need to hit the gym after work.
  • The multi-tasking argument: Multi-modalism can be convenient. “Text away!” says a Metro Transit ad campaign. “Be hands-on with your phone while we drive.” It’s a clever reminder that reading for work or pleasure is impossible with your hands gripping a steering wheel. Frequent bus riding is why I got a digital subscription to the New York Times.
  • The experimental argument: This one’s easy. You don’t have to do it every day. Urge car owners to try taking the bus when the weather is bad, as I did on a recent trip to the dentist. When three different office workers asked about my drive, I pointed to the cleats on my walking boots and said, “Oh, I bussed. I would never drive in an ice storm.”

Tom Ruffaner, a retired facilities supervisor at Augsburg University, told me after a transit advocacy meeting how he had organized his life around mass transit because he couldn’t afford both a house and a car. The former chair of Augsburg’s environmental concerns committee, Ruffaner talked about his “massive re-education” campaign to convince students that mass transit would help them see the city or to reassure employees that their worries about parking would be over.

I have the luxury of choosing to be multi-modal, rather than having it forced upon me out of economic circumstance. Ruffaner argues that such privilege inhibits change. People who own cars “tend to drive short distances,” he explained. “Affluence is a disability. It doesn’t challenge people to be inventive or curious. Our whole culture lives unconsciously.” Time to get woke.

About Amy Gage

Amy Gage is director of neighborhood relations at the University of St. Thomas and a member of the Union Park District Council board. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women at midlife: https://themiddlestages.com

32 thoughts on “Multi-Modalism Is a Privilege That Too Few of Us Embrace

  1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    Thanks for this essay Amy! I am seeing more progress these days than I have in the past, so am optimistic that the conversation is changing.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Maybe some of the frustrated drivers could take the bus to Kowalski’s, but how do you get a weeks worth of groceries home on the bus?

    As far as exercise driving to a gym and then walking on a heated track (or swimming or doing something else there) personally sounds a lot more fun than walking or riding a bike in the cold, sleet, and snow.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Your produce is fresher if you shop more than once a week, but there’s also no limit on how many bags you can take on the bus, to my knowledge.

      Few things are more boring than walking on a track.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Maybe there’s not a “two bags or less” sign on the bus, but can you physically carry 10 bags of groceries from the store to the bus, onto the bus, and then from the bus to you home?

        1. Andrew Evans

          Well it would be a shift. Maybe Adam can carry more than 2 or 3 bags, but most everyone else will shop smaller and more local. Thinking more along the lines of NYC. Going there a handful of times years ago, I didn’t see a large grocery store once when staying with friends in Manhattan. I’m sure they are there, but it seemed most everyone shopped at whatever local place was within a few block radius on their way home.

          I’m with you about swimming, or working out indoors. Sure it’s not for everyone, but sometimes it does beat trying to bike around outside. Also my commute to work, if on bike, wouldn’t include a shower or hot tub.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I don’t think I’ve ever purchased 10 bags of groceries. I generally do carry all of my groceries at once, from the check out to my car or bike (or, back when we lived downtown, home). But then I shop for groceries at least twice a week.

          Nonetheless, you can get yourself a cart and take it on the bus too.

    2. Mark Snyder

      I have a Cub and a food co-op where I do all of my grocery shopping. Each is roughly three-quarters of a mile from my house, though in different directions and I generally visit each of them weekly and I do this year-round.

      It’s pretty easy for me to carry my weekly purchases home with me just walking. It would be even easier physically to do so on the bus, but the walk is usually shorter than the wait for the next bus to show up.

      This probably won’t work for folks who have larger families, but it can work just fine for smaller households, if you’re willing to give it a try.

    3. Tim

      I made regular use of grocery delivery when I was carless. This was back when it was less common than it is now; today there would be even more options.

      Grocery shopping via bus is doable — I did that too sometimes — but it was certainly a hassle, and as such, I tried to only do it once a week tops.

    4. Ben W

      It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario. If non-auto transportation doesn’t work for you in one instance maybe it will work in another. This is covered in Amy’s 4th bullet point in her piece, the experimental argument.

      Biking or walking on a road you always drive, even just once if that is all you can muster, gives you a much better appreciation of your surroundings when you’re back behind the wheel. Frankly, it makes you a better driver.

      I personally love mixing up my commute between driving, busing, biking and walking.

      The benefits of walking are massive. I think most of us don’t realize what good we can do for ourselves, not just physically, but mentally and socially, by walking an extra mile or two when we can. The mile walk home with my son from his after-school activities during the week is gold.

      What did the owner of Urban Forage Winery and Cider House on East Lake ask for when they had a couple of break-ins a while back? Not cash, not more business to help recoup the losses, he asked that we walk Lake St more. More eyes on the street means less deviant behavior. I could go on and on about walking.

  3. Chris Shillock

    I must protest the Twin Cities Bus companies are amazing. This morning when the radio was full of snow warnings all over town, my 5 bus showed up right on time. I the almost 50 years I’ve lived here there’s been less than 10 times the buses were shut down.

  4. Brian

    Amsterdam’s climate is much different than ours. The average highs in the winter never drop below 40 degrees and the lows are never below freezing. The average high in the summer maxes out at 71 degrees.

    That kind of weather is much easier to bicycle in year round. No extreme cold days and no extreme hot days like we have in Minnesota.

    1. Andrew Evans

      Well and larger cities are going to be much different than the countryside. Also that quite a few European cities are just a mess when driving, they really don’t do major artery roads well sometimes. Biking, or taking public transport, may be the best if you’re living in one of them and work within a reasonable distance.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Amsterdam shifted a bunch of space that used to be dedicated to cars (in like the 1970s) and turned it over to bikes and transit, very much with the intention of making those more attractive than driving. It worked like a charm.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      We don’t have any days that are too hot to bike. We have a few days a year where it’s too cold.

      But the major obstacle to winter biking is snow removal, and the de facto practice of using bike spaces to store snow removed from car lanes.

      If we put anywhere near the resource into removing snow from bike facilities that we do cars, there’d only be a handful of days per year that weather disrupts bike commuting.

      1. Brian

        How do you deal with heat and biking such that you aren’t bothered by the heat? I would rather go biking today than on a hot summer day.

        If I rode five to ten miles on a 85+ degree day with a 65 to 70 degree dew point I would be terribly sick from the heat afterward. In most cases it would take me 24 hours to recover. I can drink gallons of water and Gatorade and still get sick.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          What kind of bicycle are you riding and how are you dressed?

          If you are leaning forward at all then you are using more energy than necessary and creating much more sweat. To avoid sweat: Ride perfectly upright (no leaning forward or weight on hands/arms), don’t wear gloves or a helmet (your head is critical for dissipation of body heat), wear loose breathable natural fabrics and ride at a slower pace. Following these guidelines you will sweat less riding a bicycle than walking.

          More: http://localmile.org/city-bikes/

          There are days when I think it’s impossible to avoid sweating but in the Twin Cities these are extremely few, at least for me. I think the key on these days is to keep it down as much as possible and most of all to reduce opportunity for bacteria (the cause of odor) to grow. Three key areas for bacteria are folds in belly skin from leaning forward, helmet hair, and sweaty palms.

          Also, a healthy diet (mostly veggies & legumes, some wine, very little dairy & meat) helps to reduce sweating. Low fat yogurt is believed to help reduce sweating.

    3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      4″-9″ snowfalls are not unusual in Amsterdam nor is it unusual to go a week or two without temps getting above freezing. The lowest temp I’ve experienced is about 10°f though I believe it gets much colder on occasion.

      Granted, this is not Minnesota weather from a longevity standpoint but it is similar over a short period and this weather has little impact on people walking and bicycling. The Dutch still manage to keep the bikeways clear of snow and people still ride.

      Oulu, Finland has a climate and weather nearly identical to the Twin Cities. Yet the vast majority of children of all ages walk, bicycle or kicksled to school throughout the year. The bikeways are packed all year with people riding to work, dinner or groceries. Cold and snow don’t stop them like they appear to stop Minnesotans.

      https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/12/ice-cycles-northerly-world-cities-winter-bicycle-revolution

      There are dozens of more articles about bicycling in Oulu if you search.

      I ride throughout the year (on protected bikeways around the Twin Cities) so long as temps are above about +10°f.

      More: https://streets.mn/2015/08/26/its-too-hilly-cold-hot-far-snowy-and-uncultured-to-ride-a-bicycle-here/

      Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans are outside in the winter doing construction work, skiing, walking, making snowmen, shoveling drives and many other things. Why is riding a bicycle so different?

      1. Andrew Evans

        Walker, how long is the average bike commute there? Then, how long would a normal longer commute be for someone to go to work?

        I’m guessing there aren’t as many people (using here as an example) driving in from a place 20-30 miles out like Hudson or New Richmond WI. Or even people like myself that go 16 miles to work.

        Just wondering.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          It varies quite a bit. I think the average is about 3-4 miles each way. Fietsberaad had a great chart that I can’t find but showed falloff based on distance. Any trip under about 3 miles each way would always be walk/bike. At around 6 miles about 70% of trips were walk/bike and it started falling off fairly quickly beyond that. So yeah, most Dutch would not ride 16 or 20 or 30 miles each way to work every day.

          A buddy of mine use to ride from Assen to Groningen every day which I believe was about 20 miles each way. Most people would not ride the every day but many will and it is not unusual or anything that would raise an eyebrow. Overall quite flat except for one bridge though.

          A lot of people have one bicycle at home and another where they work. They ride their bicycle to the station, train to near work and then bicycle to work. Reverse on the way home. This is why train stations often have parking for hundreds or thousands of bicycles. Most commuter trains have bicycle hangers just inside the doors so it’s easy to take your bicycle with you as well.

          1. Andrew Evans

            That makes sense, thanks Walker!

            One thing that struck me as odd was when watching a French house hunting show, which had the area of Niems as it’s focus. There was a couple looking for a home, and they were fine commuting into the city for work from around a 20 mile radius or so. Not sure I could stay sane and do that, and more than likely with their roads that wouldn’t be possible on bike.

            On the flip side, visiting Slovakia, we got to see pretty large apartment blocks in small towns. They really don’t do suburbs, or any suburbs outside of 10 miles. It’s all built up small towns or larger cities that are pretty dense.

            1. Monte Castleman

              In the U.S. house hunting shows are pure fiction. The couple has already bought one of the houses and chances are the other two houses belong to friends and neighbors rather than actually being for sale and they make up a good back story and manufacture drama for the couple. The time required for real house hunting is so long it would make production prohibitively expensive and two couples that have office jobs and agree on what and where they want to live doesn’t make for good TV. I’d assume French house hunting shows are fiction too.

              That said it seems that in some ways the French are more like Americans than some other Europeans. Looking at Nîmes there’s plenty of single family detached houses around it and witness the yellow vest protests over fuel taxes.

              1. Andrew Evans

                Monte… I’m sure parts of the show were made for tv, although I doubt the commute was, and in the example I’m thinking of the homes were pretty realistic. Well realistic other than everything there seems expensive and we’re not sure how people are able to afford properties.

                The yellow vest protests brought a lot of things to the forefront. Yes it was fuel taxes, but also (IMO) that people there who don’t live in Paris start to get upset when Paris decides to dictate to them how they should live. So it’s a little deeper than solely the gas tax, but that was the last straw.

                On a side note the French baking show Le Meilleur Pâtissier is much better than the Great British one, although sadly it doesn’t stream anywhere. Also sadly their show about people going to each others homes for Christmas themed dinners isn’t streaming here, but is hilarious.

            2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

              Yeah, and to Adam’s point below, cultures outside of the U.S. have a very different idea of development. They view development as a village – a central core of retail/office/residential with residential/education surrounding it. They approach all development as if walking/biking were the primary expected mode of xport.

              Higher density residential will either be within the core or directly adjacent with declining density as you move further out. Schools will typically be slightly out from the core but usually within maybe 1km – convenient for the majority of students to walk/bike but not too close to retail.

              In The Netherlands this is part of their Vinex policy.

              Kloosterveen is a Vinex suburb that I’ve visited a numerous times. It is very far from perfect as the center core feels almost fortress like and the ring roads within are too high speed but it is massively better than anything I’ve ever seen in the U.S.

              I think Houten NL is viewed as the ideal model and what is now copied across The Netherlands and increasingly across Europe.

              Some countries kind of went towards our suburban model for a brief bit but most or all have now begun using more of a village/vinex model which is not just more sustainable but more desired and so commands a higher value.

              1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

                I do not believe that this (https://streets.mn/2018/09/19/good-vs-bad-density/) would be allowed in The Netherlands or many countries in Europe. It is too far from any retail core for its density.

                They would expect that the vast majority of people would walk/bike for groceries, pharmacy, school and some bit of meals out and that would not happen here because of distance and that it is not directly connected/adjacent to the central core retail district.

              2. Andrew Evans

                I’d imagine that part of the longer commutes we have here are because, and maybe I’m partly wrong, our tax structure and borders are different – although I think the EU and whatever S word zone it is changed some of this.

                Go 20 miles away from me in WI and there is a different tax structure than in MN, so it may be advantages for people to cross the border for work. I’m not sure how much of that goes on in Europe, maybe more now, but with language barriers and stuff I’d think it’s a little more segregated.

                Also that different cities have different tax rates or amenities that may make it more appealing to live outside of a main city.

                Although with that I’m assuming the tax rates in European countries are more or less standard city to city.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          There aren’t as many people driving from the equivalent of Hudson or New Richmond because they, much more wisely than us, didn’t dedicate huge subsidies to driving those distances.

  5. Ben

    I never have a problem walking year round in Minneapolis due to the temperature. I have clothes designed for all temperature ranges as do most Minnesotans who like to be active year round. It was actually quite lovely to walk in the -5 degree weather this morning with my dog. Very serene and beautiful with the fresh snow and crisp, fresh air.

    My dog loves walking year round too and she’s prepared for the worst with her fur undercoat she grew and her high end dog coat that cost as much as mine.

    Some people in Minneapolis need to shovel their walks however.

    I feel bad for the less able bodied that have reduced mobility during the winter because of the non-shoveled sidewalks from these law-breaking property owners.

  6. Paul Nelson

    Thank you, Amy Cage for writing this essay:

    “Arguments online —and at Union Park District Council meetings — over remaking Ayd Mill Road into a short cut that works for cyclists and walkers, too.
    Three years on, I still hear grumbling about the street parking lost to bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue.
    More than 100 comments are choking NextDoor.com about the temporary protected bike lanes on Grand Avenue because they’re near Kowalski’s, a high-end grocery store that will get crowded over the holidays”

    I see no problem with moving an auto to and around Kowalski’s – it is easy. I think the protected bike lanes on Grand, part of which is parking protected, are great.

    I would love to visit any city in the Netherlands. Amsterdam and other places look beautiful in photos and videos. Oulo, Finlind has the same climate we have – nice views on video there too for the bicycle. For over 20 years I walked and biked to Kowalksi’s on Grand when I lived in west Frogtown.

    Thank you again.

  7. Brian

    For me a trip by bike to a grocery store would be two hours round trip. Walking would take almost as long as a typical work day after including the time to shop. Forget about a bus trip as by the time I walked or biked to the nearest bus stop I would have passed at least one grocery store.

    Now, the bike option is not unworkable on a decent day if one has the time. It is good exercise. The county just installed an 8 foot shoulder on the highway to encourage biking. Of course, that wide shoulder means drivers tend to speed even more. Drivers also don’t pay attention as much when there is a wide shoulder as they have space to recover if they drift right.

    Transit sucks on a day like today. I spent about 20 minutes standing outside at bus stops this morning and I’ll spend probably 15 minutes waiting outside this afternoon. My exposed skin was very cold by the time the buses came. It would have been much more comfortable to just drive to work. I understand why a lot of people drive. I also waste three hours plus per week just waiting for buses.

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