I had the pleasure to once again visit the G-spot of Bicycle Culture - Groningen in the north of the Netherlands last week. The occasion was to speak at the Let's Gro Festival and to have some meetings with the City. I decided to take my kids with me for the trip south. Because I like bringing my kids with me but also because I was curious. I wanted to see what two Copenhagen kids thought about cycling in a Dutch city or two (we also visited Amsterdam afterwards).
Regular readers will remember how Lulu-Sophia (now aged six) outed herself as the World's Youngest Urbanist - and again here, as well as describing her wish for a Life-Sized City.
Felix, at 11 years, is no rookie either when it comes to observing his urban theatre. He was the inspiration for my idea to get his third grade class to redesign the roundabout outside their school - as described in my TED x Talk from Zurich last year. He constantly impresses me with the conversations we have about urban planning and his anthropological observations.
We spent a brilliant two weeks in Barcelona a couple of summers ago. Riding bicycles all over the place on their infrastructure. It was interesting to see them react to that city, so why not Groningen and Amsterdam, too.
Danish or Dutch... it's all good. It's all inspiring the world regarding bicycle infrastructure and mainstream bicycle culture. I just wanted to see how two kids from one of the world's best bicycle cities, where they cycle every day, would react to the Bicycle Capital of the World, and to Amsterdam.
Culturally and socially, Denmark and the Netherlands are cousins. So many aspects of life are so incredibly similar that you often feel that you're in the same country. Indeed, one of the most fundamental differences that I've been able to come up with is that in the Netherlands they cover a slice of bread with chocolate sprinkles, whereas in Denmark we have thin chocolate wafers designed to fit the average slice and lay cleanly on top of it.
We were met at the station by two friends from the City of Groningen - Jeroen and Annet - on a chilly evening. Rental bikes had been arranged from the train station parking facility and we pedalled off to the hotel. It's a small city so it wasn't far. It was around 17:45 so the streets were still lively. Felix rode up front with our hosts while I tailed The Lulu to make sure she had her brain wrapped around her new bike. She did.
Upon arrival, Felix delivered his first observation.
"I was a bit nervous riding on the cycle track from the station and then through the city. There were all these pedestrians trying to cross so I had to watch out for them. Oh, and there are loads of ladies bikes."
It's worth mentioning that I merely asked a question. I never lead the kids on to get them to think too much about such stuff. I only want pure observations. If they don't have any, then they don't have any and I leave it at that. So Felix even noticing the style of bicycles was an added bonus, and an interesting one, too.
In the evening on the second day, after we had been riding a lot more around the city, I asked if there were any more observations.
Felix had put some thought into it.
Felix: "It's like I feel more secure cycling in Copenhagen."
Mikael: "You weren't scared?"
Felix: "No, no, not at all. I just feel more secure." (Here he used a Danish word "tryg", which doesn't mean safe, but rather indicates a sense of security) "I don't need to worry about pedestrians suddenly crossing the cycle track. And here, the cyclists don't signal when they're turning or stopping like they do in Copenhagen. And the cars don't either."
Mikael: "The cars don't signal?"
Felix: "Many didn't".
Mikael: "Jeroen signalled turns all the time, didn't he?"
Felix: "That's just because he was at the front and he was showing us that we're turning because we didn't know the way."
Mikael: "But generally you like it?"
Felix: "Yeah! It's cool!"
Mikael: "What do you think, Lulu?"
Lulu: "I like it because I can look around and see the city and the people."
Mikael: "Don't you do that in Copenhagen, too?"
Lulu: "Yeah, but it's different here because it's another city in another country."
Okay. Good point.
Lulu: "I don't like those bumpy stones."
Felix had more to offer.
Felix: "It's like in Copenhagen I know where I'm supposed to be and where everyone else is supposed to be. Here, I don't know who is coming in front of me all of a sudden. At intersections, some people turn on the right side of you and some turn on the left, cutting in front of you. There isn't a lot of... um... structure."
Lulu: "What's structure?"
Mikael: "It's like in your room when it's clean and everything is in it's place. The socks are in the socks drawer, your dresses are in your dress drawer and stuff like that."
Lulu: "That's not often."
Felix: "But Copenhagen is a big city. Groningen isn't. Maybe you need more structure in a big city."
Mikael: "What about when we were riding on streets with cars and buses? You kept checking back at me and Lulu to make sure we saw the car coming, didn't you? You called out "car!" a couple of times to let us know."
Felix: "Yeah, but they weren't going very fast. I was just making sure Lulu was on the right side."
Good big brother.
The kids loved it. It was a brilliant visit with lovely hosts. The kids even survived my keynote speech and the meetings. They're observations were interesting to me. They come from an orderly bicycle structure with emphasis on space for each mode - like a cleanly designed chocolate wafer that fits the bread and they got to experience random chocolate sprinkles all over the place. It all tastes good, but it's different.
On the Saturday morning we headed to Amsterdam to visit friends. We got bikes from our friends at Black Bikes (best place to rent a bike in Amsterdam unless you want to look like a tourist). Felix had his own bike and Lulu and I rode an Onderwater tandem for an adult and a kid. We rode around the city and visited the science museum, Nemo. In the evening, I asked them for their impressions.
Felix: "It's kind of like a mix of Copenhagen and Groningen. Copenhagen feels more like a big city. Amsterdam is like a village, but still a bit like a city. I guess Amsterdam is like 60% Copenhagen and 40% Groningen, or something."
Mikael: "What else did you notice?"
Felix: "Why did we have to push buttons to cross streets on bikes?"
Mikael: "Good question."
Felix: "We had to watch out for lots of pedestrians, like in Groningen. Oh, and nobody signals here, either. And nobody rings bells here."