All posts by Robert Richey

Biking Dutch

A discussion of what makes Dutch cycling so unique

The Netherlands’ incredible cycling infrastructure and culture resonated with me the most during our time there. It never ceased to amaze me because it is such a stark contrast to anything I have seen or experienced in the United States.

An example of the vast amount of bike parking available in the Netherlands. This underground parking complex was located right outside of a train station.

My home town is Charlotte, NC and if there is one thing we are good at it is, like most American cities, designing for the automobile. Probably 95% of Charlotteans live in the suburbs, including me. Although I am only ten minutes to downtown by car, it would take me at least an hour to walk, longer to figure out which bus could take me there, and risk my life to bike there. Everywhere I go in Charlotte I am forced to take a car. So biking in the Netherlands was a novel experience and one that taught me many lessons I hope Charlotte can learn from as well. The Dutch cycling culture is something I have vaunted ever since I arrived home.

The very idea of biking in The Netherlands is decades ahead of what it means to the typical American. Here it is not thought of as a mode of transport but instead as a form of exercise- primarily performed by people with enormous quads decked out in skin-tight suits and aerodynamic helmets on wheels with the thickness of a pencil. The Dutch don’t think of cycling as anything special, it is simply the most practical way to get around. Given this mindset, cycling is ingrained in nearly every facet of Dutch society. City planning has made traveling by bike easy, safe, and preferred.

A typical street in The Hague which was suited for multiple forms of transportation. The bike lanes are clearly distinguished from the car lanes with color and double white lines. The tram and cars shared the other portion of the street.

There are many small and large ideas that the Dutch have integrated to create this cycling culture. The first and most noticeable is the ubiquity of bike lanes. They exist on nearly every road and if they are not present it is for one of two reasons. One, the nature of the street is such that cars travel at slow speeds and it is understood bikes and cars share the road. This understanding is created by the design of the street. In The Hague it was typical of a street like this to be narrow and layered with brick or a material other than black pavement. Two, if bike lanes are not present on a street than there are most likely alternative routes for bikes that are safer and just as fast, if not faster. We learned about cycling superhighways that are located in The Netherlands and we experienced cyclist-only routes that were alternatives to highways that bikes were not allowed on.

On a large scale the omnipresence of lanes is important but it only works because of the details the Dutch have taken care of on the street level. The most important of which is the different color treatment bike lanes receive compared to the road. Throughout the Netherlands, we saw bike lanes that were a burnt-red to separate them from the automobile lanes. Something as simple as a color change makes cyclists feel safer and more comfortable riding in such close proximity to cars. In Charlotte, while we do have some bike lanes, they are the same color as the car lanes. Consequently, drivers drift in the bike lanes, cyclists don’t use the lanes, and it is as if they did not exist. The Netherlands show that something so seemingly trivial, is imperative for a successful cycling network. Moreover, cyclists are given their own traffic signals to create an efficient traffic flow and keep cyclists safe. Other details include wider lanes, extensive bike parking, shorter routes via tunnels and cut-throughs, and protected or separated lanes when necessary.

This path ran alongside a highway. Alternative routes like this existed when it did not make sense to include bike lanes on a busy road, like a highway.

I hope Charlotte can learn from the Netherlands. Creating a comfortable and successful cycling network is beneficial economically, socially, and environmental. In the Netherlands it doesn’t take facts and statistics to understand that either. It is clearly evident in the everyday life and observation of the incredible Dutch cycling culture.

-Duncan Richey

Amsterdam’s Canals: History and Uses Today

A reflection on our tour of Amsterdam’s canal system

The iconic image of Amsterdam is not without its canals. Amsterdam is a city of canals, often dubbed the “Venice of the North.” They tell the story of its growth as the city relied on this extensive canal system to transport people and goods before modern transportation technologies existed. However, Amsterdam’s canals still serve useful purposes and they still define the city we visited on Thursday during our canal tour.

The view of a canal from one of Amsterdam’s hundreds of bridges. Private boats that are used by residents to get around line the edges.

Most of the canal system that exists today was constructed in the 17th century, during the Dutch Golden Age. Three concentric semi-circles were built around the medieval city center and were labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. As the centuries went on hundreds of narrow streets and narrow canals developed to create an expansive canal system. Some portions of the canal were constructed for military purposes while others existed for trade, water management, or residential purposes. Today there are about 1,500 bridges in the Amsterdam area.

The canal cruise company we used. There were a large number of different companies in the city center. Some offered regular tours and others offered fine dining, drinks, and more with the canal tour.

The canals today are primarily a way to transport around the city. A municipal water bus services a few routes throughout the city that locals and visitors use. From my observations during the tour, the canals are used for tourism more so than general transportation. Many canal tour companies lined the water outside of the central train station. Canal tours are an important part of Amsterdam’s tourism economy, carrying more than 3 million passengers each year. Historic buildings and landmarks line the canals making a thriving tourism industry. Most of the boats we passed on the canal were other canal tour services. However, there were a good number of pedestrian boats on the canals, both personal boats and water buses.

An example of a larger houseboat on the canal. The houses behind it are famous for being crooked.

Our tour guide also mentioned the canals are used for public events and special celebrations held for the city. Each year there is a celebration that, as one of the traditions, involves hundreds of locals going for a swim in the canals. In the wintertime, the canals are used for ice skating. Hundreds of years later, the canal system is an integral part of the social and economic life of Amsterdam. Finally, the canals are also home to hundreds of houseboats. These houses are permanently anchored along the canal edges and they are plentiful.

The large canal just in front of the main train station (not pictured) where we began our tour. Two other tourist boats float before us.

The canal tour demonstrated the unique way Amsterdam grew. It was constructed with canals in mind, not cars and roads like most American cities. While dredging up canals is not something American cities should invest in, there are lessons to be learned from Amsterdam’s land use planning. The canals have forced Amsterdam to develop narrow, walkable streets. The city and its population are dense, creating a vibrant city center that attracts people and businesses. The canals are coupled with strong biking and streetcar systems to create a multi-modal transportation system that makes it easy to navigate the city in a clean, efficient way. American planners can learn a lot from Amsterdam’s development for how it has created a world-renowned and sustainable city.

-Duncan Richey

IKA and the German Middelstadt: A Model for Economic Stability

We explored a Mittelstand company and what makes similar companies Germany’s economic backbone

Our day surrounded the idea of the German “Mittelstand.” These are small to medium sized companies that are family owned for multiple generations and their annual profits do not exceed €5 billion. Some other characteristics of Mittelstand companies include being incredibly innovative, leaders in their respective industries, keeping out of the public eye, and focusing on the long term stability of the company rather than enjoying short term profits.

As the professor from Innovation Academy and Dr. Gangi informed us, Mittelstand companies make up around 60% of jobs in Germany. What is even more incredible concerning the Mittelstand is it’s sustainability. By most metrics Germany is not an innovative country. In a list of entrepreneurial countries Germany is rarely at the top among the likes of Israel and the United States, countries that have many start ups and are celebrated for their numerous entrepreneurs. However, in an age of constant innovation and globalization Mittelstand companies remain at the top of their industries globally. Dr. Gangi told us Mittelstand companies are incredibly innovative and reinvent themselves to ensure their place in an always changing global market.

The Mittelstand is a business culture that is studied by many economists and businesses worldwide but is difficult to reproduce anywhere but Germany. They have allowed Germany to remain a top global economic player. In fact, Dr. Gangi joked that recessions should be German companies’ business strategy because numerous studies have shown German companies expand their market share shortly after an economic downturn. Their stability, focus on long term goals, and strategy of scaling back hours not firing workers allow them to hit the ground running before other companies following a recession.

In the afternoon after our visit to the market we visited a Mittelstand company called IKA. It was originally a drug store when it started in 1910 before developing and reinventing into the laboratory equipment and technology manufacturer it is today. It is now owned by the fourth generation of the family that founded IKA. The company employs 800 people on four continents and leads the world market for most of its product groups.

IKA was the Middelstadt company we toured today. They showed us many of their laboratory equipment and we learned some of the company’s history.

IKA officials gave us a tour of their different products in their experimentation room. Unfortunately, they did not allow us to take pictures inside their facility. They walked us through their many product groups including shakers, centrifuges, grinders, magnetic spinners, heating baths, photo bioreactors, calorimeters, and many other instruments. It displayed their innovation and impressive product field that keeps IKA at the top of its field. Like many Mittelstand companies IKA enjoys incredible notoriety in its chosen niche but is not well known to the general public.

Our visit lasted for a few hours and ended with banana milkshakes made using IKA equipment. The German Mittelstand is a model for economic sustainability and will hopefully inspire other US companies to adopt similar values and goals.

-Duncan Richey