Tag Archives: bicycles

Traveling in Europe: Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Holland, travel, bikes, bicyclists

Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a place of contradictions. It was large, in terms of things to see and do, and small in terms of area, though I still managed to walk a good seven hours one day, getting lost on the wrong side of canals. It was cosmopolitan but kind of dirty because of so many people, the sidewalks and streets sporting numerous stains and dead gum and just general grime. I find that cities of this size end up with the group mentality issue. Like mob mentality, this massive city entity is one of mindless automatons, people all trying to get to where they’re going, without willing to move or adapt or politely let someone by. I cannot stand crowds for this reason; not because there are a lot of people but because there are a lot of people being mindless and self-absorbed and not trying to work with the whole. Drives me nuts.

Amsterdam, travel, transportation, trams, bikes

One of Amsterdam’s trams

But…I maneuvered through the flight to the train and from the train station to the tram, even though the police gave me the wrong directions. There are plenty of trams and buses, and getting around is easy, as long as you watch out for bike lanes. I did blunder twice into a bike lane and nearly got smeared. Even so, the Dutch never swore at me (that I understood) and moved out of the way and I apologized profusely. Holland is the land of bicyclists, probably only second to China. At train and tram stations I saw thousands of bikes parked in racks. On the narrow, medieval cobblestoned streets there are often trams, cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians. A sidewalk might exist and might also be very narrow. A painted line in most cases is all that separates the bike lane from the sidewalk or road. And sometimes you just have to scoot around a parked car or someone moving items in and out of a building.

Amsterdam, travel, buildings, Dutch architecture

Dutch buildings are tall, narrow and lean

The buildings, ranging in years from four-five centuries to recent, are narrow and tall. The windows are likewise very high. It seems back in the 16-17th centuries people were taxed by the width of their houses so they built up. Of course they were probably taxed on width because the land was reclaimed foot by painstaking foot from the sea, and most of Holland is below sea level. In fact, if I ever wanted to build anything near or on water I would hire a Dutch hydraulic engineer; they’ve been doing this for centuries.

gables, Dutch houses, moving hooks, winches, Amsterdam

A good example of fancy gabling and the hook for moving items in through windows.

As all the buildings are high and thin, it means there are many many narrow stairs, in fact too narrow to move furniture up. So they built hooks on the top end of the buildings by which to pulley items into the structure, and they’re still used to this day. Because of this way of moving furniture  the buildings indeed lean out into the streets,because a perfectly perpendicular building would have its windows and facade smashed in a move. The buildings have several different types of gables, (step, bottle, etc.) which were popular for distinction as well as design at the top window. Before street numbers, shops had plaques that differentiated them or what they did or sold.

And of course, everywhere there are canals. Before coming to Holland when I thought of canals I thought of Venice. How was I so ignorant? Holland is truly the land of canals, everywhere. Some areas have more than others but they are like the veins of the land. The land between the agricultural canals is called a polder and the Dutch manipulated every aspect of building below sea level. Not only do the canals provide irrigation, they also work as routes for delivery and transportation as well as being a way to maintain the land. Theywork as a bleed-off when the water levels rise and save many structures from flooding. Truly amazing when you think about it. Now days, sewage is not dumped directly into the canals and they are pleasant, with numerous boat tours or houseboats.

Amsterdam, canals, Dutch, polders, history, architecture

One of many picturesque canals

Holland, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, history, travel

This building sat all by itself.

canals, houseboats, Amsterdam, polders, history, travel, culture

These houseboats are often 100 years old.

The streets are a mixture of cobblestones and modern paving, just as the buildings go from modern to five centuries old. There is not grid in a medieval aged city as the streets grew organically out of the center. In this case the Amstel River played a role in forming Amsterdam’s streets, which horseshoe out. Wandering up and down these streets and canals and just looking at the buildings that people take for granted was as interesting to me as going into a historic cathedral or a museum. Canada’s oldest buildings might only be one and a half centuries old (especially the west coast), established by people moving into natural geographic areas and planning out their towns. The sheer age of European cities gives a much more organic and haphazard growth.

There is actually enough to talk about with Amsterdam that I’ll do a second post on some of the other historic aspects.

Europe 2011: Amsterdam
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Skateboarders are Buttheads

This should get me a bit of hate mail but it’s true. Okay, not ALL skateboarders are buttheads but the vast majority that I run into on the streets are. The ones that go to the skateboard parks and other safe areas to do their acrobatic feats of derring-do are no problem at all.

The ones that careen through traffic trying to race Death out of Darwin’s gene pool: now those are the giant buttheads. They care for little, not themselves, nor anyone else and have the arrogance that equates to a short life.

We have many forms of locomotion; cars, buses, bicycles, feet, motorcycles, roller blades and skateboards. Skateboards are the least suited to sidewalk and road. Bicyclists and motorcyclists ride small wheeled vehicles with their flesh exposed to the elements and the hard metal of other machines. They wear reflective and protective clothing, and helmets. Of course there would probably be a few death-wish hopefuls who would try to ride without helmets if it weren’t law, like it’s cool to have your brains splat on pavement or something. Cool to be stupid: that’s attractive.

Bicyclists, if they want to remain alive, pedal along beside cars as they can’t go as fast. Drivers and bicyclists should always respect each other’s space and cut out any ego issues. Unfortunately there are attitudes on both sides, but we can always dream of better tolerance. But back to skateboarders; they don’t wear protective or reflective clothing, they don’t wear helmets. Two fails right there.

Pedestrians have the right of way of sidewalks. They walk on them, not on the road where they would soon be road pizza. Of course there are butthead pedestrians who jaywalk in front of cars as if they own the road. But most stick to the sidewalks where they belong. Skateboarders get another fail for having a wheeled object on the sidewalk. Bikes aren’t allowed there; neither are skateboards.

Skateboarders don’t fit the rules of the road because they can’t go fast enough, not even as fast as a bike unless it’s downhill. They don’t wear the proper gear and on top of that they’re kicking a leg out and veering, long undulations in and out of traffic. Skateboarders don’t fit the rules of the sidewalk, because they’re on wheels. They’re hazardous to the pedestrians and often swerve all over the place.

On top of all this, they, who are least protected on the road, take the biggest risks, rolling down the middle of the street, nonchalantly getting out of the way–eventually, when a driver has had to break or slow down for them. It always amazes me that the less protection a person has from vehicles, it’s almost as if the arrogance goes up exponentially.

There is nothing more irritating or dangerous then guys flying down the road, or chugging along weaving in and out of cars and people, flipping up on curbs, doing near nose-dives onto pavement. Skateboards should be like ATVs, banned completely from roads and sidewalks and only given to certain terrain. The skateboard parks and abandoned underpasses are the ideal terrain for the skateboarder but not as a way through the streets.

A view of an extreme skateboarder’s world is revealed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash where pizza drivers wield swords and couriers skateboard along freeways tossing their magnetized discs onto speeding vehicles to hitch a ride. (A review of this book is in a previous blog entry.) So I will stick with my thoughts that skateboarders on the streets today are buttheads, pursuing a delicate dance with death while endangering others.

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Sustainability and A Planet Out of Whack

We are talking more and more about sustainability, as an end to our oil resources is something almost calculable by now. As our living space will decrease with population growth and demands on usable water will increase. As our landfills overflow and seep toxic gunk into the groundwater.  As our land turns to dustbowls or swamps and arable land becomes scarce, as millions of cars belch fumes into the sky.

Right now fires are sweeping across BC, again, threatening people living in cities. In Westbank/Kelowna 11,000 people have been evacuated with another 6,000 on alert. This echoes the terrible, devastatingly traumatic fires that swept through parts of Australia earlier this year. Fires so intense and vicious that they caught people as they tried to get into their cars, that burned land to a cinder killing all living things, whether plant or animal, that stood upon the land. Australia faces the collapse of its wine industry, vines grown for years either burned to a crisp or without water to keep the crops going. Their cattle industry is also in danger. A whole country and continent without enough water.

This is not a new thing. Disasters and climatic devastation have happened throughout history but the ferocity and frequency are increasing as the planet warms and suffers under the onslaught of chemicals and fumes not meant to play with nature. The change in the planet probably began with the industrial revolution, once machines were chugging blue smoke into the sky and sluicing runoff into the streams. It began with the first car. And if we think about it, that was only about a hundred years ago. A tenth of a millennium and civilization has existed for at least twenty thousand years.

Think about it. We are exponentially increasing the danger to the planet and to ourselves, and sticking our heads in the sand won’t make it go away. So just what is sustainability? Let’s look at defining it first, from Merriam Webster: 1: capable of being sustained 2 a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society> 

So that a resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. Wow. Perhaps it’s easier to look at what is not sustainable than what is. What’s left over is what we have to work with. Let’s start with the biggest resource. Our planet. It is of a finite circumference with finite water and land. The world population is at 6.7 billion. It is expected to increase to 9 billion in 2040. That’s within a lot of our lifetimes. There will be less land to live on and the more building that happens takes away from land to grow upon. Water is already an issue in many places. What will it be like in thirty years?

This means no matter how much you love children, think they’re cute, want to be surrounded by bundles of joy or your religion has said, go forth and multiply, it is just not sustainable. Everyone can take personal responsibility and for every couple have one child. That will bring our population down. It will make the planet breathe a sigh of relief and continue a bit longer. Plagues, diseases and flus won’t spread like wildfire. And yes, businesses will have to restructure from the grow grow grow buy more mentality. But we’ll survive.

What is not sustainable is manufacturing more and cheaper cars, SUVs, Hummers and every gas guzzling monster. For sustainability they should be outlawed. And we see right now the glacial progress of moving to electric cars. Governments need to move faster on this and provide incentives to get people to change. More cars plug city thoroughfares and raise costs in maintenance, accident prevention and care. Fewer cars and bigger carpool systems will lessen the strain and road rage. Electric cars, bicycles, viable and cheap public transit will help alleviate both pollution and the sucking of the world’s limited oil and metal resources. Another unsustainable depleting resource.

Manufacturing that uses water needs to be looked at, if our water is becoming limited. Healthy, interactive systems of filtration need to be used to keep our water pure and reusable. We could end up like the people in the novel Dune, having to wear suits that recycle and sweat and urine into drinkable fluids over and over because the planet is desert. Water saving devices for taps, toilets and showers must be used. Education will help stem the tide there.

Building homes and offices, making paper all work on depleting trees. The forestry industry has been made responsible for replanting for quite a few years. But you can chop down more trees in a day than will grow in  a year. it takes years to get a big tree, centuries. Ripping out too many tress not only affects flora and fauna of an ecosystem but also affects the topsoil, the nutrients and the infrastructure of the land for both stability and water.

I could go on but every person as well as every company and government must take responsibility and look at what they use and how it’s reused or discarded. Everything from food to clothing. If we don’t start now, we should have started fifty years ago. And if you truly love children, start now and look at what you can do for sustainability because there could be no tomorrow.

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