Oberlin Blogs

A Post With a Lot of Traffic (We Hope)

March 27, 2016

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17


Of the many unique things about living in Amsterdam, one of the most obvious is the bicycles. They are everywhere--chained to the bridges, whizzing around corners, and ringing incessantly behind groups of unaware tourists. Bikes are the main form of transportation for the Dutch, and the city of Amsterdam is designed for bikes. In the U.S., I live in an area where cycling is extremely popular, but most streets still don't have bike lanes, and drivers are usually not trained to safely maneuver among bikers. In Amsterdam, every major street has a bike lane, and drivers and Dutch pedestrians are good at sharing the road. Some intersections even have separate stoplights for bikes. It is not uncommon to see an adult pedaling with several small children riding in a wooden box attached to the front of their bike, or a parent riding with their hand on the shoulder of their kid riding next to them. Much to my mother's disappointment, nobody wears a helmet here. I haven't even seen a single bike helmet for sale, anywhere.

At first, I was really scared to get a bike and start riding. Even being a pedestrian who wasn't familiar with the rules of the road felt dangerous. However, it's a 45-minute walk from my apartment to my classes, and I don't have the funds for daily public transit rides. Thus, I was forced to get it together and rent a bike for the semester. After a couple of awkward first rides that involved me accidentally riding on the sidewalk, having to stop every two minutes to check my map, and panting heavily while the Dutch glided by effortlessly, I managed to become proficient in the art of urban biking.

To give you an idea of what the experience is like, here is what my typical ride to school is like:

I leave my apartment and I head downstairs to the basement, where everyone who lives in the building stores their bikes. The room is always overcrowded, and I'm already uncoordinated without a bike, so moving my bike out of the room is always a struggle and I usually pray that nobody comes in and sees me as I knock three bikes into my path. I then take the bike outside and start to ride over the cobblestoned streets of my neighborhood, the Jordaan. In the morning, I often need to stop behind a garbage truck, and I see parents biking their kids to school.

I head towards Dam Square, which is always crowded with foreign tourists at seemingly every time of day. I bike past Albert Heijn (the supermarket), the Niewe Kerk and the Royal Palace, and Madame Tussaud's, the city's most infamous tourist trap. Since Dam Square is one of the most tourist-y parts of the city, I pass countless fast food restaurants, waffle bakeries, and head shops. I usually have to constantly ring my bell at clueless tourists who walk in the middle of the street because the sidewalks are crowded. Sometimes I have to literally yell at them to get out of the way because they don't respond to the bell. I have sideswiped several tourists, and the truth is (#unpopularopinion) I have zero sympathy for somebody who is too drunk or high to stay out of traffic while I'm just trying to complete my daily commute. Sorry.

Once I emerge from the pedestrian hellscape that is Dam Square and Damstraat, I join droves of commuters and other students headed in the direction of my campus. I have to climb what counts as a hill in Amsterdam (barely a blip for California) and then get to glide down a gently winding path next to a grassy tram track. I bike past the Artis (the zoo), and then climb another mild hill to the University of Amsterdam Roeterseiland campus. Here, I dismount my noble steed and walk my bike under one of the buildings into the bike parking garage, which is exactly what it sounds like. In order to accommodate thousands of bikes at a time, the campus has an underground garage full of bike racks, in addition to a floating island on the canal where there are double-decker bike racks. Both of these areas, in addition to all the bike racks on the street and any spare fencepost or pole, get filled to capacity every day. There are even employees whose job it is to direct you somewhere to park your bike when you arrive.

Needless to say, bike culture is an important part of Dutch identity. I don't have any true data on whether or not the bikes make Amsterdam a more sustainable city (or if they have a meaningful effect on fossil fuel emissions); there is still a network of buses, trams, and a metro system in the city. I imagine that biking every day promotes physical fitness. I'm sure it's really fun for a toddler to bounce around in a wooden box while a parent bikes them to preschool. I do wonder what implications this bike culture has for people with disabilities that prevent them from biking, or immigrants who may not embrace the bicycle culture as much as Dutch people who have been doing so for generations.

I, personally, feel that biking has made my experience here more fun, safe (it's nice being able to bike home alone at night and feel safer than I would if I were walking) and healthy. The times that I have to bike home from class at 7 pm in the rain and freezing wind have been made up by the moments I get to glide through the Jordaan in the sunshine with the wind at my back.

I've found that my college experience has been full of me getting involved in many activities related to topics that I did not really think I had much interest. For example, I have never really had any desire to be a teacher. However, I have ended up involved in tons of activities related to education, from tutoring to coaching a swim team to being on the Education Committee for OSCA, to teaching an ExCo to being a substitute teacher. I'm not really sure how any of this happened, but I am sort of glad that it has, since it has given me a lot of experiences that I never expected to have.

The latest theme in my life is transportation. Being an Environmental Studies major, I have always been tangentially interested in transportation, as it is one of the main drivers of climate change (though, fun fact, animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases per year than all forms of transportation combined). However, it has never really been my main focus. That has changed this semester, since I have somehow gotten involved with two big projects related to transportation.

In one of our recent posts, I alluded to the fact that I currently have a lot of jobs on campus. One of these is as the Student Transportation Coordinator for the Office of Environmental Sustainability. Part of my new philosophy after returning from being abroad is to "take opportunities," so when I saw the application for this job on the Oberlin Classifieds (great resource for finding job opportunities, by the way), I decided to take the opportunity and apply-- I guess this means that I sort of applied on a whim. I did not really have much experience working with transportation (although I was a part of the [short-lived] Sustainable Transportation Action Team here at Oberlin).

Therefore, this job has been quite the new experience for me, and I have learned a lot about transportation at Oberlin because of it. For example, for this job, I recently submitted the budget for this coming year for OPASS, which organizes the student shuttles to the airport at Oberlin. Although I have taken the shuttles sometimes before, I never really knew details about the inner workings of the shuttle program. The letters "BRT" and "AOS" never meant anything to me, but now I am more acquainted with them than I ever thought I would be.

Beyond just learning about transportation at Oberlin, however, this job has also taught me a lot about how to do things in life. I have been dealing with invoices, working on budgets, and writing fancy titles at the end of my emails instead of my name. I feel like I'm starting to know what being an adult feels like-- something that is starting to become urgent business seeing as I am going to graduate college in about a year. I never would have expected to be learning these lessons through the lens of transportation, but I am grateful that I am.

This new job is not my only new experience with transportation at Oberlin, though. This semester I am also participating in a Community Based Social Marketing Lab, which focuses on different ways to use social psychology to influence people's behavior (in this case, in regards to the environment). Since this is a lab of quite a few students, we break into smaller groups and work on specific projects. My project is-- you guessed it-- transportation (particularly encouraging faculty and staff to bike or walk rather than drive to work). This has also been quite the learning experience. In this case, I went into the project mostly interested in learning research skills. I hope that after college I will be engaged with research in some way, so getting research experience has been on the top of my priorities list for quite a while. While I have definitely been learning a lot in that regard, I have been surprised by how much I have learned about transportation along the way. In doing literature review and creating presentations on findings, I have learned more about transportation than I expected to during college. I've learned about everything from health benefits of walking to how use (or nonuse) of helmets inspires people to cycle. Hopefully, all of this information will end up being useful and create some kind of useful change in terms of sustainability work.

So what does all of this mean? I guess it means that if you have questions about transportation at Oberlin, you now know where to turn! Since it is spring break for us right now, a lot of people are thinking about ways to get to and from home. Oberlin has a lot of these, from shuttles to the airport to buses to major cities, and now I am well acquainted with quite a few of them.

Beyond transportation, to me this all represents the college experience. Obviously, no one's college years go exactly as planned-- even if you're like me and enjoy planning out every year of your life from now until death. While these unexpected aspects of college can sometimes be bad, sometimes they can turn out for the best. I have learned so much from these activities that I never planned or expected to participate in, and I am sure that they (and other similar activities) will continue to teach me new things until I graduate from this school. Even then, the lessons I have learned will hopefully still be relevant. I'm definitely going to keep taking opportunities.

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