Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bicycles in Brussels

I was in Brussels and London over the past few days. Am exhausted, but here are a few velo snaps from the land of waffles, chocolate, the European Commission, and Eddy Merckx. London pictures will follow in the next post.

I have been to Brussels many times, and not once have I seen the city sunny. So my main association with it - whether deserved or not - is darkness: dark sky, dark buildings, dark trees, dark chocolate...

People in black overcoats riding black bicycles fit right into the romantically gothic landscape.

A black Gazelle chained up in the city center. I saw many Dutch bicycles, from brands both known and unknown, as well as many modern hybrid bikes. To my dismay, I did not see a single bike by the Belgian manufacturer Achielle.

The bicycle infrastructure looks similar to how things are in Boston: occasional bike lanes and "sharrows". Mostly, bicycles share the road with cars, buses and trams. On large streets you mostly see roadbikes, because the bicycles really need to be going quite fast in order to blend into the flow of traffic. On side streets you see more of the Dutch bikes, since the traffic flow is less hectic.

One trend I noticed is the huge number of people riding folding bikes. There are definitely more folding bikes in Brussels than in other cities I have been to recently, and it's funny to see how aggressively they are maneuvered through the streets. I also saw at least a half dozen women whose outfits matched their folding bicycles, but alas I was quick enough to photograph only this red on red number. Notice also how the yellow panel on the backpack matches the yellow strip on the bike.

And then of course there is Villo, the Brussels bike share programme.

The Villo bikes look to be in spectacularly good condition compared to the Vienna Citybikes and the Paris Velib bikes I have seen. Not sure whether this is because vandalism is less prevalent in Brussels, or because the bicycles are newer.

Adverts are featured on the dressguards - but to my eye, these are not as overwhelming as the ones on the Vienna Citybikes. I also quite like the Iris emblem.

I had a very precise schedule while in Brussels, and cycling was not on the agenda. As for using the Villo for transportation - one of the main obstacles for me was the same as for Vienna Citybike: The basket will not fit my bag - which is a standard briefcase/laptop size bag - and it is not the sort of bag that can be carried messenger style. When I mentioned this in a post about Vienna's Citybike, I received some aggressive responses (that I subsequently deleted together with my defensive replies): Basically, a couple of readers criticised me for "whining" about this issue, and for carrying an "impractical designer bag" in the first place. Not that I need to justify myself, but my bag is actually a conservative, modest briefcase-style bag with no visible designer labels. This type of briefcase-style bag is standard to use in my line of work, whereas a messenger bag or backpack is not. Especially in cities like Brussels and Vienna - where so many professionals arrive for international meetings and conferences, such bags are prevalent. Therefore I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest that when designing a bike-share bicycle, its basket is made to fit a standard laptop-sized bag, for those who do not carry backpacks to work. If a system is designed "for the people", it seems useful to understand what factors encourage said people to use it vs what factors prevent them from using it.

I did not have a chance to visit my favourite places in Brussels on this trip, but at least I walked around a bit between my meetings. Brussels is a city that I like very much, but cannot imagine living in: Everything seems to be centered around EU activities and this gives it a certain hectic and bureaucratic feel even when things are quiet. I also find it disorienting that French and Dutch are used interchangeably (though the city is technically French-speaking), with occasional English and German thrown in as well. For these very reasons, I think it is essential to visit Brussels if you have never been. Its atmosphere is in many ways crucial for understanding today's Europe. It is a very easy city to visit and to get around - with excellent food, regal parks, beautiful architecture, and walkable streets.

23 comments:

  1. So, did you see any Ridley (Belgian) cyclocross bikes while you were there. The Belgians RULE cyclocross. Dutch bikes are interlopers...

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  2. Steve - Sadly, I did not come across any of those!

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  3. Mexico City's new bike share program, Ecobici, has front carriers designed for a standard briefcase or purse:

    http://www.youtube.com/v/yhQ2G2zBH_s

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  4. How interesting folding bikes are so prevalent in Brussels - color coded to match outfits no less ;)
    I agree...I love Brussels and have such fond memories!

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  5. I hope you enjoyed London - still my home city, even though I moved out two years ago. I'm always struck when I go back how many cyclists there are, despite a rather aggressive road culture. I think there are more now than there were even when I left. It says volumes for the determination of people to get around on 2 wheels with even the slightest of encouragement

    Re the basket - when I'm travelling my (smallish but still weighty) laptop always goes in a backpack, which I find means I don't get so many neck and shoulder problems and, incidentally, makes it easier (albeit sweatier) to cycle with. It's desperately unstylish of course...

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  6. In this vein:

    Therefore I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest that when designing a bike-share bicycle, its basket is made to fit a standard laptop-sized bag, for those who do not carry backpacks to work.


    In my hometown Oakland, California it is mind boggling how bike racks are positioned in such a way that only one or two bikes can use them. They push them up against walls, next to trees, and all sorts of obstacles.

    The difference is I really really hope bicyclist are designing bike-share programs, but any worker for any company gets the assignment to "put that rack outside somewhere."

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  7. Joseph - Thanks for the link, I've never been to Mexico.

    RidingPretty - Ah, I see you've been everywhere : )

    townmouse - I lived in England for a while and many of my university friends have settled in London. Going back there is nice but difficult, because I do miss it.

    Chris - The way I see it, design is meant to be done with the user's needs in mind first and foremost. Otherwise it is a wasteful exercise. So yes, I agree about the racks - though I've had "bike entrapment drama" even with a perfectly useful rack design, due to how another cyclist chose to lock their bike, therefore effecting mine.

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  8. I'm really interested to hear what you thought of London...and how you think the cycling is there/how it has changed since you were last there.

    Love your blog though and the bikes. xx:)

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  9. Typist - Thank you. Frankly I would be frightened to cycle in London... but then I have thought the same of other places, only to find out that I can do it after all : ) Ironically, the town in the UK where I used to live is probably the best town for cycling in England - but at the time I did not take advantage of that.

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  10. ".. technically French-speaking,.."? Amaai, you're on dangerous ground there. Lots of Brusseleers might disagree. ;-)

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  11. Hear, hear! Velouria, about basket design. Why ever would user-feedback be considered whining?

    Though Belgium is where I first realized there were other cycling options than tight shorts and elbows and bums in the air, I shuddered at the thought of biking in Brussels. Brugge now . . .

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  12. Off topic: Have you guys seen this bike?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/9623863@N04/1334243737/

    omgomgomg

    Besides visual stimulation, that bicycle also provides an example of how to connect rods to drum brakes.

    Velouria, in general, do you mind if I make off-topic posts? Should I email you instead?

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  13. I got excited by your introduction mentioning Eddy Merckx. I thought maybe you ran into The Cannibal.

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  14. Giffen - You can write anything you like of course. Worst that can happen is that I get horribly offended : )

    Frits - Indeed! Apologies for the controversial suggestion that Bruxelles is predominantly French speaking.

    Emma - The few times I have had comments here that I didn't approve (or initially approved, but subsequently deleted) have been after posts where I critique some aspect of urban design or cycling infrastructure. When I mentioned not using the Vienna City bikes because of the basket, several readers took issue with this and responded in an insulting manner. Same when I mentioned some problems with the Vienna bike paths. And same when I mentioned disliking Boston public transportation (that comment is still there, I decided to keep it because it was only somewhat rude). In any case, my theory is that some people perceive what I consider "feedback" as "disloyalty to the cause" and therefore get angry about it.

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  15. Jefe - sorry to disappoint, no Eddie sightings I'm afraid!

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  16. "Disloyalty to the cause" - I think you're right. Maybe because we cyclists still in many places feel so marginal and under threat. But really it is a sign of health.

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  17. I first fell in love with urban cycling while living in London, and still miss it so much sometimes! I have the same problem when I go back - it's nice to be there but also sad, because I doubt I'll ever live there again.

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  18. Emma - I know what you mean, though I don't think rude comments are ever justified. I have no problem if a reader disagrees with my point of view and says so in the comments. But there are different ways to say it.

    onecity - Glad to hear there are others who share the UK nostalgia : )

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  19. Hi, just discovered the blog recently when googling for gazelles to advise a friend to get one (and then lend it to me :-) )

    Regarding cycling trends in the UK. I definitely felt a shift towards dutch bikes (or "sit up and beg" as they used to be called) after a decades-long depression in traditional bikes brought on first by racers then by mountain bikes. What we now call "hybrid" bikes are really, to me, "bikes".

    In my perception, the accusations of traditional bikes being a throwaway fashion item comes as a hangover from them being SOO unfashionable through those previous phases (of butt-in-the-air sport bikes followed by knobbly-tired, no-mudguards mountain bikes). Now, what used to be simply a bike is more like a retro or defiant anti-modernist statement. It's like saying "look how I'm not scared to be uncool, which makes me cool!". Which is a pity because the practical arguments for a proper bike are strong, and really the racers and the mtbs are the props to fantasy self-image.

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  20. Will be in Milan and would like to rent bicycles for getting around town. Problem is their new bike rental program doesn't work for us for reasons of both time limit and locations. Anyone have any thoughts on a store renting bikes?

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  21. Hi Lovely Bicycle!

    I wanted to tell you that I borrowed one of your photos on this page for non-commercial use in my article:: Green Your Ride, Not Gas Powered http://bit.ly/cVNkSl

    I gave you full credit and a link to your blog. I hope you don't mind that I use it.

    You have a wonderful website on bicycles and I couldn't resist.

    Thank you for your beautiful photo!

    B. Santos of Eco Word
    You can find me on Twitter at:
    http://twitter.com/arbitraryword

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  22. B. Santos - That is absolutely fine, thanks for letting me know!

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  23. Nothing like riding under the sun to make you appreciate oxygen. I wish my town has bike share program too. It is always better than driving the 4 wheels.

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