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Getting There: What a Dutchman has to say about Spokane’s bicycle infrastructure after riding through town

UPDATED: Mon., June 10, 2019

Nick Deshais, left, shows Freek Borlee, of Utrecht, the Netherlands, the University District Gateway Bridge on Wednesday June 5, 2019. Borlee  liked parts of Spokane’s bike infrastructure but found it disconnected and confusing at points. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Nick Deshais, left, shows Freek Borlee, of Utrecht, the Netherlands, the University District Gateway Bridge on Wednesday June 5, 2019. Borlee liked parts of Spokane’s bike infrastructure but found it disconnected and confusing at points. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

There’s something to be said about cycling around Spokane with a Dutchman.

And Freek Borlee, a 30-year-old physical therapist from Utrecht, had a lot to say.

“I’m not sure what the purpose of this pathway is,” he said at one point.

“This is really cool,” he said another time.

“This makes me uncomfortable,” he said, at last.

It’s not often that a resident of one of the bike-friendliest countries comes to town, willing to ride around and talk about bikeways. So when they do, so do you.

We started on the ravaged streets of downtown, escaped the core by the Ben Burr Trail and returned over the University District Gateway Bridge and Centennial Trail. Through it all, Borlee spoke of home, and more than once shared his surprise at Spokane’s bike paths.

The Dutch are known for their forward-thinking policies when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Ask someone to name the world’s best bike city, and Amsterdam may come to mind. The flat streets of Holland’s biggest city are filled with bicycles. With 800,000 bicycles, Amsterdam has more bikes than people.

Utrecht, the nation’s fourth-largest city, is no slouch when it comes to the Dutch affinity for two wheels. In 2017, the city opened the world’s largest bicycle parking garage at its central train station. It has enough space to house 12,500 bicycles. When complete, it will be able to hold 22,000. About 43% of all journeys in Utrecht that are less then 4.6 miles are taken by bike.

Before the ride, Borlee listed what he considered the best of Utrecht’s bike facilities, just to put Spokane in context.

“Every road has a bike lane,” he said, and those bike lanes are separated from vehicles. “The car is a guest. If you have a car, you’re welcome there, but you’re a guest. In general, a bike has more rights than a car.”

Just like Spokane.

With that, we hit the road. Joining us were Eli Francovich, The Spokesman-Review’s outdoors editor, and Nathan Suitter, both friends of Borlee’s from when he was an exchange student in Coeur d’Alene in 2006. We all were on bikes, except Suitter, who grabbed a Lime scooter.

We coursed through downtown on Riverside Avenue, its potholes the least of Borlee’s concerns. We rode two abreast and took up the entire lane, something he said would never happen in Utrecht. Not because cars dominate, but because there’s a safe and convenient bike lane on every street. As we rode and talked, he instinctively pushed us to the right, and I nudged us into the lane.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Way, our ride eased some, as cars gave way to marmots, which are far more scared of cyclists than motorists. We gazed up at the U District bridge as we passed underneath.

Finally, on the Ben Burr Trail, I was curious to hear Borlee’s thoughts. Did he expect to see something like this in Spokane? Is there anything like it in Utrecht? Isn’t it cool?

“This is really cool,” he said. “I was here a couple of years ago and I saw nothing like this.”

The trail, a former electric rail bed, cuts through a secluded vein of the East Central neighborhood. The sun was out, and the scent of warm pine needles filled the air. Borlee was smitten with the basalt knobs and walls that mark the trail. We reached its terminus near 11th Avenue and Fiske Street, and Borlee mentioned that his dad is a city planner.

“He’d be critical. It’s a really great pathway, but why is nobody using it?” he said. “I’m not sure what the purpose of this pathway is.”

In the Netherlands, he said, a paved bikeway would make itself known with a dotted line down the center. A walking path would be gravel, and could lead to a fenced-in dog park. The Ben Burr, with no painted line and just two people walking their dogs, confounded Borlee.

We pointed our steeds in a downtown direction, and cut through the South Perry District to Southeast Boulevard. From the beginning, we had discussed whether motorists would be on their best American behavior for our Dutch visitor. Would we be yelled at, revved at, flipped off or “coal rolled,” which is when drivers intentionally cause their diesel pickups to spew out black smoke on command?

None of the above. Generally, we all shared the road like good kindergarten-trained citizens.

At the bottom of Southeast, we pedaled up the elegant curve of the pedestrian bridge’s south landing ramp and stopped on the span.

“It’s an identical bridge like the one I told you about,” Borlee said. On the Ben Burr, we had been talking about ways to increase ridership on the trail, and Borlee said it had to be more “playful.”

He mentioned the Dafne Schippers Bicycle Bridge, a 110-meter span over the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal in Utrecht that connects the historic city center with the neighborhood of Leidsche Rijn.

The bridge is named for a Dutch track and field athlete, the 2015 and 2017 world champion in the 200 meters who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics at the same distance.

The bridge has 100 meters marked on it, so users can test their mettle against Schippers, who grew up in the neighborhood and went to school nearby.

“Make it more playful,” he said of the Ben Burr. But at the bridge, he didn’t mention a need to draw visitors with playful elements. Instead, the bridge reminded him of the fun 100-meter dash on the bridge in Utrecht.

Off the north landing, we cut through the University District’s confusing connection to the Centennial Trail and rode west. At one point, a gaggle of about 30 middle-school-aged children passed on identical bikes going the opposite direction. It’s not a sight you see in the U.S. very often, but Borlee said the morning “rush hour” in Utrecht is populated by many children on their way to school.

“There’s an actual rush hour,” he said. Not of cars, but on bikes. “I used to get frustrated, but at some point I realized what rush hour is like in America, and I laughed. This is just great.”

At the Rotary Fountain in Riverfront Park, we got on Howard Street, and again onto Riverside, heading to the Review Tower. Again, we took the entire lane of travel.

“This makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “We wouldn’t do this in Holland.”

At the end, Borlee liked Spokane’s current bikeways, but said it felt undone, like “separate roads that are not really connected.” He said the city should have a bike path wrapping around the city like a belt, crisscrossed with even more bike paths and lanes, offering ease and convenience to go anywhere by bike.

“Put the bike first,” he said. “More and more cities are making bikes first. It will be interesting to see the first American city that is really a bike city.”

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