A lifelong cyclist, Washington Area Bicycling Association's Executive Director Eric Gilliland can remember every bike he ever owned. Growing up on Long Island and in New Hampshire he built trails in his back yard, a precursor to his work at WABA, where he champions changes in transportation that spotlight cycling and addresses such mounting problems as global climate change and obesity. With WABA just awarded the Best Advocacy Organization of the Year Award From The Alliance of Biking and Walking for such 2008 accomplishments as doubling the number of striped DC bike lane miles, the passage of a DC law enhancing bicycle training awareness for heavy vehicle operators, and the country's largest Bike to Work Day event, Gilliland now looks to the Federal stage and our defining moment in transportation. "How will the new Economic Stimulus Package and the upcoming Transportation Bill effect where and how we ride, how do we encourage the move away from single occupancy vehicles?"
"We've always looked to Europe to see biking done right," says Gilliland, who has cycled in France along Normandy coast, from Luxemburg through Belgium to Amsterdam, from Germany to Vienna, and in Dubai. "This is how I like to see the world, from the seat of a bicycle. Biking is my job, but it's also my passion." I'm eager to see how Helsinki handles bikes, how bikes are integrated into the whole transportation system, and how people are encouraged to leave their cars at home."
The visit will be hosted by the City of Helsinki Sports Department and Helsinki Cyclists. During the visit to Helsinki Eric Gilliland will get to know the local cycling conditions.
The Sports Department aims at improving people's quality of life in Helsinki through sports. The city has about 800 sports clubs covering some 100 different sports. The Sports Department provides and maintains sports facilities, maintains outdoor recreation areas, arranges supervised sports activities, supervises boating and maintains marinas, develops and controls fishing, prepares matters related to subsidies and support and markets and provides information on sports services.
Helsinki Cyclists, officially Helsingin Polkupyöräilijät (HePo), is a volunteer organisation which aims to promote safe and convenient cycling, especially for commuting and leisure. HePo was established in 1981. The chairman is Petri Sipilä. HePo keeps an eye on the development of the traffic system and strives to influence legislation and traffic planning at both local and national levels. A notable part of HePo's activities are the cycle trips which are organised regularly from mid-April until the end of October. These trips are free and open to everyone.
Lesson #1: post more frequently so when your internet connect expires at your local internet cafe you dont lose 30 minutes worth of typing.
Day One (written on day three):
After a long flight to London and a shorter flight to Helsinki I have finally arrived! My host Petri Sipilä, from the Helsinki Cyclist Association or HePo, was there to meet me, though unfortunately my bike was not. Petri and I hit it off immediately and were already talking about our respective associations before we even made it to the car for the ride into town. HePo has been around for over 20 years and serves as the only bike advocacy organization in the country. As of yet they have no paid staff, but seem to be the go to organization for all things bike related in Helsinki.
After going to the hotel to drop off my baggage and freshen up, I met Petri and Marek Salermo (also of HePo and the soon to be bike coordinator at the National Association of Muncipalities) at a local Finnish restaurant. The reindeer entree seemed appealing, but then I thought about how eating reindeer in the land of Santa Claus was probably bad karma and my niece and nephews would kill me, and opted out.
The conversation over dinner was wide ranging. We talked about how the Washington Area Bicyclist Association got its start and the programs that we were now working on. We discussed HePo and it's role in the city, and the overall structure of the national and city governments. We also talked about the fundamental differences between bike planning in the US and in Europe in general, and about how in the US, cyclists are accomodated on the road and are treated as slow cars, whereas in Europe (and certainly in Helsinki) cyclists are accomodated on the sidewalks with cycle tracks and are treated as fast pedestrians. I think, and Petri and Marek also think, that the true answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Having not slept much on the plane (it seems that airline seats are getting smaller and smaller) I opted for an early evening so when back to the beautiful Hotel Haven to unpack and prepare for the next day.
Thankfully, my bike had arrived overnight so I scrambled in the morning to put it all together, eat and shower, before Petri and Olli Heikurinen (also of HePo and a local cycle race promoter) arrived at the hotel to take me on my first ride of the trip.
We started off by riding through the center of the city to look at some pedestrian-bike only areas (I love these!!!) and the bike parking situation at the local train station. Somewhat suprisingly I didnt notice too much bike parking in general, but they seemed to cover areas like train stations and schools very well. We rode in a counter clockwise loop that took us to some of the less pretty, more industrial areas of the city. Interestingly, the port of Helsinki was recently moved a few kilometers to the west and the area of the former port is being reclaimed for housing developments. A similar plan is taking shape on the west side of the city offering an immense opportunity for development in the area.
Olli, Petri and I wound our way along high speed commuter roads, which thankfully all had side paths along them until we came to the Helsinki recycle a bicycle program. In the US such programs have primarily a youth focus, but the Helsinki program refurbishes abandoned bikes for use by city employees as part of their jobs. While approaching the recycle center I got my first flat of the trip, only 5 ks into the first ride. Thankfully I planned ahead and had the necessary tools to fix it.
Our next destination of a local bike shop that focused on fixed gear bikes which, as in DC, are increasingly the rage in Helsinki. I traded spoke cards with the shop owner who will likely join us at the Critical Ride (Critical Mass) early next week. We then went to the National Association of Municipalities to pick up Marek and Antero Naskila, their current bike coordinator who is retiring soon. They led us on a tour of the norther part of the downtown area where we saw more cycle tracks and lovely paths along a lake.
We ended up riding back down to the market area near the water for coffee and donutes and to meet with a reporter from the local paper who was doing stories on the exchange program. It was a pretty wide ranging conversation where I spoke a lot about the funding for bike programs in the US and the importance federal and local dollars have made to WABA. The story was published today, and while the picture of Petri and I is nice, I cant read the text. I will assume it is a good story.
After the interview we got dressed for a reception at City Hall that was hosted by the deputy mayor, Pekka Sauri. It was the first chance I had to meet the other people from the program. After the reception Petri and I walked to the Russian influenced Uspenski Cathedral and was told that a lot of US movies around the time of the cold war used Helsinki to play Moscow. We then met everyone at a rooftop bar with an amazing view of the city and then went to a nice dinner at Kellarikrouvi. Everyone was heading out after that, but the jet lag finally caught up to me so I went back to the hotel and fell asleep.
Day Four Feeling Day Three
Today was the most ambitious ride yet, a fact that was not helped by the late evening the night before. My original plan for yesterday evening was to take it easy and rest up for the ride the next day. However a phone call from Hilkka from the Helsinki Department of Economic Development changed that quickly. Instead of sitting in the hotel and reading, I ended up going to a nice dinner with Peter and Scott from the program and our Finnish hosts at Grotesk, a chic restaurant not far from the hotel. After dinner I had every intention of following through with the orignial plan, but instead got dragged kicking and screaming to the Ice Bar (a bar indeed made of ice in a room kept at -18 degrees centigrade) followed by a rock show at Tavastia which is like the 9:30 Club/Black Cat of Helsinki. It was a fun night for all, but too late for me.
These darn Finns and their good times!
Marek and Olli met me at the hotel at 9am to begin the day with a ride to a ride. By that I mean we had to ride about 12k to the start of a high speed long ride hosted by the Cycle Club Helsinki. It was originally planned for me to go on the ride with the club, but 120ks at 30kph average speed is WAY beyond my abilities, even on my best day. I think there might have been some confusion in the planning. I mentioned to our hosts when we met at WABA before the trip that the DC Mayor was a triathlete. When I arrived, everyone assumed that it was I who was in fact the triathlete. The reality it is actually more likely that I would be the Mayor of DC than someone who can ride that hard for that long.
Either way, everyone was very acccomodating. Marek arrived with a puncture (the killer gravel claims another victim), but caught up with Ollie and I before we got far from the hotel. We had a pretty quick ride out to the starting point at a McDonalds in Siltamäki. Along the way we continued our conversation about the benefits and drawbacks cycle tracks. Even the quite neighborhoods we passed along the way had wide cycle tracks along the road, which might be overkill in quite neighborhoods. In fact, cycle tracks are a lot more expensive to build, more difficult to maintain and increase the amount of impervious surface. We also spoke of the challenges at intersections where most bike crashes occur. While this is no an issue at this time of the year, in the late spring and summer when the trees and bushes between the road and the track bloom, cyclist will be hidden from cars which could be a safety challenge.
The ride out was a combination of on road riding, cycle tracks and bike trails, mostly paved. There were particularly long sections of path along higher speed, narrow roads that were very beneficial. If we could mandate such designs in the US, it would go a long way toward getting more people out on bikes as it would make travel much more safe and convenient.
After everyone left on their quest for pain, Ollie and Reijo from the Cycling Club and I plotted out an interesting route that would take us further north away from the city, then west, skirting the base of the airport in Vantaa toward a set of falls along the Vantaa River. From there the plan was to head south into the Helsinki Central Park to meet up with other club members at a cafe called Maunulanpuisto, which is a traditional starting/ending point for the club rides.
We passed an old church that was constructed in the 1500s and rode along an old Post Road that once linked Stockholm with St. Petersburg a long time ago. We passed through new subdivisions that also had easy bike access. Oddly, we came across a lot of childred dressed as witches who were apparently trick or treating for easter. I still dont get it.
After stopping by the Vantuu falls area we started heading south, back toward the center of the city. Before hitting Helsinki Central Park, our route mainly ran along the E12, one of the largest roads in the country. Again, even this road had a path along side it that reminded me a lot of the Custis Trail along I66 in Virginia.
During the ride we could not help but talk about the killer gravel. As I mentioned in a pervious post, this new gravel is used in the place of road salt that, after rains, ends up in the Baltic Sea. But in trying to fix one environmental problem, it seems that more have been created. Apparently during the dryer weather in the spring, the killer gravel creates a lot of dust that is kicked up into the air by vehicles on the road making air quality a big problem. Combine that we the asphalt that is also turned to dust by studded tires and you have a real problem. I was told that the EU has repeatedly warned Helsinki about this problem. BTW, the killer gravel also hurts dog paws and causes a lot of tire punctures for cyclists. Since I didnt bring a dog with me on the trip, I care much more about the latter.
Eventualyl we made it to the cafe in the park. After a coffee and a break at the cafe, we started again heading south through the beautiful park. While the paths were not paved, they were plenty wide and pretty clear of snow and water. According to Ollie, the Central Park is a very popular bike commuter route which allows cyclists to ride in the woods in peace rather than deal with traffic like everywhere else.
Before I came here and read up about the Central Park, I thought it similar to our own Rock Creek Park in DC. Both are linear parks in surrounded by an urban environment, but that is where the similarities ended. The Helsinki Central Park has a wide variety of paths for horses, cyclists, runners, etc that are welll signed and well maintained. Rock Creek Park, which while is has some dirt paths for joggers and some for horses, mainly consists of a crappy trail and a road that no one can ride on during the week. The paths in Central Park are lit at night to ease bike commuting at night whereas Rock Creek is unlit. Central Park has cool amenities such as cafes. In Rock Creek you are lucky to find a bathroom.
On our route back we passed something called the Kids Traffic School, which was just a little park that had a small, kid-size roadway network complete with traffic signs and lights, a bus stop, the works. I think it is used to train kids in bike and pedestrian safety, but apparently there are also little pedal cars that the kids can use to learn driver safety as well. It is great that they start them that early, but when I though about the plywood stop sign and masking tape crosswalks we use in our kids education program I felt secretly embarassed.
Following that we passed the Olympic Stadium from 1952 when Helsinki held the summer games and stopped by a massive arena that is open for public sporting use. This is also the home of the sports department, one of my generous hosts. I was amazed that such well appointed facilites were made available for the public to use. I thought about the tiny run down rec centers in DC and, as with the Kids Traffic School, felt a bit envious.
An easy night tonight, I swear! My presentation on biking in Washington, DC before the City Planning Department is tomorrow and I want to bring my A game.
Antero, the bike planner from the City of Helsinki, picked me up at the hotel for a short bike ride and tour over to the city planning office where I would be making a presentation on biking in Washington, DC. We headed south from the hotel around the penninsula with an amazing view of the islands that dotted the water to the south. Along the way Antero talked about how much of the cycle track we were riding on had been reclaimed from autos and showed me locations where even more development was planned. About a kilometer from the planning office I (again) fell victim to the killer gravel and had to ride the remaining distance on a flat rear tire.
Once we got to the office Antero, Marek (the future city bike planner) and I looked at plans for the future Helsinki bike network. Again, I was very impressed by the extent of the cycle track and trail network, as well as the emphasis placed on connecting business and residential areas to recreational and natural ones. The city has about 1200k of bike facilties, which includes cycle tracks, trails and unpaved recreational paths. Somewhat oddlyy, the National Cycle Routes which I expected to be more long distance routes connecting the cities and towns of Finland were more of a recreational nature. Apparently there will be European Cycle Routes established in the near future. I found these routes to be incredible when riding in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium and Holland. Hopefully these routes will serve as a model for the US national bike route network underdevelopment. While riding in LUX/BEL/HOL I barely needed a map as the routes were well marked and easy to follow.
I was excited to learn the Helsinki has plans for a City Bike system, similar to DC's Smart Bikes. They are starting with 90 stations and 1000 bikes which will be accessible both onsite with a credit card or with a transit pass that is also used on buses, trams and the subway. This would be a great model for us to follow in DC. They have still not decided on who will provide the City Bikes and I noticed that the city works with both JC Decaux and Clear Channel. JC runs the Velib system in Paris, Clear Channel runs bike sharing in DC as well as in Oslo and Barcelona.
It was also interesting to learn that Helsinki has a mandatory helmet law for adults, but the law is written in such a way that you are required to use a helmet "most" of the time. The city also issues annual reports on all types of statistics on cycling, including bike crashes, helmet use, corridor bike counts, etc. Unfortunately, bike ridership has been relatively flat over the last five years or so even though the city has formally adopted a goal of doubling the number of people riding bikes. The city also runs promotion events like "Leave Your Car at Home DAy" and "Kilometrikisa" which translates into a kilometer race that pits employers against each other to see who can rack up the most miles cycled by employees.
After a short lunch, we went right to my presentation which was attended by about 15 people from the Sports Department, City Planning, the Cycle Club of Helsinki and HePo. I began with a quick description of WABA and of DC as a whole and then spoke of the types of programs we were working on to get more people out riding. I also had some good slides of some of the innovative designs and programs we were working on both in DC and the US, but spent a lot of time talking about the differences between the two cities as I saw them. As previously mentioned, the main difference is that in the US cyclist are accomodated on the road, while in Helsinki they are accomodated on the sidewalk. In Helsinki there is a law that says you must ride on a cycle track or path if one is avaiable, a law that WABA would adamantly oppose in the DC region. It also seems that federal funding in the US has been able to make a significant impact, not just on the riding environment but also on the organizations that promote cycling. Right now federal funds for biking and walking that are given to the state DOTs make their way to WABA to pay for our education work. This has allowed us to not only have a bigger impact on cycling, but also expand the organization as a whole.
Following my presentation there was a short one by Stefan from the Sports Department. I was very impressed by the city's committment to recreation, something that I had noticed on my various rides around the city. They have about 350 sports fields, 50 skating rinks and numerous other facilities that reach an estimated 10 million visitors each year! So far I have been to two LARGE sports complexes where you will find everything from table tennis and handball to basketball, boxing and gymnastics going on. The city also gives about 6 million (euros?) to recreation clubs to encourage sports and activities. This must all be paying off because I dont think I have seen a single obese person since I have been here.
Presentations were also given by Petri of HePo and someone from the Cycle Club of Helsinki. I was impressed the the racers seem to care so much about the riding environment. In the US, getting the racing teams to get involved with advocacy has been extremely difficult. Petri seemed to say that while the cycling environment has improved, still more needed to be done. He feels there is an overreliance on cycle tracks, which are not helpful to stronger cyclists who belong on the road with cars. The law would have to change to make that legal. He also said that there are certain times and places for certain types of facilities and supports a more nuanced approach to building out the bike network. Again, he and are are on the same page.
It seems to me that HePo is at a crossroads. They were originally founded as a cycle touring club and still hold a lot of weekly rides, but many of the more active members are engaging in plan review and general advocacy. At WABA we were very deliberate in not getting into the bike club business. We are, first and foremost, advocates. It seems that HePo might be moving in that direction as well. It really got me thinking about the Alliance for Biking and Walking in the US, whose mission is to help built and strengthed biking and walking advocacy organizations. I really wish the Alliance could partern with our European friends to see if we can help built strong advocacy organizations over here. HePo seems to be gaining both in strength and in influence, but they are still just one of a few cycling advocacy groups in Finland which lacks a national organization. I have heard that they will be sending people to the Velo City conference in Brussels this year at which they could learn a lot from their partners around Europe and around the world.
After the presentations Petri, Ollie and I walked to a bike shop to pick up some supplies and I then when back to the hotel for a bit. I walked around a bit to do some shopping to get a new hat (I lost the one I brought with me) and a cable for my camera so I can hopefully download photos soon. I then got picked up for a subway ride out to the Sports Complex for my dreaded time trial. Twice a week the Cycle Club meets at an indoor running track for training and a time trial. They set me up with a track bike and I was soon tooling around the track watching everyone else blow by me like I was standing still. I was the second person to do the time trial which consisted of ten laps of the track against the clock. Not my best performance so I told Ollie and Petri to tell everyone I was from Sweden (ha ha). After the ride we took a sauna, my first since arriving. It was intitally very relaxing but as more and more water was poured onto the hot rocks, I found myself having to leave frequently to cool off in the shower. After the sauna we got dressed and had something to eat. During this time the Cycle Club and my host really pulled out the stops. Pertti, the chair of the club, brought me a nice Cycle Club Helsinki pennant with a nice chainring lapel pin. Olli brought the infamous memma, a traditional Finnish desert. Memma is so good, they say, that the Finns eat it twice, which was a really good description of what memma looks like.
We got a lift back to the hotel by around 12:30am and I was all set to go to bed after a very long day, but Olli and I ran into Scott and Susanna who were on their way out. Of course, we couldnt say no so we went to a loud sports bar near the train station for a couple of drinks. By the time I got back to the hotel around 2am, I was dead to the world, but smiling from ear to ear in amazement at just how nice the Finns have been to me. This is really a very special place.
The weather today was a lot colder and wet than the day before, but I geared up nonetheless and met a group from the Cycle Club Helsinki for a longer ride. This ride went in the opposite direction, west, starting on narrow one way cycle tracks out toward the western shipyard area. I noticed the day before that all the roads and sidewalks had been heavily sanded. Helsinki apparently doesnt use salt on their roads in the winter in order to protect the Baltic Sea, which is in trouble environmentally. Smart policy, but it made the riding a bit sketchy. We got out of the main part of town quickly and rode through some quite residential neighborhoods of the island of Lauttasaari and up a chain of small islands surrounded by a nature preserve to a nice cafe for lunch.
During the ride we talked about the story that had been published in the paper that made it seem like I thought Helsinki was a paradise for cyclists. While it is certainly A LOT better than DC and most US cities, I still think there is a lot of work that remains to be done. Many of the cycle tracks are too narrow to support two way bike traffic, intersections could be better designed, and more investment needs to be made in infrastructure, education and promotional activities.
Along the way we went by a large new highway projects and chopped up the route we were taking and made everything very confusing due to the lack of signs. The final product will be nice...eventually, but the detours were a bit troubling. We rode by the Olympic velodrome, though it was closed and past the new swimming center that was recently built. But perhaps the most interesting part was an old mill area that was once the center of Helsinki.
We stopped by Petri's house on the way back to the center of the city where I topped off the air in my tires which felt a bit low and rode in to the famous Arla Sauna, which was first opened in 1929. The owner, Kimmo, is an elected official in Helsinki and also a cyclist. Always a winning combination in my book. I invited him to attend the presentation I will make at the city planning office on Monday and he invited me back to really "take a sauna" instead of just visiting one. Hopefully that's on my plate for tomorrow.
Street cars-Helsinki has an incredible public transport network include subways, buses, heavy commuter rail and street cars or trams. In fact they recently opened a new line that uses cars very similar to the ones I have seen in Portland. These cars do not allow bikes on them and their buses have no racks on the front. This would be a good things for Helsinki to work on. Street car tracks are a challenge for cyclists, but not an insurmountable one. When the DC region begins to install street car tracks, we need to make sure there is a significant education component.
Bike parking-While there seems to be plenty outside of train stations and schools, there is very little general bike parking to be found. I have not seen an inverted U, the US standard, anywhere and most of the bike parking I have seen is difficult to lock your frame to. Other inverted U-like racks to have a separate cable for locking a wheel which is a nice touch.
Spike Tires-On bikes they are apparently great in the snow and ice. On cars they make traffic very loud! According to Marek, for every kilometer to drive on spiked tired you chew up 9/10 of a gram of asphat. This contributes to wear and tear on the road, and creates more particular matter for people to breathe. I guess they are good if you are driving though.
Yesterday was my last full day in Helsinki and I had hoped to find time to do some proper sightseeing, but alas it was not meant to be. After spending the morning fiddling with the internet, uploading photos and blogging I found I had less time than I had hoped. I was hoping to visit the Helsinki Military Museum, the Art Gallery and the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, but had to settle for just the fortress.
It was well worth the visit. The fortress, which sits at the mouth of the Helsinki Harbor, was built by Sweden in the 1700s when Finland was part of the Sweden. It was then under Russian control starting in 1808 after the Russian war against Sweden left Finland an more or less independent country under the Russian sphere of influence. After the 1917 Russian Revolution Finland was granted independence, but found itself in a bloody civil war, Reds against Whites.
The fortress which occupies a couple of islands is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and has been well preserved. I really enjoyed the peace and quite walking around the ramparts and gun emplacements that dotted the landscape. I imagine it is a great place to go in the winter.
I got back in enough time to repair the puncture I got the day before (darn killer gravel!) and had a short interview with Henri, who is documenting my visit for the exhibition that will be held at the Finnish Embassy in DC on May 25th. After the interview we walked to the square for the start of the Helsinki Critical Mass. This was a nice last minute addition to the program and I really enjoyed the relatively short and uneventful ride through the city. Now in DC I never go to Critical Mass because I think it can be very counter-productive when you have people being overly aggressive towards drivers. But the Helsinki Critical Mass was excellent. There was a police escort in the front which apparently had the ability to make all the lights flash yellow so the ride never really had to stop as it wound its way through the city. It was nice to see another side of the bike culture and I was pretty amazed at how similar it was to what goes on in DC. Most of the riders seemed to be younger and rode with signs that said things like "Bikes for the Streets, Streets for the Bikes" only in Finnish.
After the ride about ten of us gathered at a student center for a reprise of the presentation I gave to the city planning office. The meeting was attended by members of HePo, and people from something called the Cycling Greens which is a group of bike activists from the Green Party that is trying to build unity among the various political parties in support of cycling.
During my talk I spoke mainly of the role our association plays in the development of cycling in DC and the need for grass roots organizations to push the agenda. I spoke also of how our organization tries to advocate for pro bike policies and how we raise money to fund our efforts. It was interesting to learn that there is not much of a "donation culture" in Finland because the government is expected to provide for its citizens. In the case of cycling, the government has provided the facilities, but not in a way the cycling community needs or wants. I felt that I was present at the beginning of something great that will lead to a cycling renaissance in Helsinki and its always great to see people how care so much about the places they live.
After the talk, Petri, Olli, Marek and I went out for dinner at a 100 year old restaurant in the west end of town. While I did not order the reindeer, I did taste some of Marek's and it was delicious. Sorry Rudolph! When we were done we walked back toward the hotel and I said goodbye to Petri who had to head home. I was really sad to see him leave. He had been such an amazing host and really made my time in Helsinki special. We had hit it off from the first moment we met and spent my entire time here talking about what we could do to make cycling better where we lived. He has a heart of gold and I wish him all the best in his endeavours.
I stopped by the hotel for a minute to call home and then went out to a kareoke bar to meet Olli, Marek and other folks from the program. While I am not a fan of kareoke, it was a pretty lively place and it was good to get to say goodbye to the people I had met. I think the highlight of the evening was a raucous rendition of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, delivered with penache by one of the DC people, who in the interest of protecting the innocent will remain nameless. You know who you are!
Overall, this has been one of the best experiences I have ever had. While I have had the good fortune of traveling to other cities, having such a fantasic support network really made me feel like I was a part of the place and not just a visitor. I really look foward to returning the favor when people come over to Washington, DC.
To all my hosts from the City, Pluto, HePo, the Cycle Club of Helsinki and everyone else: kiitos! You all have been fantasic and I will miss you.