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Issue No. 3 | January 2023


Spotlight: Walter Niederberger

Walter Niederberger is a local Healdsburg resident and has been a familiar face at Mill District Velo rides for the past few years. Our January spotlight highlights why he moved to Healdsburg, his year-long around the world bicycle trip and his passion for bicycle and pedestrian advocacy.

You were born in Switzerland, worked in big US cities such as New York and San Francisco. How did you finally come to live in small-town Healdsburg?

My wife Anne and I moved to Healdsburg full time in 2015. The climate, the weather and cycling were a huge draw.  When I first became the US economic correspondent for the Tages Anzeiger newspaper in 2002, we were living in Hoboken NJ. I then pivoted to covering technology, which brought us to San Francisco. But the city offers only limited bicycling; you always have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge before you find less busy roads. We discovered Healdsburg and spent more and more weekends here, eventually buying a little condo. The longer we stayed, the more we liked it, so we said: “Why not move up here full time?” We never looked back.

What role has the bicycle played in your life?

I traveled to middle school, called gymnasium, on the bike. It was 5 miles each way, every day—during winter, summer, hailstorms, snow, ice. It cleared my mind, especially after school. From that time on, I never stopped. I went to the university In Bern, rode with like-minded friends and became a member of a club. Once I was a full time journalist, bicycling became my antidote to a stressful job. It cleared the mind and still does. Bicycling often feels like meditation.

I met my wife on a bike trip in Italy and in the year 2000, Anne and I embarked on an organized bicycle trip around the world with 200 other cyclists. We went to five continents, 48 countries, 18,000 bicycling miles in 366 days. The earth, indeed, is not flat. We climbed on average 6,000 feet a day with an average distance of 80 miles. This epic trip would not be possible today, because of all the logistical problems, increased security and closed borders. Odyssey 2000 was a lucky, once in a lifetime opportunity.  In some airports, we were loading our own bikes from the tarmac to the plane. China had begun to open. We were in South Africa and one of the first tourist groups staying in black townships just a few years after apartheid ended. The cultural experience was a wonderful part of the trip.

We know you’re passionate about improving Healdsburg for the future. Can you tell us more about how you’re pursuing change in the town?

I’m a member of a group called Healdsburg 2040, a citizen’s group formed after the American Institute of Architects came to Healdsburg in 2018 and delivered a report around the deficiencies, challenges, and assets of Healdsburg, looking forward to the year 2040.

I personally am very interested in bicycle and pedestrian safety on the road. Healdsburg is a major attraction for bicyclists: it’s really like the center of the universe in Northern California. We have a lot of cyclists, but we also have a lot of traffic. We have thousands of commuters, in and out, every day. That will only increase, but bicycle infrastructure is not state-of-the-art. We have the Foss Creek Bicycle pathway, which is very safe, but it’s really meant for families or slower cyclists. Healdsburg 2040 is engaged with the City to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. Initially, the City was not very responsive, but with a new City Council and City management, there’s some momentum.

I grew up in Switzerland, we have tons of bicycle paths and lanes on the roads so I know what it could look like and how safe it could be. I’m a little surprised how far behind a City like Healdsburg is in that regard, but I understand why. Switzerland is a different country. Many roads initially were built hundreds of years ago before there were cars. In many cities the old centers now are car-free. People and businesses like it as part of the culture. That’s why my long-term vision for Healdsburg is to turn the downtown plaza into a bike/pedestrian zone.

For local and visiting cyclists, the redevelopment of Healdsburg Avenue is very important. The broken road surface and the lack of a dedicated bike lane make it a dangerous corridor.  But we have preliminary improvement plans from the intersection with Powell Avenue to the northern city limits. Separate bicycle lanes and sidewalks will provide a safe bike corridor for children to school, including those up in Parkland Farms. The city seems to be in a good position this year to get grant funding for close to $12M. This would be an important step to make Healdsburg a more bike-friendly city.

What’s your go-to post work ride route?

My favorite ride out the door would be Pine Flat. On that road you are often almost by yourself. On the climb the landscape changes so much. I always see wild animals, once even a big herd of wild pigs in the middle of the road. At the flats, where the old mining town was, I feel like I arrived in the Swiss alps. It’s as wild and remote.