Amsterdam: Not Cycling Paradise

As the train crossed from Belgium into the Netherlands my excitement grew.  I sat forward to get a better look out of the window at the country side. Then I saw them, beautiful, clean, pale red ribbons stretching through the low lying land.    They were bicycle paths; actually not so much paths as bicycle highways, long and inviting, stretching into the distance with a promise to take you wherever you wanted to go in breezy, smooth self-powered tranquility.  It looked like the Promised Land I expected.

The Netherlands is generally considered one of only a few places in the developed world where biking infrastructure is done right. There, the bicycle is viewed differently than most everywhere else. The bicycle is transportation first and foremost, not a toy, not a fitness device, and over several decades the Dutch have built paths and bike lanes in the cities, suburbs and countryside to facilitate the safe and convenient use of bikes by average people to get from point A to point B.  In that nation there are actually more bicycles than people; that is 17 million inhabitants and 23 million bikes. More than 25% of all trips made by the Dutch are travelled by bicycle. In the Netherlands the city that most often comes up in discussions about how to do biking right is Amsterdam, a dense city of about 800,000 people in the north of the country.  Among bicycle advocates Amsterdam is El Dorado, a fabled gleaming city to which those desiring an enlightened and pragmatic approach to transportation should look.

Bicycle utopia was what I expected. What Amsterdam turned out to be was altogether different, a bicycle dystopia.

Bikes rule the streets of Amsterdam.  They are everywhere. Motor vehicles are there too, but they crawl through the narrow streets in obvious disproportion to the bikes.  Drivers are greatly outnumbered and they seem to know it. They crawl tentatively through the narrow streets in their metal boxes. The people on bikes seems to recognize the power they have.  They ride confidently, young and old, with small children and without helmets. Imagine that: People on bikes feeling powerful in the face of the automobile menace. This is surely a good thing.  But it also seemed a bad thing.

For me, my wife and my 11 year old daughter, biking in Amsterdam was a stressful, chaotic, generally unpleasant experience. I expected carefree, but what I experienced over a week of riding in the city was widespread carelessness among a large number of biking Amsterdammers.  Frankly, I saw more bad biking behavior than I’ve seen in my many years of biking in the United States. Many people biked while staring at their mobile phones, paying little heed to pedestrians and other people on bikes. Lights were rarely used at nighttime. Red lights were run with abandon. Many people thought nothing of riding the wrong way down one way roads.  Often a faster biker would pass within millimeters to get by me as I pedaled in an already narrow bike lane. On one occasion, while pedaling slowly along the right side of a bike lane in the crowded Amsterdam Centraal area, a middle aged man passed very closely to my left. Sitting on the rear rack of his bike was a woman holding a bag or purse. When he attempted his pass one of the straps of the woman’s bag looped around my handlebars and pulled her off the bike and into the street.  She landed in front of a car which, thankfully, was moving slowly and was able to stop in time. Somehow I was able to stay upright. However, another bicyclist behind me struck the fallen woman and crash hard to the ground. After apologies were offered and efforts made to make sure everyone was okay (all seemed to be), I was left wondering why Amsterdam is not the bike city I had expected.

There were several issues I noticed that seem to contribute to make Amsterdam a challenging biking city.  First of all, it is tremendously congested with both residents and tourists, all of whom use bikes to get around.  The busiest bike routes in Amsterdam are simply overwhelmed by the numbers. In addition to the people that live in the city, 20 million tourists visit it yearly.  These tourists, from what I observed, can and do easily rent bikes from one of the bike shops that seem to be on every other corner.  One Dutch study that looked at biking congestion in Amsterdam concluded that, “The cycle lanes and paths in the city are too narrow to safely accommodate this enormous stream of cyclists and busy intersections become congested.”  

Biking in Amsterdam has grown tremendously over a fairly short period of time.  In the 20 years prior to 2012, the number of bike trips taken in Amsterdam has increased by 40%.  One has to wonder if the increased popularity of biking in that city, and the Netherlands as a whole, has outpaced the ability to accommodate them.  The infrastructure is not awesome. This is the second thing that made my experience unenjoyable. The roads and bike paths are difficult to navigate.  Often, the road, sidewalk and bike path blend subtly into one another. I often found that I was not sure if I was in the street, on a bike path, or on the sidewalk.  Also, street names are not well marked. If you are a local and know instinctively where to go you have a clear advantage. But having to rely on street signs that are not obvious, along with spotty internet service, while riding a bike in a large crowd is pretty stressful.  Once you get where you are going, good luck finding a place to lock your bike. Bike racks in Amsterdam are inadequate to an absurd degree. The few that exist are piled high with thickets of bikes at all hours of the day and night.

These two photos show the bike parking situation commonly encountered in Amsterdam. Photos by Brendan Kevenides.

This is a big problem.  Amsterdam residences tend to be small, and out of necessity people tend to leave their bicycles outdoors when not in use.  If a secure lockup spot cannot be found people just lock up their bike’s wheels hoping that this, plus the hefty weight of the typical Dutch bike, will discourage theft.  But bike theft is rampant. One local I spoke with said she had three bikes stolen within a space of six months. While there for only a week I had no trouble picking out a person suspiciously walking up to random strangers on the street asking if they wanted to buy “his” bike.  No wonder people tend to ride some pretty junky looking bikes. Having a “nice” bike makes little sense in light of the probability of having it stolen.

Does an overwhelmed biking infrastructure account for the rampant bad biking behavior I witnessed?  It is hard to say. I saw a lot of people on bikes doing a lot of stupid stuff. But I see a lot of drivers in Chicago do a lot of stupid stuff too:  Texting while driving, running stop signs. Perhaps dominance leads to apathy regardless of the mode of transportation.

The photo above shows two bicyclists approaching each other in an intersection at right angles. It’s not clear to me who has the right of way. Fortunately, a crash was avoided.  Below, a young person stands on the rear of a bicycle being pedaled by an adult. Photos by Brendan Kevenides.

Many Dutch people looked quite comfortable hauling children, groceries and pretty much anything you can think of by bike. Considering the sheer numbers of people, I was surprised that I heard virtually no angry shouting between road users. But surely, this outward calm demeanor among Amsterdammers is unwarranted.  In 2017, in the Netherlands as a whole, of the 613 people killed in traffic crashes, 206 of these were bicyclists.  Between 2000 and 2013 cyclists in Amsterdam accounted for 28% of all traffic deaths in that City, making it the Netherlands’ most dangerous biking city.

Amsterdam is disappointing as a biking city.  Bicycles are ridden haphazardly and are strewn around the city like junk.  Every year some 12,000 to 15,000 of them are fished out of the canals. This is not a model for biking in the United States.  It will probably take generations for biking in any U.S. city to reach the level of popularity it has in Amsterdam. As biking grows here it is important to keep the Dutch experience in mind though.  A safe and pleasant biking experience requires an infrastructure that grows with the biking public. It is not enough to encourage people to ride. They must have safe space in which to do so. Failure in that regard will snuff out the biking movement in the U.S. while it is still in its infancy.  An inability to grow and expand a well-developed biking infrastructure will likely lead to dysfunction.

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