Amsterdam: They really do all ride bikes

You know how you’ve heard that all Dutch people ride bikes to get around and that it’s no big deal for them, and you know how you were like “that’s absurd, bicycling is an innately fringe activity, a hard sell, nearly impossible to do in modern cities in the 21st century, and, above all, only really works for people who are young and beautiful and stupidly fearless, not the general population”?

Well, I can confirm that the Dutch do ride.  All of them.  Around the canals and magnificent crooked row houses and upon the cobblestones of Amsterdam, the birthplace of global capitalism, rolls the world’s greatest collection of everyday bicyclists.  Their bikes are simple and effective, their clothing is unremarkable, their heads are unhelmeted, their children are stuffed into bike boxes or perched on seats, and their city is, incredibly, designed to give them the greatest possible degree of priority on the road.

I rolled into this wonderland severely jetlagged and hungry.  I arrived at Schiphol Airport, slapped my bicycle together, and made for town.  I left the airport with a fellow from Spain who was touring back that way through Belgium and France.  Together we experienced, for the first time, the bicycle network of the Netherlands, which is perfect.  By perfect I mean that I can not see how it could be improved or made more complete.  At one point our bike path towards Amsterdam was blocked for constructions, and we were diverted… onto the freeway!  Which, of course, had been entirely shut down so that bikes could use it.  As we roared through a four lane freeway tunnel by our two-wheeled selves, we finally got it.  The Dutch are not kidding around when it comes to bikes.

Soon my Spanish friend’s GPS told him to go a different way than the signs were telling to to go, so we parted.  I could not for the life of me understand his name when he told me, but I still wish him well on his journey.

The secret sauce that makes the bike magic happen here in Amsterdam is the use of separated facilities.  Not this kind, but rather bicycle paths that run alongside every street, between the sidewalk and vehicle travel lanes, usually with a strip of planter or parking separating the bikes and cars.  In the bike planning nerd world, this facility is called a “cycle track.”  We have a handful to fawn over in the states, but in Amsterdam, they have them on most streets, going every direction.

As my tired self rode in that first day, I wheeled the cycle tracks at random, not even sure where I was staying.  I was simply exalting in the experience of the place.  It became clear that for once, everyone was paying as much attention to everyone else on the road as I always do as a vulnerable cyclist. You know how you always hear that cyclists can see and hear better than drivers and react more quickly?  Well, I think that’s probably true, but based on my experience in Amsterdam, American drivers just aren’t trying hard enough.  More importantly, the American road space is designed to relax and beguile American drivers, whereas Amsterdam is designed to slow Dutch drivers down and make them alert.  And they are.  They yield, they wait, they don’t get angry, they know to watch for you when they turn, all of it. It’s great.  I can honestly say that I feel safe around the cars and know that they are watching out for me.

The road just feels different.  It is full of activity, but it is completely calm.  There is no sense of a war zone, no sense of conflict and hatred when different users come close together.  People weave in and out, take opportunities to move forward, yield, brake, and do what they need to do to move through this city that has no stop signs.  When the separated facilities give way to traffic mixed on tight streets between canals, there is just a sense of respect and live-and-let-live, of people finding their way through without hating everyone else.  For those who have driven or bicycled in the USA, this will seem foreign and weird, and it is.  It is also great.

It is impossible to overstate the presence of bicycles on Amsterdam’s streets.  They are piled on every corner, around every tree, against every wall, racked, kickstanded (kickstood?).

I want to give you the experience of traveling through Amsterdam on a bike, and so I have attached a camera to my bicycle and taken some rides.  I’m making a video but it is not yet finished.  You’ll be the first to know, I promise.

Yes, there’s more than bikes here in Amsterdam.  I feel a little sorry for a city that is associated with drugs so completely.  Yes, there are little divey shops here where one can purchase marijuana to smoke.  There are classier shops where one can purchase psychadelics and more.  There is a sex trade.  These are parts of a whole that includes a bunch of stupendously beautiful canals (more than venice), and a completely unique kind of public space characterized by this incredible transportation system.  I can really only help you understand the last bit, and I will try my best to do it.  What a place.

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9 thoughts on “Amsterdam: They really do all ride bikes

  1. I feel disarmed. There really isn’t anything here for me to jump on. I don’t know enough about The Netherlands to criticize your description of facts, and I don’t know enough about transportation engineering to criticize your evaluation of their infrastructure. I’m going to have to call in reinforcements on this one.

  2. Ted, you are a very descriptive writer! Thanks for sharing your trip thus far. I am forwarding your blog address to Steve & Katie and anxiously awaiting the next installment. Love, Mom

  3. I’m thoroughly looking forward to reading this blog and I hope that the rest of your posts are as excellent as this one. Sounds like an amazing city.

    I’m currently in Querétaro, Mexico and every person I have spoken with (other then the street bicycle peddlers) has discouraged me from getting a bicycle (I brought my helmet and lights in anticipation). Two days ago I saw my first bicyclist and domestic tourists were taking pictures of him in the street.

    We truly are in different worlds.

  4. Ted,

    Glad you have arrived in bike-dream-city. I was smiling from ear to ear as I read. It only pains me to think that you will soon have to return to our poorly built American cityscapes, that by and large give preference to the motor vehicle. Enjoy what you can, while you can. And return full of ideas, enthusiasm, and plans. I want to see more cycletracks and the like here on our homefront, outside of Oregon especially.

    In your next blog, could you comment on the public’s ridership during inclement weather. I am curious to hear how the ridership is effected on extremely rainy days.

    No stop signs. Could you speak more about this. I’m assuming the alternative that is most used is the round-about, but I could be wrong, and would like to know more.

    Best,

    Greg

    • @Greg,

      There are a fair number of roundabouts, and there are stoplighted intersections. Instead of stop signs they use a sharkstooth symbol for yield, and people actually yield. Though, the yield often takes the form, for bikes, or continuing to move forward slowly and find the gaps in the space. So far, ridership does not seem to diminish much in inclement weather. Tomorrow a thunderstorm is forecast, and I will let you know (and hopefully show you) what I find.

  5. Ted – Great post! My wife and I were in Amsterdam this last September, and had many of the same feelings as you do about it. It was the most relaxed, comfortable and well-used public space I’ve ever seen in a city. Not to mention, it’s beautiful, and there is a ton of stuff there. By the way – do you know why the row houses all lean outwards slightly? Notice the hooks on top of the building? It’s so you can hoist furniture and large items into the upper stories through the windows (because you can’t take them up the stairs, they’re too narrow). Smart folks, those Nederlanders.

    And honestly, I think they’re ahead of us, even in terms of the drugs and sex trade (at least there, prostitutes are treated like people, have legal protection from abuse, it’s harder to force people into sex trade when it’s legal, and it’s highly regulated, rather than “under the table” and just “whatever goes as long as nobody knows”).

    With regard to drugs – and really society as a whole, they are very live and let live. If you create problems, they’ll do something about it. Otherwise, do what you do and get on with it. I like that an awful lot, as opposed to the overly-legalistic moral code we impose on everyone regardless of whether people are harming others or not here in the U.S.

  6. Pingback: Video and pictures of cycling in Amsterdam | Ted's Notes on Bicycling

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