Biking in Amsterdam

Amsterdammers are likelier to ride bikes to work than they are to drive, walk or take public transport. The city possesses more than three bikes for every car. More than half of traffic movement in the central city is by bicycle.

I was vaguely aware of these impressive stats when I touched down at Schiphol airport last month, but still unprepared for what I beheld in Central Amsterdam in the afternoon rush hour. Cars rolled past, true enough, but what impressed were the Critical Mass-ready throngs streaming past on bicycles: rumpled collegiate types; up and comers in suits; parents with infants in tow; cyclists with groceries, books, briefcases in handlebar racks; kids old enough to travel on their own and plenty of elders like me (although none quite as handsome). They traveled alone, traveled in packs, pedaled in protected bike lanes when they had them and in traffic when they didn’t. Sometimes, they skipped onto sidewalks.

Amsterdam cycle track

Cycle track in Amsterdam

I nagged myself to unlimber my dSLR, but can offer only this meek photo of cyclists’ anonymous backs on a protected bike track near the Heemstedestraat Metro station, relatively far from the city center. Fortunately, other photographers have done the job for me. Plug ‘Amsterdam bicycles‘ in Google Images or Flickr; see what comes up.

I left Amsterdam persuaded that some cities can do much more of their getting around by bicycle than I had supposed beforehand. In sprawling Los Angeles, probably not; in compact San Francisco, certainly, despite the city’s hills. I know Americans who still regard cyclists as a kind of hangnail on the transit grid: nuisances, pursuers of a fad, well-intentioned things-in-the-way-of-the-car, and so forth. I doubt they could or would feel that way after visiting Amsterdam.

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Now, with that said: how eager would I be to leap onto the seat and join the pedaling Dutch?

Not very eager. I don’t think Amsterdam accommodates cyclists as well as Copenhagen. For several reasons:

  • Someone had the bad, bad idea of letting motorized scooters share protected bike lanes with cyclists. Scooters account for three percent of traffic, and sixteen percent of accidents.
  • Amsterdam cyclists often pedal in their own lanes, but get to risk their necks with cars when they don’t. I saw one impatient driver tailgating inches from an unsuspecting cyclist’s rear wheel.

The combination of serious bike traffic and car traffic also offers up a real zoo for the pedestrian. I am used to checking for cars before I cross a street, and regarding myself as safe if I see none. In Amsterdam, the pedestrian must check as zealously for approaching bicycles, and trams, too. I am loathe to risk my Grecian good looks in a collision, and that loathing kept my noggin moving like a bobblehead doll as I checked left, right, up, down and sideways during any foray off the sidewalk. And I wasn’t entirely safe on the sidewalk, either, as some outlaw pedal pushers steer their bikes onto them.

For an inkling of what a pedestrian is in for, try pasting ‘Muntplein, Amsterdam, the Netherlands‘ into Google Maps, firing up Streetview, and imagining the scene shown with a commute hour crowd.

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Other observations:

  • Amsterdammers pedal beaters, perhaps because they don’t expect to keep them.
  • I’m afraid I saw no bicycle helmets.
  • It’s odd to see adults and kids together in a commute stream. I spotted many of late elementary school or middle school age pedaling solo.

For more photos, please click on the Amsterdam album on my Flickr page.

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