Anyone who has ever tried to make their way through the centre of Amsterdam in a car knows it: the city is owned by cyclists. They hurry in swarms through the streets, unbothered by trac rules, taking precedence whenever they want, rendering motorists powerless by their sheer numbers.The Guardian, May 5, 2015How tocyclelike anAmsterdammer
We’re happy that you’re joining us. If chaos is not renewed, it ceases to be chaos. And chaos is the essence of cycling in Amsterdam. In the legendary words of one cyclist:
out of Amsterdammers own a bike and cover million kilometers every day (.M miles, or fiy times around the world). It is the most popular form of transportation (% of all movements). The city has more bikes than inhabitants.* Every year , abandoned or misplaced bikes are removed and , more are dredged from the canals, most of them without their owner.* This goes for the whole of the Netherlands. The Dutch own a total of 22.5 million bikes. That is an average of 1.3 bikes per person — more than in any other country.
Straight from the start, cycling in Amsterdam had that anarchist twist.It happens repeatedly — perhaps 90 times out of 100 — that at dangerous intersections, cyclists ignore the trac police-man’s signal for them to stop. Most of the blame for accidents lies with the cyclists, who oen ride in the most incon-siderate ways. They are careless, try to slip through every little It wasn’t always like this. We were even quite slow in adopting the bike. Cycling remained a rich man’s hobby well into the s, when cheap bicycles from hyperinflated Germany started flooding the market. Then it caught on like stroop on wales. Amsterdam police tried to curb the new phenomenon with speed limits and a local politician even proposed a daytime ban on cycling downtown. All to no avail. Before the decade was over, the fiets ruled the streets.
opening and they don’t bother to dismount when the situation asks for it. Strikingly, it is mostly young ladies who are the worst violators of trac regulations. They exceed the maximum speed and ignore the instructions of policemen with a mocking look on their faces: ‘Go ahead and ne me if you dare.’Algemeen Handelsblad, October 30, 1921Don’t blame us. It is hard not to get carried away by the bike’s tremendous inner power.* It is small and agile and a couple of pedal strokes are enough to propel it to maximum speed. Wouldn’t you ‘try to slip through every little opening’ yourself? As soon as you climb the saddle, you’re under the spell.* Thanks to a few clever inventions (notably the roller chain and the ball bearings), the bike may well be, as someone dubbed it, ‘the most perfect means of transportation of all time’. Philosopher Ivan Illich wrote in Energy and Equity (1973): ‘Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses ve times less energy in the process. (...) Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the eciency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.’
Yes, it can be pretty chaotic indeed. Is it all too overwhelming? Trust that we’ll always find our way around you. We already spotted you a minute ago. If you don’t slalom over the full width of the bike lane or brake all of a sudden, you’ll be fine.When walking on or across streets in Holland never halt or change your pace abruptly! This caution is of utmost importance, since dis-regard of it may cause a severe bump with some cyclist. Holland’s bike-pushers plot their swi and silent courses on the assumption that the pedestrian will keep going where he seems to be going, that he will not strike o at a sudden, whimsical tangent, that
he will not stop in the middle of the street to see if he le his traveler’s checks back in the room.Sydney Clark, All the Best in Holland (1950)This book is not a cycling course. We assume that you know how to cycle; it is as easy as riding a bike.Pedal. Anticipate. Make eye contact. Repeat.
If you don’t pull any stupid stunts, we will welcome you as a member of our legion. Sure, we can be moody, impatient, rude. We will yell at you in Dutch. Know that it happens to the best of us. Every moment is a new chance to rejoin. The legion has no long-term memory. If things go awry, or almost: a smile, a wave, a sorry and it is all good. Nothing of that road rage that inevitably creeps up on you in your car. The Dutch poet Rutger Kopland (-) wrote that on a bike everything goes slowly, but still fairly fast. Riding a bike in Amsterdam is all about this contradictory mood. Either you get it or you don’t, and then you learn to understand it.
A building that you’ve never seen before, the so sun on its facade, a smile from a stranger, a friend that greets you from across the street, the smells, sounds and sheer feeling of today. All this, and still making it from Oost to West in twenty-five minutes flat, almost without eort.‘You would have already been there by bike.’ Amsterdam Cyclists’ Union, 1980.
Have you ever realized how irrational the act of cycling really is? You get to go three or four times faster than by foot and they give you a bell to make everybody jump out of your way. What can this be but a loophole in reality?About that bell: if you ring it without reason and end like a five year old (or a stoned tourist) we will bodycheck you.
You could consider not using your bell at all. Going stealth mode adds an interesting layer to your experi-ence. It forces you to be creative. Hunt for openings, play with that coaster brake and master the perfect sur place balancing act. In a narrow alley, you can choose to be a jerk or a gentleman.
On a bicycle (...) you learn how to negotiate with other people, in a kind of dance, especially in places without trac lights. A city bike allows you to look around you, to communicate with your whole body by keeping your legs still or rather moving them, to take a look over your shoulder, by exchanging a few words of under-standing.De Correspondent, October 28, 2019#nevertheless If an ignoramus crosses Damstraat without even looking up, we’ll definitely graze him, just enough to scare him for the weekend. We are not holy.
A zebra crossing on a bicycle lane: why is it even there?
(Maybe it is not out of rudeness that cyclists don’t stop at zebra crossings. Another possible explanation is that breaking all too suddenly is oen just too dangerous for the cyclists behind you. We leave it to your judgment.) If you want to indicate that you’re taking a turn, just let your arm dangle. Or, when it is already dangling, stick a finger out. You don’t want to make it too obvious.
A red light? Sure. It became obvious to me that, for many Amsterdam bikers, green meant ‘go’, yellow also meant ‘go’, and while red didn’t necessarily mean ‘go’, by no means did it mean ‘stop’.Pete Jordan, In the City of Bikes (2013)
Do not hesitate to call messer-uppers to order. It may even be your best move if you want to pass for a local. Just tell them that they cycle like a wet newspaper. Agreed, that is a strange expression.U etst als een natte krant!Distrust cyclists wearing a helmet. They wish to protect themselves, but are themselves the greatest danger. A helmet ban would considerably increase road safety — another token of the irrational character of cycling.
The only demand you should make, is for a properly functioning luggage rack, or bagagedrager. There is nothing quite like having your new love sitting behind you, an arm around your waist, together against the world.Always ask yourself: is my bike ramshackle enough? Can I save up some money to buy an older, noisier, more run-down one, with an even more dramatically buckled back wheel?→ Probably the most famous Amsterdam cycling scene: Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven in Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973).
Wrong groove!If you happen to find yourself on the back of a bike: find your balance and get into that groove.
This is the tourists’ footprint, can you believe it? Check those long, empty stretches of canal, the veins of a Unesco World Heritage site — waiting just for you and your bike.
There must be fiy ways from Dam Square to your apartment, but the best one is always the one that you haven’t found yet, a necessary turn still a blind spot, a great possibility an unknown. There is always (always!) a faster way from A to B.Oh, the joy of slowly cracking the secrets of those weirdly bent canals, making erratic, illogical jumps from one to the other, using quiet little streets and side canals as warp zones, knowing that you’ll maybe never find them back again. The canals were there before the bike was invented, but they were made for this.
#nerdpleasure Taking a faster route than the person cycling in front of you. Popping up way ahead of him a couple of streets later, keeping a poker face.
Aer I picked a vector and owned it, made strong directional choices at intersections, and stopped riding in fear, I t into the ow of Dutch trac much better. Making eye contact with other riders and pedestrians, each of us using the other’s feedback to negotiate those individual interac-tions, solved encounters that previously would have paralyzed me.The New Yorker, September 13, 2019Throw your weight into that sharp turn, brake, stand on your pedals, dodge a stag do and a selfie-taking duckface, accelerate, enjoy the rush of being intensely alert.
Ah yes, those cars! Where did they suddenly come from? The whole situation changed dramatically in the 1950s, when cars became aordable. They were the future and they were everywhere. Within a few years, car ownership tripled and proud owners drove and parked them everywhere they could, clogging streets and squares. Amsterdam changed radically. Even the chief of the municipal trac police said: ‘Cycling nowadays is tantamount to attempting suicide.’ The city did nothing. In fact, it regarded the bike as a thing of the past (‘Every worker his own car’) and started making plans to demolish large parts of the inner city to create motorways. In the modern city, there was no place for the bike.There is no better moment to feel part of the swarms that own Amsterdam than when the light changes from red to green, setting you and ten, twenty, thirty others in motion, to the sound of idle car motors.
How did we win back the city? It was civil activism that turned the tide. In the 60s, members from counterculture movement Provo were the rst to protest against ‘the asphalt terror of the motorized bourgeoisie’. Their White Bicycle Plan — 20,000 white bikes spread across the city, free to use for everyone — was the world’s rst shared bike concept, the forerunner of (among others) Vélib’ in Paris and Citi Bike in New York. Only a few white bikes were ever distributed, which were either stolen or became obsolete, but the plan helped raise awareness for the cause. In the 70s, the growing death toll from trac accidents broadened the resistance. Guerilla provocations turned into massive gatherings, culminating in a big protest on Museumplein in 1977. A year later, the city council decided to change course and cater more for the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. A plan from the 1930s, the heyday of the bike, was revived for further development of the city, which would be kept compact and cycleable. Many other Dutch cities did the same thing. So yes, we cycle because our cities are compact, but our cities are also compact because we cycle.That look of despair on a motorist’s face who is beginning to fear that that side street will never cease vomiting cyclists.
Cycling is an act of so resistance. Against hurry, against noise, against rage, against pollution — against all things that make Amsterdam uglier.← December 15, 1972 — Members of pressure group ‘Stop Child Murder’ block a street in neighourhood De Pijp. In 1971, the number of trac casualties in the Netherlands had risen to 3,300, including 400 children. June 4, 1977 — Hundreds of cyclists lie down beside their bikes on Museumplein (back then still a main road), to symbolize the casualties from trac accidents.
Against power as well. Earlier this century, the Rijksmuseum had to revoke its plans (‘Safety!’) to close its thoroughfare for cyclists aer fierce protests, even from the city council. In the Republic of Amsterdam, the bike is the big equalizer. The chiaroscuro, the ricocheting sounds of people and music, Rembrandt’s Night Watch right above you, bright Museumplein looming up on the other side — there is just no way you can cycle here and not feel part of something beautiful. Also: zero serious accidents so far.
Cyclists don’t kill people Sometimes their rear light needs xing Sometimes they take their hands o the handlebar They don’t always stop for a red light But cyclists don’t kill people Cyclists don’t kill peopleFrom Fietsers rijden geen mensen dood, a song by Dutch chansonnier Joop VisserWhat makes cycling in Amsterdam so wonderful, is that it works so wonderfully well. Of course, there are jerks everywhere, and some people just have no manners. But just check this out…
It is beautiful. That intricate weaving and unweaving. Jazz! Jazz to the beat of the city. ← Still from the video Fietsen in Amsterdam (Mr. Visserplein) of a junction downtown. You can nd it on Vimeo.
The separate bike lanes (tradition-ally executed in red tarmac) work wonders to orchestrate the chaos.* There are now almost kilometers of them (more than miles) in the city and their engineering is an ongoing business. In the whole of the Netherlands, there are , kilome-ters (, miles) of cycle lanes and paths, more than half of which were built in the past two decades. Every year, another miles are added.Saw those white lines for the cyclists in the video? They have, in the meantime, been repainted and given the shape of a funnel to let more cyclists through a green light, squeezing them together only aerwards. Somehow it works, the engineers say. Measures like this are oen a matter of trial and error; the swarms largely defy reason.** Want to see the dierence? Check the video 3-Way Street by Ron Gabriel (2011), of an inter-section in New York.* Some measures are more self-evident. In 2019, Amsterdam banned mopeds from bike lanes and a national law prohibited the use of mobile phones on bikes. The moped ban decimated the number of accidents with cyclists.
The latest approach is an almost complete laissez-faire. Behind Central Station, on a busy junction with passengers to and from the ferries, the bike lanes have entirely been erased. Pedestrians and cyclists, around , every day, all share the same space. The result is — it sounds drearily conventional — caution. Cyclists are particularly wary. They’ve dropped their surliness, their grumpy, quasi-rebel-lious attitude. The usual I’m-biking-so-you-will-have-to-wait has been replaced by an almost charming demeanor. During one pretty busy evening rush hour even a ‘Go ahead’ was heard. We made a note of it, even though it was unforgettable.Het Parool, February 27, 2016
Elsewhere, on busy Alexander-plein, with two intersecting tram lines, traic lights have also been entirely removed. The street leading downtown, Sarphatistraat, has been turned into a bicycle street (fietsstraat) where cars are ‘guests’.
The main municipal goal is now to make the city center safer and more attractive for cyclists and pedes-trians. An extensive grid of bicycle lanes has been designated where, should choices have to be made, cyclists come first. Some districts and neighourhoods are turned into ‘nearly car-free’ areas. It is now virtually impossible to cross Damrak and Rokin by car without getting a ticket.By , all combustion engines will be banned from the city center. Amsterdam is becoming quiet again, what a great prospect! But it is not only about the exhaust, the noise and the pollution. An electric car remains a car: an extremely ineicient form of transport, taking too much space and causing congestion. A kilo juggernaut to transport an kilo person — it just makes no sense, not in a city at least.
Sure, a car feels nice, it is convenient and gives you privacy and freedom, but just look at what you gain when a city opts for the modest and humble bike instead.Museumplein in 1982 and 2016.
A bike is something yet almost nothing.From a 1965 pamphlet by countermovement Provo, announcing its White Bicycle Plan.‘Large clearance! 12 in the place of 1.’ Theo van den Boogaard / Amsterdam Cyclists’ Union, 1993.
A city doesn’t have to surrender to motorized traic. It can be so much more gentle, clean, quiet, safe, healthy and relaxed.* But it takes courage and imagination to see that.* While driving only costs society money, cycling actually yields a social prot of 0.43 euro per travelled mile (longer life expec-tancy, lower healthcare costs, less pollution, etc.) The Netherlands invests 595 million euros in cycling every year, but that saves the healthcare system 19 billion euros.Once you see how beautiful cycling is, old school motorized traic becomes almost unbearably loud and filthy. This sticker of the ‘fair moped’ popped up in .
An inviting infrastructure is a matter of making sound choices. You can demand that cyclists wear a helmet, so that drivers don’t have to change their behaviour, or you can decide to build streets that are safer* for everyone. * In Amsterdam, there are 0.4 fatalities per 10,000 bike commuters every year. In Copenhagen, this number is even lower, at 0.3. In New York, it is a staggering 6.4. Dutch investments in better cycling infrastructure prevented 1,600 trac casualties between 1998 and 2007. Our critical mass dictates the pace of life in Amsterdam. The bike has given the city a wonderful vibe. Come and jam with us, it is such a joy. Then spread the word back home.
Of all the bad faith arguments made against making space for cycling, three in particular persist: our terrain isn’t at enough, our weather isn’t nice enough, our streets aren’t wide enough. Were any of these valid, Los Angeles would be the bicycle capital of the world.From a tweet by Melissa & Chris Bruntlett (@modacitylife), authors of Building the Cycling City, The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality.
AerthoughtAmsterdam has not invented the cycling city, of course. Other Dutch cities were even quicker with radical choices. Groningen was the first to introduce a circulation plan to keep cars out of the city center () and Del pioneered an integral grid of bicycle lanes (). These days, it is Utrecht that leads the field, with major bike-friendly infrastructure changes and the world’s largest bike parking (, spots, opened ). Things are changing. Cities around the world are banning cars from their city centers, removing parking spots and investing in bike lanes. Copenhagen has been a frontrunner for many years. In , the mayor of Paris pledged to make the city % bikeable. Reclaim the public space. Your city can be a cycling city too!
Quotes A very valuable source for this book was Pete Jordan’s In the City of Bikes. This is also where I found the quotes from Algemeen Handelsblad and Sydney Clarke, and of course Jordan’s own observation (‘It became obvious to me...’). ‘On a bicycle (...) you learn how to negotiate with other people’ is a quote from an article by Thalia Verkade on Dutch news website De Correspondent (‘Wat een fiets met zijn berijder doet’). The quote by Ivan Illich also comes from an article by Verkade, on the same site (‘Waarom de fiets veel sneller is dan je denkt, en de auto veel trager’, July , ). It was Provo that dubbed the bicycle ‘the most perfect means of transport of all time’. ‘Aer I picked a vector and owned it’ is a quote from an article by Dan Kois, ‘How I learned to Cycle Like a Dutchman’, published in The New Yorker. The article on the shared space behind Central Station can be found on the website of newspaper Het Parool. The Dutch headline is ‘Ongelooflijk, maar er gaat niks mis in Shared Space’. I have borrowed the point about the social benefits of cycling (‘While driving only costs society money’) from Melissa and Chris Bruntlett (@modacitylife). The statistics about bike safety come from the Dutch Cycling Embassy. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the White Bicycle Plan in Amsterdam and today’s succesfull initiatives worldwide. Search for ‘bicycle-sharing systems’.
Bibliography & Further Reading Building the Cycling City, The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality Chris & Melissa Bruntlett, Bike City Amsterdam Fred Feddes & Marjolein de Lange, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist Pete Jordan, Learn to Cycle in Amsterdam Xing Chen, Videos You can find the bike scene from Turkish Delight on YouTube under the apt title ‘Riding it Dutch Style on a Dutch bike with a girl on the rear rack’. ‘Fietsen in Amsterdam (Mr. Visserplein)’ and ‘-Way Street’ are on Vimeo. City photographer Thomas Schlijper has made a wonderful video of the shared space behind Central Station: ‘Shared space Amsterdam minutes’. Not Just Bikes and BicycleDutch regularly post videos about the history and daily practice of Dutch infrastruc-ture planning. Check ‘Autoluw: the (nearly) car-free streets of the Netherlands’ and ‘How the Dutch got their cycle paths’.
Stock Photos & Images Op die fiets was u er al. Archive Cyclists’ Union Amsterdam/City Archives Amsterdam. Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit). Rob Houwer Film, . Stop Child Murder. Rob Mieremet, National Archives/Anefo. Protest on Museumplein. Rob Bogaerts, National Archives/Anefo. Museumplein before and aer. Frans Busselman, City Archives Amsterdam & C. Messier (Wikipedia, ). Grote opruiming. Theo van den Boogaard, . Archive Cyclists’ Union Amsterdam/City Archives Amsterdam.© Reinier Spreen/Fusilli Publishers Concept and text: Reinier Spreen Artwork: Lae Schäfer Photography: Mikko Kuiper Typography: Sander PinkseFUSILLI