CNU CITY SPOTLIGHT: Amsterdam, Where The Bicycle Rules...

This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

The below post is a City Spotlight on bicycle culture in Amsterdam and comes courtesy of Katie Poppel, University of Cincinnati Planning student, former CNU intern, and current Amsterdam resident. Read Katie’s first post on The Parking War in Cincinnati here.

When one thinks of Amsterdam, bicycles might come to mind. To put some numbers out there: there are about twice the number of bicycles in Amsterdam as citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio. In contrast, the amount of cars in Amsterdam is equivalent to the number of Cincinnati citizens (City of Amsterdam Fietspunt, Google). If you are from the United States, specifically not in a bicycle-friendly city or town, you really have no idea how much of an impact bicycles make on a city.

Taking a cue from its neighbor Copenhagen, Amsterdam has established what it takes to be a bicycle-friendly city. Let’s take a look.


Number 1: Infrastructure

There must be more than dedicated bicycle lanes along major streets. It is vital to create a network of bicycle paths for a range of people. Bicycle parking and signage are important along bicycle paths as well (from a newbie point of view: the pictographs are best).


Bicycle parking areas are equivalent of the automobile parking garage in the States. Just outside of Central Station, a temporary, floating 'bicycle garage' was created, only to be left permanently in its place. 

Additionally, Amsterdam has done an excellent job painting white bicycles along paths adjacent to automobile lanes, and clarifying no bicycle parking spaces with a widely-used pictograph. The term 'complete streets' is second nature here. Pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes, automobile lanes, and tram lines run on a majority of the city streets simultaneously. Major streets might also include dedicated bus lanes, just adding to the mix.

Number 2: Policy

The best way to look at the bicyclist right-of-way is to replace the automobile with the bicycle in American cities. As a pedestrian, you cannot cross a street with a car speeding towards you; one must wait for the green crosswalk signal or for a clear street. This is a similar scenario with bicycles in Amsterdam; one can only cross a bicycle lane when it is clear. There is no pedestrian right-of-way in that sense. The city has promoted bicycle right-of-way over pedestrian right-of-way in many cases, and the citizens understand that policy.

Number 3: Mind-set

Although I see these three aspects as all vitally important, the mind-set of the citizens stands out with stars around it. Mind-set is behind policy and infrastructure; if you do not have enough backing from the policy and infrastructure, the mind-set is pointless. It is like the hidden gem that is yet discovered in many regions of the United States. A 'sustainable' mind-set is not enough; the city, town, or village must be committed to making the switch from an automobile-centered lifestyle to a bicycle-centered lifestyle. Amsterdam residents have accepted the bicycle as the main mode of transportation. 

Overall, I believe residents view the bicycle as a feasible and accessible option. The upkeep is less money than an automobile, and with the policy and infrastructure of Amsterdam, using a bicycle is more accessible than an automobile. It simply became a way of life to use the bicycle versus the automobile.

Together, the above three key aspects work together to create bicycle-friendly Amsterdam.

Photo courtesy of urbantoronto.caConclusion

It's quite entertaining to look back on what I was thinking about the bicycle-lifestyle before arriving in Amsterdam. The most overused phrases I heard were "Well, you'll need to get a bike," or "Watch out for the bicyclists." Day one without a bike was plenty; I bought a bike my second day here. 

I guess I never saw myself as a 'bicyclist,' until now. I now (sadly) judge the pedestrian tourists who believe the red-paved 'walkways' are for them. In reality, they are walking on the bicycle paths, and they will soon learn the truth via a fury of bicycle bells (as was the case for Jeff Speck, as he recounted in his lastest book). I learned the rules fast, not by reading a regulations book, but rather by trial and error. 

While walking, I followed groups of people ahead of me in attempt to not get run-over by a bicycle. I admit I stopped too much on my bike to let older ladies cross the lane, while other bicyclist flew by us. 

Learning the difference between all-pedestrian zones and bicycle-dominated zones was vital. The markets and shopping corridors are where the pedestrians rule, while the streets either include a bicycle lane or enough comfortable room for a bicycle and automobile side-by-side. I also thought I would only ride my bike for longer trips across town or to class. But the only place I now walk to is the grocery, a mere block away. 

And finally, despite what I thought about fully understanding the bicyclist lifestyle, it comes down to using common sense. Using a bicycle is not only sustainable, but a bike gets one to their destination quicker and more efficiently. Bicycles are everywhere, so watch out; stay to the right to allow faster bicyclists to pass and follow the crossing signals. 

Common sense will leave you unscathed in a city where the bike rules.


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