Amsterdam Shock

After the horse and cart, the first mechanical invention was the bicycle and its magical pedal, chain and gear system. It remains the most efficient human movement machine ever invented. Nothing else has occurred to the human mind that can move so much weight, so quickly with so little energy. A bicycle is a kind of a miracle machine, but it was a miracle that was soon displaced, after 1896, by the internal combustion engine. That was much less efficient, very expensive to build and maintain but it had one enormous advantage. It tapped into the largest supply of stored energy that the planet contains, the seas of oil left from the carboniferous age – millions and millions of years of decayed organic matter. The bicycle tapped into nothing more than two human legs and the food required to fuel them. There was no contest. Oil won.

I’ve discovered that there is one place in the west where the bicycle was not displaced by the automobile. I’ve heard about it all my life but never visited until this past week – Amsterdam. Fortunately, I visited Berlin first. I think if I had not seen Berlin first, the shock of seeing a city where 80 per cent of the population moves about on a bicycle would have overwhelmed my North American sensibilities. In Ottawa which is considered a bicycle friendly city somewhere between 2 and on a good day 3 per cent of the population moves about on a bicycle. Amsterdam is shocking.

I’m sitting in a café writing this on an Amsterdam street. It is busy. The bicycles flood up and down it like cars do on the busiest streets back home. There is no relief. I keep thinking the crowds of cycles will slow or reduce but they don’t. There are scarcely any cars at all. Cycles are the dominant culture. I can’t get over the variety of cyclists and their casual competence from the littlest child to the a silver haired adult. A child goes by sitting backwards on his mother’s bike, eating an ice cream with one hand, holding onto a cord attached to a suitcase on wheels with the other, all the time chatting away with his Mum. I almost rub my eyes.

It’s a different world. No one wears a helmet. The cyclists dress no differently than pedestrians or car drivers. There is none of the acres of special biker equipment that you see at home. The bikes are set up differently, so people sit very erect, almost straight up and down so they can see easily without any neck or back strain. Neither men and women have cross bars on their bikes so they can dismount and stop in literally the space of one human stride with just a quick forward flick of the knee. Their agility in traffic is nothing short of stunning.

There are lots of very talented cyclists in Canada, but very few are born on a bike and travel on one every day for every purpose, shopping, entertainment, work, visiting friends. In Amsterdam this is more common than grass. A mother passes me with two little boys sitting in a box on her front wheel, the little boys are sitting with their legs draped over the sides of the box, sunning because the day is warm and pleasant. The bike police would put the mother in jail if she tried this in a Canadian city.

I can’t decide what is hardest to adapt to and conclude that it is the density. The first day in Amsterdam Patty is hit by a motorized scooter which are also allowed in the bike lanes. She doesn’t realize the lane is two way and doesn’t look to her left. There is an explosion as the scooter piles into her and she is on the ground, holding her side, the scooter and driver are also down. The traffic moves around the bodies. The man on the motorized bicycle isn’t hurt and he immediately calls the police and the emergency response team on his cell phone. Within minutes, the police and paramedics arrive. Patty is bruised and scraped but appears to be okay. I am obliged to pay the scooter driver 50 euros for damage to his scooter which has the brake on one side twisted and the plastic housing broken. Lesson number one do not step into a bicycle lane in Amsterdam.

Stendhal described a shock he felt when he travelled in Italy of seeing too many beautiful things and being forced to retire to his hotel room to compose himself. It’s now called ‘Stendhal’s Disease’ and many travellers get it and do the same thing, retire from the fray of sight-seeing. I have another travel disease it’s called ‘Amsterdam shock’.

It is now the 4th day that we’ve been in Amsterdam and Patty, being the trooper she is, is back on her bike, but I still can’t get over it. I keep thinking if I close my eyes the scene will change. The floods of cyclists on the street will diminish. Cars will emerge from the shadows and replace them. The five story bicycle parking lots will become five story car lots, but no, it doesn’t happen. Cyclists and trams are the dominant culture in Amsterdam and have been since their invention, now more than a century ago. The automobile never ran the bicycle out of town.

Fortunately, I visited Berlin before moving on to Amsterdam and it gave me a chance to adapt. Berlin was a surprise in many ways. It’s more than sixty years since the Second War ended but you can still see the effects everywhere. Some of the museums have just recently been repaired. Nonetheless I found the city to be youthful and inspiring in many different ways. Not the least of which was fifty per cent of Berlin households do not own cars and you can certainly see this on the streets where cars and bicycles are about equal.

Berlin has a North American feel to it. The streets are wide. The city sprawls across the landscape. There’s plenty of open spaces. It doesn’t feel crowded. It’s a young city. You can imagine it is how Ottawa or Toronto might look if they invested in bicycle lanes on all the major streets and beefed up their transit. Berlin pleasantly surprised me but it did not overwhelm me. Amsterdam did.

Read more of my articles from Europe posted on  Spacing Ottawa

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4 Responses to Amsterdam Shock

  1. M.C. says:

    Lieve Clive,

    The bicycle was definitely displaced by the automobile in Amsterdam. The city’s current cycling-friendly culture was created from scratch at the beginning of the 20th century, with a sharp decline in the 1960s. With an increase of wealth and the sprawl of suburbs, cars became a favorite. By the 1970s, less than 20% of the population used a bicycle. One could compare this to Ottawa’s 2-3% but that only shows how backward Canadian cities really are. There’s lots to love about Canadian cities, but urbanism is not one of them.

    Now, that said, it’s interesting to think of how Amsterdam got its bike culture back. Several things worked in its favor:

    01. Unoffical/Official—First and foremost, Amsterdam had an exciting unofficial culture of urban activism (Provo, Cyclists Federation) and an exciting official culture at the leadership and policy levels. You need both. Toronto has the unofficial spirit (Toronto Public Spaces Committee, Spacing); but no constant official spirit (Rob Ford is nothing more than an abomination). Ottawa has neither (although its strong protest culture is more about regional or national issues). Montreal has a strong unofficial spirit, and an on-off official spirit. You need both to be in sync and for long periods of time.

    02. Conservative not progressive—In 1978 a new Amsterdam city council was voted into office. And without any secret car lobbies haunting city hall, they responded to social movements playing the healthy and environmental cards. But the tipping point came when conservative groups wanted their Dutch golden era back. And that meant cars and congestion had to leave the city. Then, bikes made a comeback.

    03. Public property—The city owns the land on which it sits; properties are not privatized. Homes and structures can be owned privately, but the land itself is public. You can imagine how easy it is for the city to implement new bike lanes or garages; let alone benches, tress or what not. They do what they want.

    04. Flat topography—The city is really, really flat; making the bicycle an obvious mode of transportation. Only a few bridges in the center really get your thighs going.

    As another note, I’ve read very conflicting data on the rate of cycling in Amsterdam. You mentioned 80%; a recent study from the University of Amsterdam cites: 35 % bicycle, 40 % car and 25 % public transport. I’ve also heard 40% and 65% so one can never be too sure about the data.

    In the historic city center proper—where tourism is rampant—it does seem like bikes take over. But just a few kilometers away in the residential district where I live for example, bike are rare, whereas cars and haul trucks dominate to the point that road noise is present in our house 24 hours a day. It’s the same as visiting Ottawa’s parliament hill and concluding the entire city is one big gothic revival fairy land. It’s hard to judge a place by such a small sample.

    Having lived in Amsterdam for the last three years, I can say I was also surprised by the bike culture, but I’ve also seen this in other tourism-drive city centers like Copenhagen. Within a week or two, the surprise wears off, and its just more pleasant, faster and cheaper to ride your bike. Within a month, it seems completely normal and you start taking it for granted. Even today, new metro circuits are going underground, and new bike garages are popping up near train stations.

    Hopefully, if you visited Amsterdam again, you could visit the city’s edge and your shock would wear off over time.
    Groetjes!

  2. M.C. says:

    Lieve Clive,

    The bicycle was definitely displaced by the automobile in Amsterdam. The city’s current cycling-friendly culture was created from scratch at the beginning of the 20th century, with a sharp decline in the 1960s. With an increase of wealth and the sprawl of suburbs, cars became a favorite. By the 1970s, less than 20% of the population used a bicycle. One could compare this to Ottawa’s 2-3% but that only shows how backward Canadian cities really are. There’s lots to love about Canadian cities, but urbanism is not one of them.

    Now, that said, it’s interesting to think of how Amsterdam got its bike culture back. Several things worked in its favor:

    01. Unoffical/Official—First and foremost, Amsterdam had an exciting unofficial culture of urban activism (Provo, Cyclists Federation) and an exciting official culture at the leadership and policy levels. You need both. Toronto has the unofficial spirit (Toronto Public Spaces Committee, Spacing); but no constant official spirit (Rob Ford is nothing more than an abomination). Ottawa has neither (although its strong protest culture is more about regional or national issues). Montreal has a strong unofficial spirit, and an on-off official spirit. You need both to be in sync and for long periods of time.

    02. Conservative not progressive—In 1978 a new Amsterdam city council was voted into office. And without any secret car lobbies haunting city hall, they responded to social movements playing the healthy and environmental cards. But the tipping point came when conservative groups wanted their Dutch golden era back. And that meant cars and congestion had to leave the city. Then, bikes made a comeback.

    03. Public property—The city owns the land on which it sits; properties are not privatized. Homes and structures can be owned privately, but the land itself is public. You can imagine how easy it is for the city to implement new bike lanes or garages; let alone benches, tress or what not. They do what they want.

    04. Flat topography—The city is really, really flat; making the bicycle an obvious mode of transportation. Only a few bridges in the center really get your thighs going.

    As another note, I’ve read very conflicting data on the rate of cycling in Amsterdam. You mentioned 80%; a recent study from the University of Amsterdam cites: 35 % bicycle, 40 % car and 25 % public transport. I’ve also heard 40% and 65% so one can never be too sure about the data.

    In the historic city center proper—where tourism is rampant—it does seem like bikes take over. But just a few kilometers away in the residential district where I live for example, bike are rare, whereas cars and haul trucks dominate to the point that road noise is present in our house 24 hours a day. It’s the same as visiting Ottawa’s parliament hill and concluding the entire city is one big gothic revival fairy land. It’s hard to judge a place by such a small sample.

    Having lived in Amsterdam for the last three years, I can say I was also surprised by the bike culture, but I’ve also seen this in other tourism-drive city centers like Copenhagen. Within a week or two, the surprise wears off, and its just more pleasant, faster and cheaper to ride your bike. Within a month, it seems completely normal and you start taking it for granted. Even today, new metro circuits are going underground, and new bike garages are popping up near train stations.

    Hopefully, if you visited Amsterdam again, you could visit the city’s edge and your shock would probably wear off over time.
    Groetjes!

    • Clive says:

      We rented an apartment at the end of the southwest subway line in a suburb. The subway stop exit opened onto a pedestrian and bicycle path and bus turn-around. There was no place for a car to park or stop. I assumed the person who was going to meet us was going to do so in a car and went looking for the parking lot. I was wrong. She was meeting us on a bicycle.

      We biked into Amsterdam or took the train. The suburban communities that we biked through had no surface parking lots that I could see. It was all pedestrian and bike paths. The photograph of the stacked bicycles is not from Amsterdam but from a train station at a country town outside of Amsterdam. We went to the museum of Amsterdam history, the exhibit is called DNA and the bicycles on display there don’t seem to have changed from fifty years ago.

      I thought the relatively modern invention of the bike lanes in Amsterdam have made things easier for automobile drivers as fifty years ago cyclists simply took up the entire lane and what drivers there were had to just sit back and wait until the cyclists ahead of them had departed. The cycle lanes have also made it harder on pedestrians who now have two distinct lanes of traffic to contend with at intersections. Not saying they should be done away with or anything like that, I’m no expert on Amsterdam cycling but from my brief visit there, my impression was of a distinct cycling culture and a long history entirely different from anything else I’ve experienced anywhere in the world, including exceptional bicycling cities like Berlin. Needless to say, it’s evolution and present operation is more complex than these small experiences and impressions would lead one to believe.

  3. Alia Geiger says:

    Hi Clive,

    Sorry we missed you in Amsterdam -I could have leant you my cargo bike I use to bring Samara around town (since I am one of many in Amsterdam without a car) to test it out.

    Hope you have a great remainder of the trip.
    Alia

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