Photo By Molly Millar
Editor's Note: The Amsterdam Effect
The Amsterdam Effect
I’m optimistic that we can build better cities in North America by accepting the bicycle as a vital part of our transportation mix. Feeling the effects of a waning optimism, I booked a trip to Amsterdam.
At first glance, Amsterdam is a magical, enchanted, and charming place. The city – with ample infrastructure to support bicycling and walking – feels like an active transportation theme park. Everyday people ride bicycles here: young and old, couples such as the woman riding side saddle on the rear with her arms wrapped around her man, and mothers and fathers with their children in cargo bikes or riding close behind. All of this amidst stunning architecture.
I stayed in a beautiful apartment with a bay window in view of a canal. Outside my window, the majority of traffic was pedestrians and bicycle riders and it was blissfully quiet except for the occasional laugh, conversation, or ringing bike bell. Not wanting to stick out like a sore thumb, I rented a black bike from a shop near my apartment on the Bloemstraat canal. Tourists can quickly be spotted on yellow, green, orange, or red bikes, intended to make it easier to find your bike after you park it. But if you want to blend in and pretend to be Dutch, seek out a bike rental place with black bicycles.
Venturing out by bicycle at night, I found the center city ring closed to most car traffic – open to taxi drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. At times the peaceful lack of noise on the street was remarkable. Walking alongside the pristine reflections of city life in the canals felt like I was viewing paintings in a museum. Without masses of cars clogging the streets, the feeling of safety was overwhelming. The canals and multitudes of riders and pedestrians to watch made sitting at an outdoor café pleasant on almost any street.
Beyond bikes, the city is culturally rich with hundreds of museums including my favorite, the Rijksmuseum. Although I love the art, I was even more impressed with the 2-way bicycle path running directly through the museum.
Whether traveling for work or pleasure, I prefer to experience most cities by bicycle. However, renting a decent bike can be a chore, especially in cities that don’t have bike share, and navigating city streets can be a challenge where bicycles are an afterthought or not thought of at all. Even so, the pleasures always far outweigh the difficulties. On a bike there is no barrier to experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of a city. I’m immediately able to discover my surroundings; a 15-minute ride is usually enough time to find restaurants and coffee shops to return to later. Most of all, I love joining the others riding by as I know that they’ve uncovered a secret – that the best way to get around their city is by bike.
Amsterdam has renewed my hope and optimism that better cities can be built by putting pedestrians and bicycles first. Cities are for people, not automobiles, and the Dutch have definitely figured that out. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to follow.
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