Cycling Adventures, Amsterdam

Find out why Amsterdam is not only a great place to cycle, but a shining example of a city that prioritizes the needs of cyclists over those of drivers.

Written by:

By Robert Butkus

Want to experience the best in urban biking? Try beautiful Amsterdam, probably the most bike friendly city in the world. Pedal power rules, and the enormous bike population is a tourist sight that rivals Amsterdam’s famous tree-shaded canals and the Heineken Brewery tour.

The first impression is that bikes are everywhere. They crowd every street and lean three deep against all vertical surfaces: buildings, railings, trees, fences, bridges, benches. Bike traffic jams clog many intersections, but in these jams, people can at least breathe clean air. What they can’t do is wobble when the jam starts moving.

Even the lovely Vondel Park plays a role in Amsterdam’s bike traffic. The park is about two miles (four kilometers) long and has wide roads and paths for bikes and pedestrians only. During morning rush hour the park acts like a funnel, bringing bikes from the surrounding areas of the city to the park’s eastern gate to create a bike expressway that then crosses a major street of cars, bikes and trams. As the special bike traffic light turns green, the bikes flow east towards the centre of old Amsterdam.

Of the 750,000 people in Amsterdam, 600,000 own bikes. And a recent survey shows that bikes are the most used transport in the city. On average, Amsterdammers use their bikes 0.87 times a day and their cars 0.84 times. That’s about 650,000 bike trips a day along the 249 miles (400 kms) of bike lanes in the city. Because the Dutch know the danger of being doored by parked cars, they build their bike paths away from cars and use angle parking for cars alongside the beautiful canals.

Why do Amsterdammers prefer bikes over automobiles? Narrow 17th century streets, especially alongside and over the canals. Flat landscape. Breathable air. Very high costs of land and parking. And a binding referendum favoring bikes over automobiles.

Visitors are often surprised to see cyclists wearing suits and ties, and smart dresses. They are less surprised when they realize these people are going to work or doing their jobs on bicycles. Here bike riding is a part of life and not a recreational pursuit.

The bikes in Amsterdam come in many different flavors. The plain vanilla bike is a sturdy black model without gears and with old-fashioned high handlebars that allow the rider to sit up straight. Another utilitarian flavor is the box bike. Its front wheel is shrunk to a smaller radius and moved about two feet ahead of the handlebars to accommodate a varnished wooden box that carries bulky items. This bike is no wider than a standard bike and slips through traffic with ease. On one bike, the box was stuffed with twin four-year-old boys.

For a sunny afternoon spin along the canals, there is another flavor, the boat bike powered by two pedalers sitting side-by-side.

An exotic bike flavor is the beer bike. It has four wheels and seats about 10 drinkers around a narrow table. Everyone pedals. It comes with a goodly supply of beer and a non-drinking driver.

Another eye-catching flavor is the black vanilla bike that has been painted entirely in one bright color. Yellow, orange, blue, pink. Anything to help riders find their bike in the bike parking lot. And to deter thieves. Finally, the most amazing flavor is the bike sculpture made from discarded bikes by a local sculptor/welder. One of these would make the perfect memento of the bikes of Amsterdam.

3 Comments

  • Josje van Heerden

    Really surprising to read about my own city and its bikes. I also felt a bit of pride and my first reaction was : ” How does Bob Butkus know all that?”

  • Margaret Behr

    Very interesting article, inspiring to think of people in suits and fancy clothes cycling along. Interesting to know there was a binding city referendum in Amsterdam supporting cycling. We could learn a lot from this city.

  • Alison Barbour

    Let’s challenge Vancouverites to cycle as much as Amsterdamers!

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