Today, I did what I do every day: I rode my bike to work. I started along an iconic Amsterdam-red bike lane from my house in Amsterdam-Noord to the Ijplein ferry, disembarked on the other side of the river and made my way through a chaotic and humbling course of separated cycle tracks, canal-side streets, shared lanes, and the inevitable challenge of finding parking. I did this not because I am remarkable or healthy or in good physical shape, I did it mostly because it’s the simplest and easiest way to get to work in Amsterdam.
This, of course, is no accident. The City has been planning for my trip to work, and the 665,000 other trips that will happen by bike today, for the last forty years. While it remains a source of intrigue to the rest of the world, going by bike here is so commonplace, it’s hardly reflected upon by Dutch people. And while it is a remarkable and complex system of uncoordinated and graceful movements between strangers, Amsterdam wasn’t always this sophisticated. In the 1950’s the same thing happened here that happened to all other major cities: the introduction of the car radically transformed public life. Plazas that today are full of people socializing were being turned into parking lots, each parked car suffocating a little bit of life out of public space in exchange for empty promises of the ‘mode of the future.’ In 1971, a staggering increase in traffic casualties, caused by vehicles in the city, reached a peak of 3,300 deaths. Due to these events, action groups formed and civil disobedience garnered political support that dramatically altered the type of mobility that would characterize the Netherlands in coming years.
Flashing forward to how Amsterdam is doing now, demanding room for bicycles is still high on the agenda. The long-term bicycle plan projects investment of nearly 65 million dollars into improving the bicycle infrastructure and making going by bike more comfortable for people of all ages and abilities. In a city with an 800-year-old historic core, carving out space for multiple types of mobility is no easy feat. Often, it means making intentional decisions to exclude cars from spaces that are heavily trafficked by pedestrians and cyclists. The benefits of doing so, however, are to everyone’s advantage; people riding bicycles in Amsterdam save motorists around 60,000 hours of traffic time per year, worth around $71 million dollars. Cycling in Amsterdam also saves big on health; the City estimates that 50,000 sick days are saved every year among people who cycle, which represents $18 million dollars in value to the economy. With an ambitious goal to increase bicycle trips from overall thirty-six percent to fifty percent by 2030, these benefits will continue to improve life in Amsterdam - for all - from a health, social, and economic perspective.
In order to achieve this goal, the City must continue to iron out some of the more nuanced challenges facing bicycle users such as where to park and how to connect the growing population of Amsterdam-Noord to the rest of the city south of the river. In terms of parking, there are more bicycles than there are people, and with thousands of trips happening every day, bikes often end up squeezed into every corner of available space. The result is city-wide crowding of fences and entrances, an estimated 15,000-20,000 bikes even end up in canals each year to be eventually fished out by government workers. In order to combat the problems associated with excessive parking needs, the City is working to expand the number of pleasant and attractive parking facilities in public spaces and decrease the burden placed on current parking facilities. There has also been an increase in painted boxes meant to nudge people toward more carefully and orderly parking, and ‘pop up parking’ at night which use lights to project parking squares on the ground in highly used spaces throughout the city.
Another problem facing the government is how to connect Amsterdam-Noord to the city center. Currently, the city employs a fleet of ferries that are free to use and cross the IJ River every few minutes throughout the day and night. Years ago, the original design of the IJTunnel, currently only open to cars, featured an additional cyclist and pedestrian tube, but the plan was discarded when the Mayor Van Hall famously predicted: “Twenty years from now no one will ride a bicycle in Amsterdam.” Currently, around 46,000 people cross every day, and that number is expected to double by 2030 as the Noord area becomes increasingly developed. One connection, the extension of the underground Metro to the Noord, is slowly becoming realized and provides a solution for pedestrians, however, as the majority of trips occur by bike in this city, a bicycle bridge would make the journey much easier and could provide a long-term solution to the ferries which are already crowded. Putting a 900-foot bicycle bridge in the bicycle capital of the world doesn’t seem like it should be a contentious issue. Copenhagen managed to build nine bicycle bridges in two years, but the municipality of Amsterdam cannot seem to put a plan into action. For now, the city council studies alternative proposals and favors a plan to build two bridges that will serve as fixed links across the IJ River. While preparations for the first bridge from Java-Eiland to the Noord are in progress, plans for the west flank of the IJ River are still merely conversations. One major barrier the city is facing is the presence of more than one-hundred cruise ships that dock at the IJ terminal carrying around 280,000 people to the city every year. Furthermore, a city council memo said that even if a bridge is built, it would likely have to be closed multiple times every hour to allow for the passage of shipping boats.
Ultimately, the mobility system in Amsterdam is confronting problems that many planners, activists, and lovers of the humble bicycle around the world would love to be plagued with: too many bikes! However, as a global leader in bicycle transportation, the City must continue to expand the infrastructure to respond and keep up growth in modal share. Amsterdam must set an example for the cities around the world who are striving to make choosing the bike easier and more comfortable for their citizens.
May your bike to work today be breezy and safe no matter what city you are in, and may your simple act to reject the empty promises of car-culture shape a more human-centered mobility system for the future. What’s your bike to work like and how could it be improved? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Holly Hixson. Data linked to sources.