Amsterdam I

Chaos and Tranquility

Few cities are as adept at tranquility as they are at chaos. Amsterdam is one of the them.

In postcards, Amsterdam appears to be a delightfully romantic place- a city of still canals, gables, houseboats, and warm lights lit along the bridges at night. This is a city remembered from canal side shady benches or a cafe window on a rainy afternoon.

Though postcard Amsterdam lingers nearby, the actual Amsterdam is a city of bicyclists- a place experienced by its convivial bustle, almost dangerous if not for the first Amsterdam, which soothes its nerves continually. The bicycling Amsterdam never dismounts, for it ranges through the city streets like cells flowing through blood vessels, imbuing the city with a pervasive hum and energy, its pulp.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, the average tourist is greeted by the second Amsterdam, not the first. For, unlike New York or London, where newcomers must contend with the fierce but distinct masses of automobiles and pedestrians, the streets of Amsterdam have been designed to accommodate four, or arguably five, strata on the transportation hierarchy. In addition to man and the automobile (beast), the Dutch metropolis has separate paths or lanes for the bicycle (centaur) and motorbike (winged centaur), as well as the tram (serpent). The effect is an unmistakable frenzy that leaves an impression not unlike the Paris traffic arteries imagined by Eugene Henard in his turn of the century city of the future.

Changing Gears

I spent my first few days in Amsterdam exploring the city on a Batavus Cambridge I had purchased upon my arrival. Bikes in Amsterdam are quite unlike the ramshead racers one tends to see in the United States. They are hefty, sturdy machines with high handlebars, lights, panniers, and commodious seats that allow riders to keep their backs straight and heads forward. Commuters on mountain bike are quite rare, while amateur racers generally stick to the less traveled ways. Decent locks can be purchased quite cheaply at Amsterdam’s flea markets. (I bought mine at the Albert Cuyp Market in De Pijp district. It is neon green, so I don’t lose my ride in the clutter that bicycle parking in Amsterdam tends to be.)

Originally, I had expected that I might spend my first few days puzzling out the structure of Amsterdam in my head so as to get a sense of its main bicycle routes and thoroughfares. Within an hour of cycling, I threw any chance of that happening away. In Amsterdam, every street, and even some sidewalks, is a de facto bicycle street. Not only does nearly every major road have a separated bicycle track or painted lane, but the critical mass of bicyclists that use them make ignoring any ambiguous boundaries a dangerous risk for cars and pedestrians alike. Only in parts of the old center, which bicyclists circumvent or are forbidden from riding, do pedestrians rule the streets. Local residential streets, which often lack bicycle paths, are often a pleasant detour for the bicyclist, who does not have to abide by one way laws and is less affected by their frequent speed bumps.

Straten en Grachten (Streets and Canals)

Amsterdam has much to teach the world about street design. Whereas an average city might have five to seven different types of streets (dirt road, local road, regional road, parkway, state highway, interstate highway, etc.), Amsterdam boasts at least twenty variations, albeit including the bicycle road as a permanent piece of that infrastructure. Moreover, the variation in their paving and signage is an unanticipated wonder. Many roads, even outside the center, have brick patterned paving that denotes separations of function and use, usually in conjunction with complex systems of car and bicycle parking, as well as street furniture and plantings.

The Overtoom, for example, a once chaotic thoroughfare in Amsterdam’s Oud West area, has a sidewalk for pedestrians, a separated red painted bicycle path, a median for plantings and bicycle parking, car parking, a auto road, and a two-way tram- all going both directions! I half expected a working canal to suddenly split the road in two and send me plummeting to my untimely death.

Traffic solution? Traffic problem?

As impressive as Amsterdam’s bicycling infrastructure is to the outsider, what I slowly began to realize is that Amsterdam’s bicycles are actually kind of a nuisance. Bicyclists make crossing the street for pedestrians nerve wracking. Motorbikes aggravate bicyclists and pedestrians alike. Cars and trams, meanwhile, are such an afterthought to anyone who has actually gotten past the first two, that you’re liable to forget that they can actually run you over.

To place all this in context, Amsterdam’s bicycling frenzy was not built from scratch. Though pro-bicycle policies accelerated following the energy crisis of the 1970s, bicycling has always been unusually popular here due to the country’s flatness and because widespread automobile ownership came later than in places like Germany or the United States. Many of Amsterdam’s early and mid-century extensions provisioned for bicycle paths as part of their design. The nuances of Amsterdam’s street design were thus a solution to an existing population of bicyclists vying for space and representation on roads increasingly trafficked by automobiles, rather than only a recent phenomenon and investment. Nevertheless, the intricacy and quality of these designs offer a multitude of worthwhile lessons to cities hoping to create a new bicycle infrastructure from scratch. They have been well tested in Amsterdam’s chaotic traffic cauldron, and, even if for the occasional accident, have not deterred many from enjoying the frenzy.

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2 Responses to Amsterdam I

  1. Baird says:

    Dave,

    I have to ask how wide that Overtoom is–I can’t conceive of a road having THAT many types of infrastructure on it, especially if the trams have their own right-of-way tracking. Does that break up the density of the developments at all, or does the amount of traffic moving on that street ensure that there always exists a critical mass of people to keep the buildings together?

    It’s also interesting to hear that bicyclists in Amsterdam are so aggressive. In the states, I’ve heard a lot of cycling advocates defend US cyclist aggression by saying that they have to act that way as a response to a lack of proper infrastructure to keep them safe. Yet in Amsterdam, they have that infrastructure…hmm. I’m going to have to reflect on that for a while.

    • dev2103 says:

      Amsterdam's Overtoom

      Baird,
      Your concern about the Overtoom is natural, because a street of that width would definitely not support the necessary density of development in the United States. I think that the Overtoom is a perfect example of how street architecture and infrastructure can make a street of such width appear much less imposing.

      First of all, the Overtoom’s sidewalk is wide and the building entrances at the corners are generally rounded or cut at an angle, creating large pleasant openings at the intersections. The bicycle path runs beside the sidewalk slightly depressed and is next to car parking, which it mediated by a curb with bicycle parking and tree planting at regular intervals. The road for cars is relatively narrow and would not be comfortable for most American SUVs. The tram runs on a two-way dedicated track at the center and has glass stations every three-quarters of a mile or so. The same pattern is mirrored on the opposite side. Each mode of transport (including the parking) has its own type of asphalt or tile paving. The intricacies are really quite impressive.

      As for the ” aggressiveness” of Amsterdam’s bicyclists, I have to think about that too. I do not think aggressive is an appropriate term. Most people are quite graceful moving through traffic and locals, both drivers and pedestrians, have so much experience biking that they are able to anticipate each others movements. In cases where I did witness accidents, the exchange tended to be surprisingly casual and subdued, though my sample size is obviously limited.
      Moreover, the US cyclist’s ” aggressiveness” is a much different breed. In Brooklyn, for example, people tend to ride fixed-gear ramshead racing bicycles. Not only does a fixed gear bike encourage weaving unsafely through moving traffic, but the low handlebars are remarkably unsuited to safe bicycle commuting and reading traffic (even if they are really fast, look cool, and are fun to ride).

      I will post some diagrams of these roads soon and pictures that will illuminate some of what I am describing.

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