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.
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.