Cycle Tracks will abound in Utopia. – H. G. Wells
The Fringe of Utopia
Five days of bicycling had begun to wear on me. The city’s unending loveliness; the routine deference of cars and pedestrians to bicycles (I accidentally hit someone, and he apologized to me); the architecture, from the townhouses of the Grachtengordel to the early 20th century Amsterdam School mansions of Oud Zuid- how they begged me to sit canalside and sketch them. Amsterdam seemed so impossibly unlike anything in the United States. It made my project seem irrelevant, for I had already reached utopia.
But soon it dawned on me. My attempts to structure a mental map of Amsterdam’s bicycle system in my mind’s eye had been in vain. Indeed, any bicycle map of Amsterdam, including the extremely detailed one that I had purchased for too many euro, would be an exercise in futility. The challenge was not finding where the bicycle lanes are, but rather where they aren’t!
With this fresh resolve, I set forth in search of the detritus of modernity: office parks, rail yards, industrial zones, ports—any place it seemed like the bicycle paths might give way. Still, each time my search came to fruition, I found myself dejectedly pulling out my camera to snap a bicycle path trudging dutifully to the urban fringe. (Only once in my extensive explorations did I encounter any real inconvenience (a rail yard), and even in that case, there was a pedestrian bridge with a side bike ramp.) In one instance, in Amsterdam’s Biljemeer area, a formerly run-down, recently renovated 1960s modern housing district beyond the Ringweg, the cycling paths had even been repaved and circled throughout the complex almost totally independent of car traffic (a potential negative according to some). In another case, I followed a tree lined path beside a two-lane road/highway and railroad track with such ease that I eventually realized I was twenty-five minutes from the center of Amsterdam in a totally different municipality.
Anyhow, what significance is there in looking for bike paths running through office parks and highway interchanges? Need I praise Dutch infrastructure with any more gusto?
As much as my bicycling experience in Amsterdam has allowed me to record the city’s impressive street paving and road configurations, I have also realized continually how much Dutch cities- as well as their culture and infrastructure- lack much real affinity to American ones. As a result, those few select places that share some of the characteristics of a prototypical American metro area, offer terrific prototypes for how to create access in otherwise inhospitable areas. In these few cases, where the Amsterdam of canals faded into the Amsterdam of office parks and train yards, the bicycling infrastructure of Amsterdam does a great job of iterating clear linkages and maintaining a sense of urban connectivity. These are sterling examples that US cities could learn from.