Saturday, 19 July 2014

Cycling in Amsterdam

First in a series of Amsterdam-focused posts. I had the fortune to stay with a Dutch friend in central Amsterdam for an entire week. My thoughts, feelings and rants about this fascinating city and it's unusual relationship with bicycles:

One of the first things a Canadian will notice exiting Amsterdam Centraal Station is bicycles. Not just a few bicycles, but more than in even the most bike friendly areas of Canada. Many, many hundreds of times more. It is not an exaggeration to say that every wall, post andrailing is covered at least one bicycle deep for kilometres in every direction. The Dutch have gone big to solve this problem and bicycle parking garages are common at all stations for the seemingly endless volume of velos:

The Bicycles

Unlike the bikes that are appearing during the renaissance of cycling in North America, few are new. Most are weathered, best-up, rusted and held together by bits of string and tape. 

This is the beauty I was riding on during my week in Amsterdam. Note the rust, plastic-bag seat, string to hold the kick-stand up, lack of hand-brakes (back-pedal/drag feet is most common) and single-gear configuration. The bike makes all sorts of squealing, clicking and screeching as it moves; enough to send the amateur Canadian cyclist to the repair shop immediately. Not the case for the bicycle-hardened Dutch. If it has two wheels and rolls, good enough. This is a very common quality of ride and must give Amsterdam amongst the least pretentious cycling cultures in the world:

There is little appreciation for expensive bicycles here; both because cycling is seen as just a way to get around so it's not exciting and that the risk of bike theft weighs heavily on decisions to get a nice bicycle. As Amsterdam is a global-leader for cycling, so too is it a leader in bicycle thefts.

Most bikes operate on a two lock system: a giant rusty chain as the main lock and a second built in lock that requires the key to be in it to be open and allow the wheel to roll:

Curiously, it is also completely normal to not lock the bicycle to anything. Most bikes are simply leaning on a wall with their chains locked around themselves. I suspect that there aren't even close to enough racks or poles in the entire city to lock them to anyways, so people just got used to it. 

Typical Amsterdam scene. Note the bicycles in this picture. Also note that it's much harder to take a picture of this city without a bicycle in it than one with a bicycle photo-bombing it:

The Roads

Stepping onto a bike in a foreign country can be a nerve-racking experience. While more than confident at cycling itself - I use my own Calgary bike a few times per day - I was a little hesitant around the rules of the road.

Will chaos and aggression reign as in Calgary? Will cars aim to force you to speed up or aggressively follow you closely to intimidate you off the road? Both are daily experiences in Calgary and highlight the amateur attitude that the general public has towards cycling. 

Amsterdam, unsurprisingly, couldn't be more different. Every road has a hierarchy with bicycles on top. Bicycles have their own signals at every street, their own lanes or separated areas away from cars and pedestrians. Unusually, people often cycle side by side in a single lane so they can chat while riding. This is completely acceptable at any speed, a simple bell or horn is needed to alert side-by-side riders if you are passing and they will casually allow you to. No aggression, no attitude.

A common simple road setup:

Another popular form of street design has the bicycle lanes separated into a lane on either side of the road, split off by a curb / bike parking / street furniture. These roads give priority to bicycles in most cases. So as a pedestrian you would look to cross the bike lane, wait on  a sidewalk to cross the auto/tram lanes, then wait again to cross the next bike lane. By "wait" I mean that in the loosest terms; no tickets for jaywalking, you simply wait until you want to cross the next section. It's simple, puts the onus on all road users to watch and be safe vs. try to regulate everything with signals, timers and fines. This laissez-faire approach works much better and keeps wait-times to a minimum even to cross the busiest roads.

Also unheard of in Canada: scooters in the bike lanes. All sorts of small scooters are seen everywhere taking advantage of the lanes. They hardly travel faster than bicycles and never appear to be a safety issue. They are more popular than cars, but still are overwhelmed by the amount of bicycles.

The Attitude

Cycling is seen as a very different thing in Amsterdam compared to Canada. It is not a hobby or recreation, it is simply something you do; no more unusual than driving is in any North American suburb. Everyone does it; it is common to see both the very old and the young riding around on even the busiest streets.

As it is seen as so normal people will cycle in all weather; rain, heat and the occasional snow.

The speed is slower too, there are no Lycra-wearing speeders harassing everyone going slower than then. It's more relaxed and casual.

How casual? Here are some items I saw carried while riding. there is many more but this is all I can remember from yesterday:

- Cell phones (both texting and calling)
- Bags of groceries
- children ( the record I saw was 4 on one bike, 1 on the handle bars, two sitting on the back rack. No fancy child seats either)
- yoga mats
- chairs
- a kitchen table for 4
- other bicycles (very common actually)
- ice cream
- schwarmas
- pizza boxes
- 12 packs of beer

All of this is done with no helmets or any other safety gear.

Ridiculous !

Lesson for Calgary & for Calgary cyclists trying to change the world:

Infrastructure is important. Calgary needs dedicated lanes to support cycling and alternative modes of transportation for cars. That is a reality in a world of finite space and increasing density and land use intensity in the inner city. Things like lanes , lights and places to lock up are crucial to the backbone of a cycling network.

Amsterdam taught me infrastructure isn't the only thing. Calgary needs less combative cyclists, more assertive ones. We need cyclists that aren't afraid to bicycle with a 6-pack of beer or carry a pizza or an extra person. We need cyclists who do not wear helmets and are comfortable holding their own on the streets where they have just as much right to be there as any other. We need to slow down, stop playing the race with the cars. We need to set the pace.

Next time you head to 17th Avenue for a pint, remind yourself that bicycle parking is free, you can park right out front and you look much cooler that the idiot in the F-350 truck that takes 3 tries to parallel park.

Don't wait until your next trip to Amsterdam to try cycling like you're there.

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