2,500 Bikes Look a Lot Alike At Amsterdam Central

A commuter unlocks her bike at Amsterdam Central train station's bicycle garage, which won a design award for its winding levels.
A commuter unlocks her bike at Amsterdam Central train station's bicycle garage, which won a design award for its winding levels. (Photos By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 15, 2007

AMSTERDAM

"I thought it was right here."

Mireille has that I'm-worried-but-I'm-not-going-to- panic-yet look on her face. It's 5:40 p.m., the top of the afternoon rush hour, and she's been searching for only two minutes.

She's lost her bicycle in the Amsterdam Central train station's high-rise bike lot, where 2,500 two-wheelers are crammed pedal-to-pedal, handlebar-to-handlebar on five soaring levels.

Mireille, with a purse the color of scrambled eggs thumping against her salmon faux-leather jacket, is pacing the row where she's certain she left her bike. The row looks like an impenetrable web of spokes and bars and wheels. She starts to offer her full name, but thinks better of it. She's embarrassed. She's 39 and works for the city.

She confesses that she was in a hurry this morning and double-parked, jamming her bike into the narrow space between two legally parked cycles. She was unable to wrap her lock around the bike stand. At Amsterdam Central, that's an invitation to the owner of one of the other bikes to rip out yours and stash it in another illegal space 30 bikes away, just to teach you a lesson.

"It's here somewhere. . . . It's a gray bike," Mireille offers hopefully, adding, "with a black thing."

A black thing? The flat metal seat over the back wheel.

The Netherlands, a country as flat as a pool table, has more bicycles than people: an estimated 20 million bikes, and just over 16 million humans. There are three times as many bicycles as cars. Virtually every road has a bicycle lane. Virtually no one wears a helmet.

The bike garage at Amsterdam Central, which won an architectural award for its winding levels of bicycle stands that jut over a wide canal, is one of the country's busiest.

Mary Frances Cullen -- Irish, 63, with dyed auburn hair and quick green eyes -- sees the lost-bike frenzy dozens of times a day. Unlike automobile drivers, cyclists don't have keys with panic buttons. At Amsterdam Central, they have Cullen and her crew of bike attendants.

Cullen, who wears a neon lime green vest, works out of a lemon yellow box on the first floor to help bicyclists in distress. Before this job, she spent eight years causing bikers distress: She was on the city squad that rounded up illegally parked bikes from bridges, lampposts and sidewalks and hauled them to the bicycle pound outside town.


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