The last time I’d been to Amsterdam was more than 20 years ago. As a kid, I’d visited a family friend, and was first introduced to the seemingly perfectly packaged world of the Dutch. This week, I found myself back in the city best known for marijuana, prostitution and bicycles.
The first thing you notice are the helmets. There are none. In the world’s most bike-friendly city, accidents rarely happen. Amsterdam’s complex system, which involves a multi-modal setup that the D.C. area can only dream of, has five parts that work together quite well. But there’s nothing seamless about it. The task of fitting together bicycles, cars, trams, buses and pedestrians is not an easy one. But there is a lot to learn from the Dutch.
In the capital of Holland, where two wheeled vehicles outnumber those with four, you start to see some obvious differences between the transportation culture stateside, aside from the apparent lack of concern about potential brain damage.
Most importantly, almost everyone who rides a bike sits in an upright posture. Handle bars are constructed in such a way that one can ride without being hunched over, which automatically slows your speed, improves visibility and thus increases safety. Even though bike lanes are clogged to the gills, it never feels like a race.
Biking is a means to get from Point A to Point B, not necessarily a statement of style. Something that Shirley Agudo, author of “The Dutch and Their Bikes,” and “Bicycle Mania Holland” admires. Agudo has lived in Amsterdam for 15 years, working as a street photographer and photojournalist.
“When I first moved here, the first thing I thought was, why does everybody have these plain looking black bikes. Because in the States, everyone likes these sexy bikes, and the fancier the better. Slowly I learned what the reasoning was behind that here,” Agudo said, enjoying an espresso at Cafe Luxembourg Thursday afternoon. “It’s for a couple reasons. Because those bikes are so practical, so sturdy, so utilitarian, they work. They reflect the culture.”
In other words, they’re Dutch.
The other Amsterdam feature that the D.C. area could learn from are the stoplights. In some locations, there are specific signals for bikes, cars and pedestrians. The system doesn’t force everyone to guess based on a timing mechanism that can potentially become deadly if someone chooses to buck it. A few American cities have adopted this model.
But beyond the separate lights, is something more basic. Every signal is at eye level to an average height person. There is no need to look up into the sky and take your vision off the road to determine what you’ll do next. Sounds simple, but it’s a brilliant way to make sure that at the very least, everyone is looking at each other, in order to stay safe.
“It’s almost like watching a bicycle dance,” Agudo, originally from Pittsburgh, said.
But it’s not all about bikes. There are cars, obviously, but they feel like loud, hulking dinosaurs when they pass by. Buses take people from place to place, but the trolleys have the largest footprint. Known as trams, as a kid, I remember them zooming all over the place and having to jump out of the way of several.
As it turns out, they’ve always been extremely slow, just relatively quiet. So, it’s not that they move particularly quickly, but if you’re not paying attention, you might turn your head in a crosswalk and a streetcar is bearing down. It can be scary, even at a glacial pace.
Rush hour in Amsterdam feels chaotic, but not stressful. Women pick up three kids at a time from school with cargo bikes. Colleagues and college classmates ride side-saddle on the back of friend’s bikes. Friends and couples ride side by side, talking the entire ride, sometimes holding hands.
But it wasn’t always this way.
In the 1950s, when car culture started to explode in Holland after World War II, the country became very car centric. Of course, for years before that the bike ruled, but for a 2 decade period leading into the 70s, cars were everywhere. Accidents increased and in particular, children were getting hit and killed on a regular basis. That’s when things changed.
Public pressure to return to a safer transportation society, along with the oil crisis of 1973, prompted the country to cater to cycling. Bike sit-ins and protests dominated the news. The Hague and Tilburg instituted the first redesigned cycling lanes in 1975, sometimes considered the beginning of the country’s modern policies.
The Dutch didn’t just wake up one day and decide that everyone was going to bike. Dealing with the old tram system, which has been around since the 1900s, catering to cars, which are in the minority but still necessary and holding on to a useful public transportation system is a tireless process.
Which is another thing that the District can learn from: It’s hard.
Fokko Kuik, Senior Policy Advisor for Amsterdam’s Service Infrastructure Traffic and Transport department, said as much in his office Thursday. “I think it’s rather difficult. But we are used to these difficulties,” Kuik, who has worked at the department for 13 years said. “Most of the historic city was not prepared to have all these cars. So in these 60s went car usage [went up] we had major problems. We thought about underground systems, but it’s very expensive and we have difficult soil here, it’s very weak. We had to do more with bicycles.”
The D.C. area’s roadways are some of the most congested in the country. The difficult task of creating a network that allows everyone to thrive is one of necessity not transportation vanity. Amsterdam is not just all high-fives and cycle rides, though. The city is currently trying to figure out how to best deal with the boom in bikes. Unsurprisingly, the main issue is parking.
“The riding space of bikes it not a problem. Rush hour is half an hour. The problems are with the parking of bikes. Especially at the bigger station, and places like Leidseplein,” Kuik said, referring to the large central square in Amsterdam that is a major tourist attraction. “And with 40,000 people there on a Friday evening, we cannot place all these bikes. Then we hope people make use of mass transit.”
Kuik’s own story is a typical one. Growing up in a small village, the only time he ever took any sort of test to grade his biking skills was in the 60s. His town installed traffic lights for the first time, so he had to take an exam on how to bike with signals. That was it. The rest, like everyone else, he learned from his parents. He took his own kids out to ride along with him in the city when they were 6 years old. It’s that mindset he believes will have to take hold before Americans can truly grasp the benefits of cycling. It’s telling that the largest growing demographic of cyclers in Holland is the over-50 crowd.
“[For Americans], in a suit you don’t ride on your bike. People thought that bikers were hippies or sporting types, and not normal guys who go to their jobs,” Kuik said referring to a visit in 2010 to New York to meet with city planners about bike culture. “It has to start with something, but the status of bicycling is very important, too. When bicycling is just for poor people, or dumb people, or people who didn’t have success, well it’s hard to make people go biking. But here, it’s a sign of success when you ride in a suit to work. You’re smart.”
Agudo agrees. “I think you have to get the young children used to cycling as a means of transportation, not just for fun. But you know, this is how we get from here to there,” she said. “And of course, in order to get the young children, the parents have to teach them. So I guess the target would be young parents. If you don’t do that, they’re not going to appreciate cycling for what it can be.”
There’s no way to drop a culture and an infrastructure from any European city on to an American one and expect immediate results. In fact, there are still biking projects that are marvels to the Dutch themselves. In Utrecht, the world’s largest bike parking station is set to open in 2018. People regularly stop and stare to watch its construction near the train station.
Area officials need not try to imitate every detail of Amsterdam’s infrastructure to create a system that allows people to use bikes and streetcars to get around. But a piecemeal operation will never work. Every commuter and regional resident deserves better than that. If Holland readily admits how complicated it is to coordinate all this, anyone can.
After days of marveling at the transportational sights in front of me, one cultural adage remained true, perhaps signaling that any real shift in this situation is further off than some may wish. Agudo is an American who has written two books about bikes and lives north of Amsterdam. Kuik, is Dutch and works on transportation policy. I asked her if she owned a car in Holland. I asked him if he planned on biking home that day. They both had the same answer.