For those of you who have never been to Amsterdam, here’s a little exercise to help you invision the number of bikes in the city. Think about the largest gathering of bikes you’ve ever seen – maybe you’ve attended a local bike race, or watched the en masse start of the Tour de France or have participated in RAGBRAI in Iowa. Ok, do you have that image in your mind? Now multiply that figure by several thousand. That will get you close to the city of bikes that is Amsterdam.
You think I’m exaggerating don’t you? I’m really not. There are bikes everywhere and not just a few scattered here and there or only in designated areas. There is a constant stream of bikes, flowing in and around the traffic like a massive flock of graceful, bell-ringing birds. At first it is a bit surreal, but you quickly learn to adapt and then they are simply part of the fabric that makes Amsterdam so special.
The first thing you see when you exit Centraal Station (the train station which connects to the airport as well as many other points in the Netherlands and Europe) in Amsterdam is a block long, three level parking garage. For bikes. (It has room for 2500 bikes) Not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of bikes parked in bike racks in front of the station.
Bikes are everywhere, chained to any appropriate structure or bike rack. The racks are built so that twice as many bikes fit into one space by alternating high and low settings for the front wheels. Railings on every bridge (and there are a lot of bridges here) are lined with bikes. Bike theft is a real problem here, so they are always locked with heavy chains.
These bikes are purely utilitarian, not status symbols. They are not pretty in any way (except for the occasional addition of plastic flowers or a ribbon) – they are rusted and dented with chipped paint, what we would call “beaters”. They have wide tires to make riding the brick streets bearable and upright handlebars. Many have a plastic or old beer crate strapped to the handlebars to serve as a basket. Here’s a partial list of the things I saw being hauled in bike baskets: bags, briefcases, purses, a cocker spaniel (who seemed just fine with his ride), potted plants, backpacks, groceries, a canister vacuum cleaner, and bouquets of flowers.
In Amsterdam no one – no one – wears a helmet. When I was on my bike ride in the countryside, I did see a couple of athletes on training rides who wore helmets (and were riding racing bikes) but that was it. Children of course, are out there riding too. Small children would sometimes ride in a child seat mounted behind the bike seat, more often in tiny bike seats perched on the handlebars in front of their parents but mostly children ride in the box on freight bicycles, traditionally called “bakfiets”. The box is mounted on a long wheelbase; I’m pretty comfortable riding a bike, but I can’t imagine how these handle!
No one dresses for biking in Amsterdam either (unless you’re an athlete in training). Cyclists simply wear what they would wear to the office, or to go shopping or out meeting friends. They also talk and text on their phones nearly constantly!
In the U.S., the hierarchy on the road is (at least theoretically): pedestrian, car, bicycle. Even if a pedestrian is crossing the road illegally, cars must stop for them. In Amsterdam, the hierarchy is bikes, cars, pedestrian. And the pedestrian had better be wary! All of the streets have dedicated bike lanes, wide enough for two bikes abreast and usually separated from car traffic by a wide curb, grass, shrubs and or trees. Bikes have their own set of traffic lights to follow at busy intersections; otherwise they have the right-of-way. In the historic city center, which incorporates all of the canals plus the Amstel River, the streets only have room for – a narrow strip of car parking (with lots of bike parking intermingled) next to the canal, a narrow one (small) car width street where bicycles swoop and swerve around vehicles, then a sidewalk next to the houses. Ironically, the sidewalks are often partially to completely blocked by, yep, you guessed it – parked bicycles. To be a pedestrian in Amsterdam is to be alert at all times in all directions! (And I haven’t even mentioned the electric trams!)
All of this makes for a somewhat chaotic, frenetic atmosphere and yet also strangely calm. The sounds of Amsterdam are predominately the quiet whirring of bicycle wheels and the chiming of bicycle bells. It is altogether charming and delightful.