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A Non-Amsterdammer’s Guide to Biking in Amsterdam

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Move quick and with confidence: think less leisurely stroll, more Mario-kart.

Lock it. Twice. To something permanent: I’m already down one bike because I was naïve and trusting. I made those mistakes for you, friend. Don’t follow my lead.

If you hear a bell, move over: Cyclists use a bell to let you know they’re behind you and would kindly like you to move out of the way. As you bike down the street, you can hear the pleasant chirping of a thousand tiny bike bells communicating with one another. Outside of the bell, there truly appears to be no uniform traffic laws. Bike wherever in whatever direction doing whatever you please and you’ll get away with it.

Bikes have the right of way, (almost) always: Pedestrians will move out of your way, tourists will not. Cars will let you pass, taxis will not. Who’s to say why it is, it just is.

Stay perpendicular to the tram tracks: The city’s public tram system is at street level and a little terrifying to maneuver around on bike. The real trick is getting over the tracks because the width of the track is (conveniently) the exact width of a bike wheel. I know what happens when you get stuck in the track. My friend Maddie, who visited from Boston last week, definitely knows what happens when you get stuck in the track. Your best bet is to stay perpendicular to them always. Always.

Adjust your ‘look’ accordingly. The Dutch are magical in that they will bike half an hour through the rain to class and still appear as though they just stepped out of the spa. The rest of us are human. We look as one should after a half hour of dodging cars and tourists. Rain comes quite literally in the blink of an eye. Roll with it and appreciate the sunny rides home that much more.

After my first three weeks in Amsterdam, I was a biking convert. Back in Boston, biking to and from class feels intimidating and the snow made it nearly impossible through the winter months to get anywhere – let alone cycle through it. But in places like Amsterdam, where even the winter weather is a little milder, it is the number one way folks get around. I love getting out the door in the morning and biking the fifteen minutes to class. In my experience here so far, biking has this beautiful ability to make a city feel local, vibrant, and sustainable. I should note here that there are no real traffic laws that bikers adhere to and I haven’t seen a helmet yet – so it simultaneously feels like the wild European west of biking amid the cars, construction workers, and tourists. To give you an idea, here is a quick video I took while biking through Vondelpark, one of Amsterdam’s coolest parks. 



There is a great article in the Guardian here on how biking took hold in Amsterdam beginning in the 1960s (predicated mostly on safety, urban planning activism, and a re-prioritization of sustainable living following the 1973 oil crisis). I’m certainly not going to make the argument that biking cures all that ails the modern city, but I will say that I feel more connected to my space and more like a cohesive, sustainable member of the community. There is something to be said for an opportunity to personally connect to a new, foreign urban environment.

Photo 2 editedThis bike went to the Amsterdam cycling gods a few weeks ago. RIP. 
Now, I think Boston has a difficult case to make for a biking infrastructure overhaul a la Amsterdam – the winter thing is difficult to get around. The only people I know who bike year round in Boston are maniacs. In places like Los Angeles, however, someone could bike every day of the year and have a lovely time of it. As it happens, Los Angeles’ City Planning Department just released Mobility Plan 20135, a set of policy initiatives that will principally convert existing traffic lanes to biking, bus, and pedestrian lanes for a more diverse and safer set of transportation options. Currently, 80 percent of LA residents commute by car compared to 1 percent by bike. That figure is indicative of a complex set of infrastructure, sustainability, and accessibility challenges for a city like Los Angeles and in my view, getting a few more residents to convert from their car to their bike for their morning commute could help mitigate some of those more systemic contemporary urban growing pains.
Unlike Amsterdam, biking is not an intuitive part of urban culture in the states. An LA City Council member called the plan an “elitist policy” and cited a lack of demand for these services (many who can afford a car in the city do not currently use public transportation). I would address the accusation of elitism by noting that the initiative would prioritize public transportation options for lower income community members alongside the elitist bike lanes – which is great! But that second criticism – the notion that those who can afford a car choose not to ride the bus – is an issue of cultural preference above anything else. Our cars are vestiges of the American dream where it was preferable to be able to drive your way down the highway, out of the city center, and in to bucolic suburban dreamscapes with apple pies and lots of similar minded (white) people. Whether or not this is your particular brand of the American dream, I think the car is still a status symbol above anything else. Mobility is both an economic and social concept. The car has long been a symbol for this in the US.
What I am saying here is nothing new: biking and the use of public transportation will need to find ways of becoming more culturally accepted as an integral aspect of urban living. Large cities like Los Angeles are stepping in front of that process through initiatives like the Mobility Plan to make policy happen. My hope is that via LA’s lead, smaller cities with less planning resources will be able to pick up on a cultural shift toward a more diverse set of transportation options through the development of local policy frameworks (albeit on a smaller scale). I think smaller cities have the ability to be a bit more nimble and creative about these types of things. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of LA in the coming months. And without a doubt, I’ll be looking for a bike when I’m back in Boston.

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Lovett, Ian. A Los Angeles Plan to Reshape the Streetscapes Sets of Fears of Gridlock. The New York Times. 7 September 2015.
Van Der Zee, Renate. How Amsterdam Became the Biking Capital of the World. The Guardian. 5 May 2015.
Los Angeles Department of City Planning. Mobility Plan 2035 (PDF). (2015)


Published On: September 24, 2015 |
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