Last week, I was lucky to have the opportunity to visit Amsterdam for a few days with some friends. Of course, I insisted that we hire bicycles as our main form of transport for the period, so we experienced something of what life is like for many locals who are fortunate to be able to use bikes to get around. Much of what I say here has been covered by many bloggers over the years but, having read about it for a long time, I’m writing about it from my own experience as a beleaguered British bike rider.
We got typical step-through Ditch bikes, which are heavy, have no gears and, at least the ones we had, seem quite unstable until you get used to them:
Cycle theft is an issue, so most cycles are seen with hefty chain (slung over the handlebars here) as well as the rear wheel lock that is standard on Dutch bikes.
Of course, the weight and lack of gears is not really a problem as Amsterdam is completely flat. Well, it is if you ignore the bridges at least; I have to say that setting off up the side of a bridge at a junction on one of these is strenuous to say the least, for someone who is used to spinning not grinding, but I saw plenty of old ladies and people carrying passengers doing it so it ought not to be a problem. The technique seems to be to push off, sometimes two or three times, with a foot before starting to pedal, and there is a fair amount of wobbling involved before picking up speed, even for the experienced rider.
The riding position is great for the back, especially when you are getting on in years like myself. This was fortunate, as we covered 20 miles on the Sunday, all at a rather slow pace.
One big advantage, of course, is that, with a fully enclosed chain, you don’t get oil on your clothes (or legs). I think it is this, coupled with the step-through design of the bike and the rather sedate riding position, that makes is easy for people to ride in all manner of clothes, including smart suits and pretty dresses. Cue the obligatory pictures of Dutch people riding their bikes:
Well, that and the fact that it is possible to do “slow riding” here without working up a sweat. Apart from the ramp up onto a high cycle bridge, I don’t think my pulse and respiration went much above the rates they are when I am walking. This is all but impossible at home, due partly to the motor traffic that I have to share the road with, which forces you to sprint quite a bit if the time, but also due to the hills. There are times at home when I am using the lowest of my bike’s 27 gears and still breathing very heavily even though I’m hardly moving at all.
The hills we can do little about, but forcing cycle riders to share with fast, heavy motor traffic just is not necessary. Of course, this is where the Dutch excel, and my expectations about this aspect were mostly met. (I’ll say why “mostly” later.) The most obvious thing, of course, is the prevalence of good quality, protected cycle lanes on a large proportion of the roads:
The two pictures above show just standard roadway designs in Amsterdam where space permits. Where space doesn’t permit such a generous allocation of space, fairly narrow lanes are inserted into the street, often by taking space from pedestrians; it is not unusual in the city centre to see a cycle-only lane on one side of the street and a pedestrian footway on the other side. This compromise seems far better than just declaring the footways to be “shared use” as is becoming a common practice at home.
In some cases. a whole road will be dedicated to cycles, with no access for motor vehicles:
There are also the big engineering solutions in places, such as this bridge over the Rijnkanaal on the East side of the city:
Something that can be a little disconcerting for people from the UK is the way priorities are sometimes organised on the roads. It is normal for protected cycle tracks to maintain the priority of the cyclist across side roads – something that is very unusual at home. Some roundabouts also give priority to cyclists crossing the entry and exits roads:
This seems to be as it should be, especially at side roads; protection ought not to be at the expense of losing the priority that the cyclist would have on an unprotected road. However, I think to introduce something like this at home would likely result in a high number of collisions initially, until the culture changed so that drivers expect to have to stop. Even the Dutch are questioning the practice of cyclist priority on roundabouts with protected cycle lanes.
As well as allowing for a very sedate style of cycling, by a wide range of people, the infrastructure makes is feasible for large numbers of people to carry passengers, especially children, either on normal bikes:
Of course, all of this cycle infrastructure leads to vary large numbers of people riding cycles, and that means a huge demand for parking, Every available space seems to be filled with parked cycles:
OK, now for the slightly negative part. It seems perhaps a little churlish to be pointing out negative aspects to all this – after all, it is just incomparable to the dreadful experience that is cycling in the UK – but I did say earlier that it mostly met my expectations. The fact is that there are some aspects of cycling here that I found very uncomfortable to say the least
The first negative thing that struck me was the so-called “light” scooters that are allowed to share the cycle lanes with cycles. These are supposed to be limited to 25kph (15.5 mph), but virtually all of them travel much faster than this, presumably because the speed governor has been removed by the owner. I didn’t take any pictures of this, but BicycleDutch has written a blog article about it, so you can see pictures there. I would say that the situation with these is dreadful. I would even say that having these weaving between cycles in a narrow kerbed lane and passing within a couple of inches at speed is just as uncomfortable as sharing the roads with larger vehicles at home. I saw very few children riding cycles themselves in Amsterdam and I have to wonder whether this is the reason.
Second, I was surprised to see that it is fairly common to find unprotected cycle lanes on the outside of on-street parking, taking the cyclist right through the door opening zone of the parked cars. This is something that tends to be very heavily criticized by cycle campaigners at home. I am aware that the likelihood of someone opening car door without checking is probably lower in The Netherlands than at home, but it did make me feel a bit uneasy using these lanes.
Third, whilst drivers are generally very careful around cyclists in the shared spaces – far more careful than I experience at home – some of them are not. There is still the proverbial bull in a china shop which can necessitate the use of “vehicular cycling” (as a coping strategy rather than a philosophy):
Having an oncoming Tesla car going past at around 20mph about 2 inches away on a narrow road with high kerbs does not feel subjectively safe, and that was just one example of the kind of experiences I had with motor vehicles.
The worst experience with this sharing was at a rather scary, busy junction outside the Rijksmuseum, where Museumbrug meets Stadhouderskade. One of our party was riding from the bridge towards the museum on a green light for cycles when someone in a white van wishing to turn right started blasting the horn, eventually cutting across the line of cycles, just catching his handlebar (though he managed to stay on) and completely knocking off the man in a suit riding behind him. The driver then just shot off travelling West along Stadhouderskade. I really did not expect to encounter this kind of thing in Amsterdam and I presume we were rather unlucky in this case.
Not wishing to finish on a negative note, I should say that I think our experience, which was actually very good on the whole, would get even better once we learned the best routes for travelling by cycle. The last picture above showed cycle sharing with motor vehicles outside our hotel. In fact, we did not use that route once we learned that this parallel one was available just at the other end of our block:
All in all, the experience really did live up to my expectations, despite the few negatives. If only we could have this here at home. Well, it’s already started in London. I hope it will get this far up north before my time here is over.