During my four days in Amsterdam, I never quite understood the correct way to reach my hostel. Each different tentative took me to similar streets with unpronounceable names and short buildings that looked almost the same. There were always bikes resting by the railings, but they were no help to my sense of direction, they also looked much alike.
Lucky as I was back then, I found my hostel by pure chance while wandering around the neighborhood, and as I got in, a map was the first thing I wanted.
Even though the map hardly helped me with my hostel's neighborhood, it did a good job with the rest of the city. Like any city map, it gave usual tips to be considered while walking around: Where to go, parties, museums, tours, etc. But one in specific was extremely valuable: Look out for bikes!
I probably can't count how many times I almost got hit by vicious bikers riding around the city. It took a while to understand the bike lanes (Fietspad) as exactly as "regular car" streets, with traffic rules every biker needs to follow in order to peacefully ride around the city. "Look at the signs", "use your hands", "don't hold up the traffic" are just a few of them, and as tourists, it is our duty to follow these rules, whether walking or riding on the streets. It is a big deal, and the locals won't hesitate to ring their bike bells at you.
Bike is the first word that come to my mind when I think of Amsterdam, it is an intrinsic part of the city, representing not only a mode of transportation, but an urban lifestyle. With that in mind, I decided to search on Google, just out of curiosity, the top four results related to the city of Amsterdam. Among the four, two were related to ordinary information, such as the weather or any news related to the city, the other two (the first and the fourth) were specifically: The Red Light District and Coffee Shops.
No surprise here, almost everyone lists those things when thinking about Amsterdam. However, what people often don't think about is what makes this famous European destination so amazing and unforgettable.
Allow me to list my top four words in which I relate to the Dutch capital personally:
Dam Square (The city's main square)
Heineken Museum (Simply couldn't leave this one behind)
The list would simply keep growing as I remember everything that impressed me during my visit do Amsterdam. I won't lie, the Red Light District and the Coffee Shops would be there on the list somewhere, but definitely not before Anne Frank's House, the Amstel Hotel, the I'Amsterdam sign, the Museum circuit, the Flower Market, and dozen other attractions around the city's center.
Amsterdam is vibrant, charming, and won my heart like few other cities in the world did. Besides, it has bikes, thousands of them!
I can't help but try to compare the cycling infrastructure in Amsterdam with several urban projects being attempted around the world. What is so special about the Dutch system, and how did they come up with this amazing result? What were some of the motivations? And finally, why is it so hard for modern cities to adapt their local transportation works into a more bike friendly environment?
Cycling is not something that always existed in the Dutch culture, it thrived as a lifestyle after decades of popular insistence, political planning and struggles by social movements.
Just after World War II, like many West-European countries, the Netherlands was totally rebuilt as part of several economic recovery plans sponsored by the United States. The results were eminent, in just a short period of time the country's economy and urban infrastructure were growing vigorously: the average income raised up to 44% during the first years, and about 200% by the end of the 1960s; along with it, mass industry consumption led to car-filled roads and intense urban remodeling to adapt the increasing number of automobiles.
The cars took over the country. The public infrastructure was deeply impacted by the always growing automotive industry, as buildings and houses were destroyed to clear the way for future roads and highways. Adaptation, clearly, was the only choice. [Well, not for the Dutch]
Cars came at a cost for the Netherlands. Traffic related deaths increased exponentially during 1960s, hitting an astonishing mark of 3300 in 1971, 500 of whom were kids and children under the age of 14.
The constant threat mobilized the population into one of the country's most important social movement, "Stop de Kindermoord" (Stop Murdering Children). This crusade was supported by great part of the civil society and the media, convincing and engaging the Dutch people to search for transport alternatives.
The government took action almost simultaneously, as the political scenario around the world worsened. The 1973 Oil Crisis resulted in a desperate need to reduce energy consumption, and at the same time keep up the quality of life gained during the last decades. Cycling was the perfect solution.
For the years to come, the government focused great part of its urban efforts in turning the cities "bike friendly". Despite car-free areas and newly constructed bike lanes, the population kept on with the protests, now encouraging and forcing the government to improve the infrastructure and cycling conditions. Their struggle kept going on.
The results? Today the city of Amsterdam is considered the bike-capital of the world. Around 60% of the population cycle on a daily basis on the inner-city; there is an average of 800 thousand bikes, and 250 thousand cars; and an incredible 500Km length of bike lanes around the whole city. No wonder I was almost hit all the time.
Should Amsterdam be a model to cities around the world? Yes it should!
I understand cycling as a great way to improve urban mobility and quality of life in cities that have been saturated by cars and traffic jams. Cities such as Bogota, in Colombia, proved to be a great example to the world as a metropolis willing to improve its cycling culture and infrastructure, and it has being constantly recognized for so. While cities such as my hometown Sao Paulo, are struggling with the new idea, which is being either severely opposed or supported, dividing the population and creating a mass public dilemma.
Amsterdam is the perfect example of a city that supports and integrates all its modes of transport. In a day around the city you can easily ride a bike, take the tram or subway to the central station, and easily travel to nearby cities or countries by train or by car. For those who had been there it is easy to remember how well the city is structured for both citizens and tourists, and for those who had not, make sure to go and find out what I'm talking about, you won't regret it!