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2,500 Bikes Look a Lot Alike At Amsterdam Central Station Bike Garage

“I thought it was right here.”

Mireille has that I’m-worried-but-I’m-not-going-to- panic-yet look on her face. It’s 5:40 p.m., the top of the afternoon rush hour, and she’s been searching for only two minutes.

She’s lost her bicycle in the Amsterdam Central train station’s high-rise bike lot, where 2,500 two-wheelers are crammed pedal-to-pedal, handlebar-to-handlebar on five soaring levels.

Mireille, with a purse the color of scrambled eggs thumping against her salmon faux-leather jacket, is pacing the row where she’s certain she left her bike. The row looks like an impenetrable web of spokes and bars and wheels. She starts to offer her full name, but thinks better of it. She’s embarrassed. She’s 39 and works for the city.

She confesses that she was in a hurry this morning and double-parked, jamming her bike into the narrow space between two legally parked cycles. She was unable to wrap her lock around the bike stand. At Amsterdam Central, that’s an invitation to the owner of one of the other bikes to rip out yours and stash it in another illegal space 30 bikes away, just to teach you a lesson.

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There are two reasons many Amsterdammers personalize their bikes: 1) its easier to spot when parked amongst other bikes, and 2) bike thieves prefer less eye-catching rides.

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“It’s here somewhere. . . . It’s a gray bike,” Mireille offers hopefully, adding, “with a black thing.”

A black thing? The flat metal seat over the back wheel.

The Netherlands, a country as flat as a pool table, has more bicycles than people: an estimated 20 million bikes, and just over 16 million humans. There are three times as many bicycles as cars. Virtually every road has a bicycle lane. Virtually no one wears a helmet.

The bike garage at Amsterdam Central, which won an architectural award for its winding levels of bicycle stands that jut over a wide canal, is one of the country’s busiest.

Mary Frances Cullen — Irish, 63, with dyed auburn hair and quick green eyes — sees the lost-bike frenzy dozens of times a day. Unlike automobile drivers, cyclists don’t have keys with panic buttons. At Amsterdam Central, they have Cullen and her crew of bike attendants.

Cullen, who wears a neon lime green vest, works out of a lemon yellow box on the first floor to help bicyclists in distress. Before this job, she spent eight years causing bikers distress: She was on the city squad that rounded up illegally parked bikes from bridges, lampposts and sidewalks and hauled them to the bicycle pound outside town.

At 5:45 p.m., a hysterical woman with shoulder-length blond hair, a briefcase and a wailing toddler is standing outside the yellow box. The woman is screaming — in Dutch — at one of Cullen’s colleagues.

“First thing they tell you is, ‘My bike was stolen,’ ” Cullen translates, shaking her head.

Perhaps that is because almost every Dutch bicyclist has had his or her bike stolen — at least once. An average of 800,000 bikes are reported stolen every year.

Cullen says her first question is always the same: “Have you looked around?”

“They say, ‘Yes, of course.’ I ask them, ‘What color is it?’ ‘Black, lady’s,’ they say. I tell them, ‘There are 2,000 black lady’s bikes here! Put something on the bike you can recognize — plastic flowers, ribbons, anything.’ ”

Some folks do that. They twist plastic flowers around the handlebars, they strap black plastic milk cartons to the back, they stick goofy cloth flowers to the seats. A rare few venture from the classic black or gray paint job and go wild — pink with red hearts, for instance.

At 5:49, Michele Jacobs, moderator for the Radio Netherlands program “The State We’re In,” is not in a good state.

“I don’t know where I put my bike,” she moans, scanning a seemingly endless row of bike seats. “Mine’s got a high seat — sticks up way above all the rest. Otherwise, it’s a raggedy old gray bike with a smashed-up reflector light.”

To make matters worse, it’s not really her bike. A friend lent it to her because hers had a flat tire. And she parked the bike here two days ago, making her memory even fuzzier.

Many lost bikes stay lost and become abandoned, another big headache for the garages. Others end up that way because students take off for holiday and leave their cycles parked for months. People lose their keys and don’t go to the trouble of replacing them or cutting the locks. Other people simply forget they left their bikes.

Four times a year, Cullen and her crew mark every bike on the lot with an orange tag. Owners are told to tear off the tag when they pick up their bike. After one month, any bike that still has an orange tag is taken away. Cullen says they usually clear out 500 to 600 in each sweep.

At 5:50 p.m., a woman in a tan raincoat pushes her bicycle down the exit ramp, balancing a towheaded baby on the seat and an extra-large package of disposable diapers over the rear wheel. A man in a brown suit struggles to shoulder a cello and remain upright on his cycle.

Suddenly, at 5:51 p.m. — 13 minutes after she started her hunt — Mireille emerges from a tangle of cycles. She is pushing a gray one with a thick lock snaked over the handlebars.

A broad smile of relief creases her face.

“I found it!”
– Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post, June 15, 2007

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This post was last updated: May. 18, 2011