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Amsterdam: City of Bikes

Amsterdam and Bicycles

Amsterdam bicycles

Iconic Amsterdam: Bicycles on a bridge across a tree-lined canal

Upon arriving in Amsterdam you can’t help noticing that the Dutch like bikes.

Seemingly just about everyone here rides a bike. It is not unusual to see mothers, grandmothers, business people, police officers, old and young hippies, and so on happily bike along.

Some people walk their dogs by bike. Others use it to bring home groceries, flowers, furniture, children, girlfriends or anything else one can think of.

As of 2017, 68% of traffic to and from work or school is by bike, and bikes account for 36 percent of all traffic movements in Amsterdam.

In fact, it was long said that the 811.000 people who live in Amsterdam own an estimated 881,000 bicycles. In other words, there are more bikes than residents.1

Statistics being what they are, no one knows for sure, of course.

Suffice it to say that in a city built for pedestrians a bicycle is the most logical form of transportation.

How Amsterdam got bicycle-friendly

Oddly, Amsterdam hasn’t always been so bicycle friendly.

This video explains how the bicycle got the upper hand in the 1970’s — not just in Amsterdam, but in cities around the Netherlands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBdf9jYj7o

Founded in the later part of the thirteenth century, the medieval city of Amsterdam has countless car-unfriendly features: narrow streets and canals, far too few parking spots (at premium fees), and single-lane one-way only traffic mazes.

In recent years cars have become even more restricted as the city has embarked on an extensive project that gives bicyclists even more room than before.

Many existing bike paths have already been upgraded.

But there’s much more. The City has embarked on a multi-year bicycling improvement plan that will provide 1) more and improved cycling routes, 2) a vast increase in bike parking facilities, and 3) the promotion of ‘the new bicycling.’

The latter is an effort to get people to change their habits and behavior. For instance, there were be a bigger push to get even more people to cycle. Fit people will be encourage to park their bikes — where possible — on the upper level of racks, so that others can use the spots that are a bit easier to access. Children and adults will be taught not to be distracted by their smart phones while on the road. Bike owners will be taught to park their vehicles legally, and not just anywhere they deem convenient. And so on…

Amsterdam Fietsplan

Cover of Amsterdam’s multi-year cycling improvement project

Bicycles in Amsterdam: It’s Not All Positive

Tourists and other observers tend to look at Amsterdam’s bicycle culture through rose-colored glasses. They’re charmed by the ‘romance’ of cycling, and have turned Amsterdam’s love of the ‘iron horse’ into a tourist attraction of sorts.

Locals, however, know that there are significant problems as well.

Over the past 25 years, the number of bike trips per day has increased from 445.000 to 665.000.

With more and more people sharing the (in many cases narrow) roads, safety is an issue.

While most cyclists observer traffic rules, many others do not.

In fact, there are plenty of idiots who run red lights, ride on the sidewalk, and/or pay more attention to their phone than to the road.

And speaking of tourists… Amsterdammers have learned to be extra careful when they see people on rental bikes. Almost without fail these are visitors who, with minimal understanding of traffic rules and safety considerations, have decided to test their cycling skills on Amsterdam’s busy roads while also trying to pay attention to the sights.

If we had one euro for every tourist (or, for that matter, local) who got his bike stuck in the tram rails we’d be quite happy.

In an attempt to educate the 10% of tourists who rent a bike here the city has gone as far as to produce a number of ‘humorous’ videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEON08d76oE

You’ll note the instructor wears a helmet, but the vast majority of Dutch cyclists do not.

Accidents do happen, of course. However, in the entire country of the Netherlands, ‘only’ 185 people a year die in bicycle-related accidents.2

Shared Space

As part of the metamorphosis of Amsterdam Central Station the city introduced a unique concept: ‘Shared Space.’

In one spot behind the station, various streams of pedestrians and bicyclists meet and cross each other. This occurs near the berths of the ferries that carry people back and forth across the river IJ.

After multiple studies traffic engineers concluded that traffic signals at this busy crossing would be ineffective, to say the least.

Hence they came up with a daring approach: let people watch out for each other while they share this space. Here’s what that looks like:

Initially there were many naysayers, but test after test shows that the Shared Space concept works remarkably well.

Some Bicycle Traffic Rules

Legally, bikes are allowed to turn right at a red light – if and when it is safe to do so.

In reality, many Amsterdammers feel invincible once they mount their bikes, and thus they won’t stop for anything.

They’ll run red lights, weave through traffic (regardless which direction it is coming from), and more often than not teach tourists not to walk on the bike paths by racing through small groups while loudly ringing their bells or yelling.

Helmets & Bicycle Gear

Incidentally, it is highly unusual to see any Dutch bicyclist wearing a helmet. It is just not necessary to do so.

If you do spot someone wearing a helmet, you can bet its a tourist or an expat.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Dutch cyclists also refrain from wearing lycra or spandex bicycle clothes. “Act normal; that’s strange enough,” is a Dutch maxim that applies here.

What you will see is normal people, wearing every-day clothes: jeans, business suits, a wedding dress, (mini) skirts, shorts, dresses, slacks, whatever.

Wide variety

Bikes come in all shapes, sizes and colors. A group of alternative artists in Amsterdam North custom-welds two or more bike frames into fantastic creations that have its riders tower high above the road.

Young urban professionals tend to like purpose-built bikes – such as models designed to carry two or more children.

bicycle carrying children

A cargo bike double as a school ‘bus’ in Amsterdam

Others prefer the classic cargo-bikes, which can be used to transport large pieces of furniture or the contents of a small room.

Matter of fact, nowadays more and more business deliver their good using purpose-built bikes. Postal firm PostNL delivers packages by electric bike carts, and supermarket Albert Heijn brings groceries to your home using electric cargo bikes.

Old-fashioned so-called ‘grandma’ or ‘grandfather’ bikes are sought after by those with a sense of history.

Nowadays a variety of electric bikes are in increasing demand. They range from pedelecs or e-bikes (snorfiets) — bicycles where the rider’s pedaling is assisted by a battery-driven electric motor (going no faster than 25 km/hour) — to speed pedelecs (no faster than 45 km/hour).

The German army stole many of Holland’s bikes during World War II, and even to-date some Dutch folks will, half-jokingly, tell German tourists that they want their bikes back.

Amsterdam Bike Tours / Rent a Bicycle

If you want to experience Amsterdam, a bike tour is an absolute must.

If you’re more adventurous, or simply are not the ‘tour type’ rent a bike instead.

Would you rather take a boat tour instead?

Buying a Bicycle in Amsterdam

Inexpensive bikes can be found at the Waterlooplein fleamarket, via Craigslist, or at regular bike stores (many of which will have refurbished trade-ins for sale).

Many supermarkets and tobacconists have a ‘free ads’ board where you can find good deals from private individuals in the neighborhood.

Stolen Bikes

Despite measures to combat it, bike theft is still rampant in the city. If someone approaches you on the street to try and sell you a cheap bike, you can be sure that it was only recently stolen.

If the police catch you buying such a bike you will be fined €160.

The locals try and prevent their bikes from being stolen by using two or more good locks. Those locks have to be applied in such as way that every part of the bike is attached to something else.

If you make the mistake of, for example, only securing your front wheel you could return to find the rest of the bike stolen.

Standing Out

Many people paint or otherwise decorate their bikes to make them easier to find back.

Too, a uniquely-decorated bicycle works like bike theft insurance. Bike thieves prefer bikes that blend in. They are harder to spot and easier to sell.

Colorful Amsterdam Bike

Pimp My Bike, Amsterdam Style: Custom-decorated bicycles are easier to find back, and thieves won’t want to steal them because they stand out

Bicycle parking problems

As you might imagine, the overabundance of bicycles creates an ever-growing parking problem — especially in the center of town.

At times some sidewalks are nearly impossible to negotiate due to countless haphazardly-parked bikes.

The city spends a lot of time and money removing bicycles that were illegally parked. Consequently, if you find your bike missing, don’t automatically assume it was stolen.

You may discover that you can collect your bike — whether stolen and found, or removed by the police — at the Fietsdepot (Bicycle repository).

At and around Central Station bike parking is at a premium. The 10.000 parking spots currently available are not enough.

One of several solutions is the bicycle flat which provides 2500 free parking spaces.

The structure, initially meant to be ‘temporary,’ has become one of the city’s most photographed spots. Plans are to replace it with a new Fietsflat that will hold 4.200 bikes.

A new parking garage underneath the water in front of the station.

bike parking amsterdam

A bicycle parking garage will be built underneath the water in front of Amsterdam Central Station

The garage, said to open in 2021, will hold 7.000 bikes.

Two floating structures in the river IJ behind the Central Station provide space for another 4.000 bicycles.

In all the city wants to initially create 17.500 spaces around the station — and a total of 21.500 by 2030.

Throughout the entire city, some 40.000 extra bicycle parking spots will be created by 2020.

“Most Bike-Friendly City”?

Amsterdam is the world’s most bicycle-friendly city. Well, that was true in 2011 and 2013 at least, according to the bi-annual Copenhagenize Index.

In its 2015 edition, Copenhagen edged out Amsterdam. Referring to the latter, the Index noted that

While the city finished with a higher baseline score, it lagged behind in the race for bonus points. Amsterdam, like most Dutch cities, suffers from their insistence on maintaining a status quo, rather than trying to improve, think modern and take things to the next level.”

One of the world’s benchmark cities for cycling, Amsterdam has a leadership role for what they have done, as opposed to what they are doing and planning.3

Then, in 2017, the index ranked Amsterdam in third place — with Copenhagen still leading the list, and the Dutch city of Utrecht ranking second.

Amsterdam remains the most amazing bicycle city. It scored highest in the baseline score in the 2017 Index, as it did in 2015, but it stumbles when it comes to the bonus points that reflect the dynamics in a city moving forward. Indeed, watching Utrecht passing by into second place shows that the city needs to dust off its gameface.4

Observers note that the Copenhagenize Index of Bike-Friendly Cities is in essence a marketing tool for the city of Copenhagen.

Klaus Bondam, director of Cyklistforbundet — Copenhagen’s bicyclists union — admits as much in an interview with Dutch news daily NRC. When it comes to marketing “Amsterdam and Copenhagen are both doing very well. But we are better at communicating how well we are doing.”

Meanwhile, reality is that Amsterdam remains the bicycle capital of the world.

Amsterdam Bicycle Statistics

The year these statistics were last update is noted in [brackets]

  • “There is one bicycle for every one of the 837,000 Amsterdammers.” (See this footnote for details)
  • Average number of bikes per household: 1.91 [2015]
  • On average, an Amsterdammer bikes 900 kilometer (560 miles) a year [2017]
  • Every day, all Amsterdammers together bike some 2 million kilometers (a little over 1.2 million miles) [2017]
  • Bikes account for 36% of all traffic movements in Amsterdam
  • 68% of traffic to and from work or school is by bike [2017]
  • 10% of tourists rent a bicycle
  • Amsterdam has 767 kilometers of bicycle paths and lanes — of which 513 kilometers bike paths completely separated from other traffic [2014]
  • In the entire country of the Netherlands, 185 people a year die in bicycle-related accidents [2014]

In The City of Bikes

American author and bicycling enthousiast Pete Jordan, known for his hilarious cult classic Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States, is in love with Amsterdam and with the city’s bicycling culture. So much so, that he moved here.

In time he wrote a highly entertaining book chronicling the history of the city’s cycling, from the craze of the 1890s, through the Nazi occupation (with the Dutch to this day only half jokingly telling German tourists that “my grandfather wants his bike back”), to the bike-centric culture adored by the world today.


In The City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist combines personal anecdotes, local lore, Amsterdam facts, and an in-depth ode to bicycles in an engaging book that we ourselves — card-carrying Amsterdam bicyclists — count among our favorites. Highly recommended!

Paperback | Kindle

Notes:

  1. This information was updated on January 12, 2017.

    In May 2015 Kerncijfers Amsterdam 2014, published by Onderzoek, Informatie en Statistiek (Research, Information and Statistics), or OIS, a department of the City of Amsterdam reported that Amsterdam was home to 811.000 people.

    The department long said nobody knows exactly how many bikes there are in Amsterdam. They did hold regular polls, using the so-called ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ methodology to arrive at the estimated number of bikes.

    When this article was first published, in April 2006, the 750,000 people who lived in Amsterdam were said to own 600,000 bicycles. In November, 2011 there were 780,000 inhabitants who together owned 881,000 bicycles as estimated in the poll mentioned.

    However, according to the most recent figures published by Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), in 2015 the 442.693 households (850.000 residents) in Amsterdam together owned 847.000 bicycles — 1.91 bicycle per household.

    Mind you, for some reason that count does not include bikes owned by children below the age of twelve, even though most kids do own bikes.

    By the way, an old joke says that “33% of all statistics are incorrect.” So we’ll just note that the city of Amsterdam, in its publication Cycling Matters (2017), says “There is one bicycle for every one of the 837,000 Amsterdammers.”

  2. Yes, that is still 185 death too many, but the number is remarkably low considering the huge number of daily bike trips.
  3. The 2015 Copenhagenize Index of Bike-Friendly Cities
  4. 2017 Copenhagen Index
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This post was last updated: Nov. 11, 2017