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Amsterdam: City of Bikes

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

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 were more bikes than residents. 1

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 bicyle 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.

Anyway, in Amsterdam 78% of people 12 years and older owns at least one bike.

In a city built for pedestrians – sporting such car-unfriendly features as narrow streets and canals, far too few parking spots (at premium fees), and single-lane one-way only traffic mazes – a bicycle is the most logical form of transportation.

Bikes on a bridge over an Amsterdam canal

In Amsterdam, just about everyone bikes. It is not unusual to see mothers, grandmothers, business people, police officers, 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.

And one in three Amsterdammers rides a bike to work.

Matter of fact, bikes account for 40 percent of all traffic movements in Amsterdam.

Most Bike-Friendly City (2011, 2013); Position Ceded to Copenhagen (2015)

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 has edged out Amsterdam. Referring to the latter, the Index notes 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.2

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.

People transport bike

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

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

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

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.

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.

Even if you lock your bike to a bridge, you must lock it correctly or risk having most of your bike stolen

Even if you lock your bike to a bridge, you must lock it correctly or risk having most of your bike stolen

Buying a Bike

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.

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.

Custom-decorated bikes are easier to find back, and thieves won't want to steal them

Custom-decorated bikes are easier to find back, and thieves won’t want to steal them because they stand out.

Some 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.

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.

There are also plans for a new parking garage underneath the water in front of the station.

Bike parking in Amsterdam

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.

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

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.

In The City of Bikes

In The City of Bikes, by Pete Jordan 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!

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  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.

  2. The 2015 Copenhagenize Index of Bike-Friendly Cities
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This post was last updated: Jun. 13, 2017