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Amsterdam: City of Bikes

Amsterdam and Bicycles go hand in hand

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.

It seems that almost everyone here rides a bicycle. It’s not unusual to see mothers, grandmothers, schoolchildren, businessmen, police officers, old and young hippies — and, yes, tourists happily cycling the city streets.

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

Nearly 70% of traffic to and from work or school is by bike, and bicycles 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

Of course, statistics being what they are, no one knows for sure. Suffice it to say that in a 13th century city — long the domain of pedestrians and pushcarts — nowadays a bicycle is the most logical mode of transportation.

 

Amsterdam Bike Tours

How Amsterdam got bicycle-friendly

Mind you, Amsterdam hasn’t always been so bicycling 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.

Founded in the 13th century, the medieval city of Amsterdam has numerous car-hostile features: narrow streets and canals, far too few (paid) parking spaces and one-lane traffic labyrinths that only lead in one direction.

In recent years, car traffic has been restricted even further as the city has embarked on an extensive project to provide even more space for cyclists than before. Many existing cycle paths have been upgraded, and improvement projects are ongoing.

But there is much more. The city also embarked on a multi-year plan to improve cycling that includes

  1. more and better bike lanes,
  2. a huge increase in bike parking facilities, and
  3. the promotion of ‘new cycling.’

The latter is an attempt to get people to change their habits and behavior. For example, more efforts are being made to encourage even more people to cycle. Fit people are encouraged to park their bikes — if possible — on the upper level of the bike racks so that others can use the slightly more accessible spaces. Children and adults are taught not to be distracted by their smartphones in traffic. Bicycle owners are taught to park their vehicles legally and not just where they deem convenient. And so on…

Bicycles in Amsterdam: It’s Not All Positive

This “Crazy Bike Crossing” is at the busy intersection of Sloterkade and Hoofddorpweg in the borough of Amsterdam-Zuid.

Tourists and other visitors tend to view Amsterdam’s cycling culture through rose-tinted spectacles. They are fascinated by the ‘romance’ of cycling and have turned Amsterdam’s love of the ‘iron horse’ into something of a tourist attraction.

However, the locals know that there are also considerable problems.

In the last 25 years, the number of bicycle journeys per day has risen 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 obey the traffic rules, many others do not.

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

Amsterdam Tourists on Bicycles

Speaking of tourists, Amsterdammers have learned to be extra careful when they see people on rental bikes. Almost always these are visitors who, with a minimal understanding of local traffic rules and safety issues, have decided to test their cycling skills on Amsterdam’s busy streets while taking in the sights.

That said, the biggest pet peeve Amsterdammers have with tourists is when they inadvertently walk or stand on dedicated bike paths. That’s a big no-no. It is safer to step in front of a moving car than to come between a Dutch cyclist and his or her destination.

Helmets and Bicycle Gear in the Netherlands

Video: Why Don’t the Dutch Wear Helmets?

By the way, you will see that most Dutch cyclists don’t wear a helmet. Of course there are accidents. However, ‘only’ 185 people die in cycling accidents in the whole of the Netherlands every year.

It is unusual to see any Dutch cyclist wearing a helmet. Most of us just don’t see the need to do so.

If you do spot someone wearing a helmet, you can bet it is 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.2

What you will see is normal looking people, wearing everyday clothes: jeans, business suits, a wedding dress, (mini) skirts, shorts, dresses, slacks, whatever. Rain or snow? Add slickers (raincoats), all or not accompanied by an umbrella.

Shared Space: Mixing Humans and Bicycles

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:

Shared Space behind Amsterdam Central Station. Filmed by Thomas Schlijper.

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.

Video: Bicycle anecdotes from Amsterdam

Helmets & Bicycle Gear in Holland

It is highly unusual to see any Dutch cyclist wearing a helmet. It is just not necessary to do so.

If you do spot someone wearing a helmet, you can bet it is 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 everyday clothes: jeans, business suits, a wedding dress, (mini) skirts, shorts, dresses, slacks, whatever.

Wide variety of bikes

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.

Nowadays, more and more companies are delivering their goods on custom-built bicycles. The postal company PostNL delivers parcels on electric bicycles and supermarket Albert Heijn brings groceries to your home on electric cargo bikes.

Old-fashioned so-called ‘granny” or ‘grandpa” bikes are very popular with people with a sense of history.

Electric bikes are increasingly in demand. They range from pedelecs or e-bikes (snorfiets) — bicycles where the rider is assisted in pedaling by a battery-powered electric motor (no faster than 25 km/h) — to speed pedelecs (no faster than 45 km/h).

The German army stole many of the Dutch bicycles during the Second World War, and even today some Dutch people half-jokingly tell German tourists that they want their bicycles 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, 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. Frankly, we ourselves get our bikes this way. Never yet had a bad deal.

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: Pimp my Bike, Amsterdam Style

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 in Amsterdam

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 was long at a premium. There were simply not enough parking spots available.

One of several solutions was the bicycle flat which provided 2500 free parking spaces.

The structure, initially meant to be ‘temporary,’ had become one of the city’s most photographed spots.

It was eventually replaced by a new, underwater bicycle parking garage which opened in January, 2023.

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

In all, as of 2023 there are total of 13,000 covered bicycle parking spaces at Amsterdam Central Station. The number of bicycle parking spaces around Central Station will be expanded to 22,000 in the coming years.

Is Amsterdam the “Most Bike-Friendly City”?

Copenhagenize Index

The Copenhagenize Index was first published in 2011, and appears every other year.

The most recent index was published in 2019 — the year the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. No new indexes have been published since then.

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.

But 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.

The 2015 Copenhagenize Index of Bike-Friendly Cities

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.

2017 Copenhagen Index

2019: Amsterdam in Second Place again

In the 2019 edition (the most recent available) Amsterdam is in second place again — still behind Copenhagen, but ahead of Utrecht. “Amsterdam is back in the game,” the Index says (though it clearly was never out of the game to begin with). But Copenhagenize notes that

Since the last index, the City has released an ambitious new bicycle plan for 2022 that focuses on improving bicycle parking and existing bicycle infrastructure. With 11,000 new inhabitants filling the city every year, Amsterdam is creating new “royal routes” to accommodate more bicycles. These corridors include measures to allow for a lower stress cycling experience during rush hour periods. Some of these measures include widening existing cycle tracks to 2.5 metres for increased capacity, building more low-speed cycle streets and redesigning major intersections to allow for more protected cycling space.

By 2025, the City will be removing over 11,000 car parking spaces from the city centre (1,500 per year), to be replaced with bicycle parking, street trees and better walking environments.

– Source: Copenhaganize Index 2019

Indeed the city’s Fietsplan 2017-2022 is in full swing. More bicycle paths have been added. Existing bike lines (most of which are red in color) have been upgraded and where possible widened.

Since April 2019 mopeds have been banned from using bike paths in the center of town. They now share the road with other motorized traffic. Not surprisingly, unofficial statistics already show a marked decrease in the number of accidents on bike paths since then.

Copenhagenize Index of Bike-Friendly Cities: City Marketing Tool?

The Copenhagenize Index of Bike-Friendly Cities was first published in 2011, and appears every other year.

The most recent index was published in 2019 — the year the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. No new indexes have been published since then.

Observers note that the Index essentially is a marketing tool for the Copenhagenize Design Co. — an urban design consultancy based in Copenhagen, Brussels and Montréal.

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, he says “Amsterdam and Copenhagen are both doing very well. But we are better at communicating how well we are doing.”

The Copenhagenize Design Co. is a member of Cyklistforbundet.

Headed by urban designer and author (Amazon.com: Copenhagenize, The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism) Mikael Colville-Andersen the company advises cities and governments in how to work towards a more bicycle-friendly urban landscape.

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

Not Just Bikes: Copenhagen is great… but it’s not Amsterdam

Not Just Bikes is a YouTube channel by Canadian-Dutch content creator Jason Slaughter. The channel explores urban issues, including but not limited to cycling in the Netherlands. It contrasts the transportation, infrastructure and built environment of the Netherlands to that of the United States and Canada.

In this video he explores the differences in street design taken by Copenhagen and citites in the Netherlands, to discover some of the finer points of what makes for great urban design:

Copenhagen is Great … but it’s not Amsterdam. Comparing the bicycle infrastructure of both cities.

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]

Bicycles and Phones do not go together

Since July 1, 2019, it is illegal to hold or touch your phone while riding a bike anywhere in the Netherlands. Colloquially referred to as an appverbod (apping prohibition), the new law comes with a €95 ($107/£85) fine — plus administrative fees — for anyone who violates it.3

Checking Google Maps, finding your favorites on SoundCloud, or letting a friend know you’re on your way — it’s all good, as long as your bike is not moving while you do so.

Handsfree use of your phone is allowed. So is listening to music using earphones, but you must be able to hear ambient noise as well.

This law covers not just mobile phone, but also navigation systems, tablets or music players.


Recommended book: In The City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes, by Pete Jordan
Buy from Amazon.com

The Story of an Amsterdam Cyclist

American author and bicycling enthusiast 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 his book In The City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist [Amazon.com] Pete Jordan 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 [Amazon.com]

Rise and Shine: Amsterdam’s bicyclists awake. A video by Amsterdamize, who describes himself as: Independent Bicycle Ambassador. Urban Mobility Consultant. Marketing Strategist. Traveler. Citizen in the certified Bicycle Capital of the World.

Why Beer Bikes are Banned from Downtown Amsterdam

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 under the age of twelve, even though most kids do own bikes. 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. Dutch: Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg. (More Dutch words and expressions you should know).
  3. The fine for those operating mopeds or scooters is €160, and for other drivers (car, bus, truck, et cetera) €240.
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