It’s a no-brainer that a city like Amsterdam—versus your average American one—is perfect for cycling.
What are some of the reasons?
Geography. Amsterdam, a medieval city established in the 16th century, is built on half a dozen concentric canals with over 1,000 bridges spanning them. On one side of the road are houses and on the other side, water. This makes it, if not impossible to widen the city’s already narrow streets, very unlikely.
Economics. Pre-WWII, cyclists outnumbered all other forms of traffic in Amsterdam—everyone was poor—so bike traffic had the right of way. But…after the war, the Dutch became wealthy rebuilding their country (an impressive 200% increase in income) and guess what? They wanted to spend their money on expensive things, like cars.
Crisis (and thus, awareness). As the Netherlands greeted the 1970’s, biking was at an all-time low. Welcome the global oil crisis 1973. The Dutch, who are thrifty Calvinists at heart, didn’t like the financial implications of oil dependency and were determined not to diminish the quality of their lives.
Also, as car traffic increased in Amsterdam, the city demolished buildings to create more roads and used city squares, those romantic open spaces where tourists slowly sip beers at outdoor cafes, as parking lots. This started to change the landscape, which became increasingly focused on cars.
But worse, more cars on the streets also meant more accidents. One year, over 400 children younger than 14 died in car-related accidents. This enraged Amsterdammers and doing what they do best, they started to protest. They protested, and demonstrated and insisted on building an infrastructure, on bicycle lanes and all the impressive stuff that now gives Amsterdam its reputation.
A photo of a protest on Museumplein from the 1970s:
Something you might not know—but is uber-cool about cycling in Amsterdam:
Cyclists always have the right of way. Can you fricking believe it? Strict liability is enforced.
This means that with any run-in between car/cyclist, car drivers are automatically considered at fault, unless they can prove otherwise. If you’re a tourist here, this explains all those super confident Dutch cyclists you see around town, who literally bike in front of accelerating machines because they know, no matter what happens, the law’s on their side. There are some stupid cyclists out there who no doubt cause accidents with their bravado, but having such a law makes sense. Because bloated tin machines tend to kill people more often than bicycles so the law gives them the benefit of the doubt.
One last word, Amsterdam is quite an exceptional place, especially when it comes to cycling. But I’d rather it wasn’t the exception, but the rule….