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The Fun of Judging Others: Amsterdam

For the last few weeks of the summer, Torontoist is investigating ideas that we could benefit from pillaging from others. Last week we looked at Madrid’s integration of public libraries and public transit, as well as their insistence on keeping a more humane schedule for workers. This week, we’ll examine Amsterdam’s method of accommodating—and legitimizing—different modes of transportation within their small city grid.
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Amsterdam pulls off small, quaint, and charming without being sleepy or provincial. A city probably best known for its “coffee shops” and red light district, it also boasts amazing street life and has an overall chilled-out and positive vibe. While the culture may seem super-permissive and “anything goes,” there are actually a lot of regulations placed on indulgences like pot and prostitution. The Dutch love freedom, but they also love rules and orderliness. Some of the ways that transportation in particular is regulated there are well worth examining.


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While it’s hardly news that everyone bikes in Holland, Toronto would do well to examine how it is that the Dutch make a major city like Amsterdam so bike-friendly. A lot of it is a combination of luck and forethought in city planning. The necessity of canals in the city means that there is little to no wiggle room as to where buildings are placed. There is no way that car traffic could have been taken into account when the streets of Amsterdam were built centuries ago. But because thoroughfares were created wide enough to allow large vehicles to move freely without being so wide as to create a barrier to integrating different kinds of traffic, their street layouts are extremely successful. What ended up being possible, even in this fixed landscape, were wide, continuous bike lanes which allow separate access to almost anywhere in the city—you hardly ever have to share a lane with a car or with pedestrians as a cyclist.
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Cyclists in Amsterdam have their own traffic signals which, while they obviously operate on the exact same timers as car or pedestrian lights, add to the legitimacy of bicycles as a mode of transportation. Imagine a similar initiative in Toronto: not only would it force car drivers to recognize bicycles as actual vehicles in traffic, but it would also force cyclists to see themselves as operators of vehicles, too. This would improve safety for cyclists, as it would make it easier and more natural to follow traffic laws along with other vehicles on the roads. Parking garages for bicycles are also commonplace in Amsterdam—at Centraal Station, there is a large, multi-level parking structure for bicycles located directly outside, and nothing similar available for cars (in fact, in May 2007, bike parking at Centraal was expanded by using a ferry to provide 350 additional spots).
While the infrastructure for cyclists is superior, however, there are key factors that we can’t imitate here. Holland is a very flat country with no killer hills at all, which makes biking physically easier to do. Plus, the city is much smaller than Toronto, where distance often makes biking impractical for Toronto commuters whose workplaces are far from their homes and who aren’t already committed and fit cyclists. Winter is also much less severe in Amsterdam than in Toronto—the blizzards that keep all but the most dedicated cyclists off their bikes for big chunks of the year simply don’t happen there, which makes choosing a bicycle as your main mode of transportation a lot more practical.
Photos by Roxanne Bielskis.

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