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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.
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.

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.
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.


  • amsterdamize

    Hi Roxanne, your observations and interpretations are spot on, contrary to more elaborate (and just celebratory) articles on cycling in Amsterdam.
    However, you’re making a few classic (and quite understandable) mistakes when you mirror Amsterdam’s cycling ‘heaven’ to Toronto’s characteristics.
    Commuting distances
    Backdrop: Everyday cycling in Amsterdam is certainly a great thing, but its quality is not the norm…here it comes: it’s better outside of Amsterdam. The entire country is connected through its bicycle infrastructure. Amsterdam has its own traffic dynamics (as you pointed out) and ‘unwritten rules’/eccentric solutions that sometimes baffle out-of-towners, but just work for us. The rest of the Netherlands’ cycling infra development has been way more comprehensive and spacious. For instance, by law, any town or city that expands its urban/suburban development is required to install top notch cycling infrastructure and direct public transportation connections before servicing car routes. A last point contrasting Amsterdam: Groningen (up north) for instance is considered THE most bicycle friendly city in the world, where over 50% of ALL trips are done by bike, the entire city center is almost completely car free and bike traffic dominates cars in the rest of town. The result of less than 20 years of thoughtful policies to push back car traffic for the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians. By the way, businesses didn’t get hurt, they thrived better. Research has shown cyclists shop 30% more than car drivers.
    Now for that point about Toronto commuters experiencing longer distances. To compare to Torontoists I’d use Dutch inter-city commuters, which represent a large chunk of everyday traffic in the Netherlands. The Dutch have the option to take the train (limited space for regular sized bikes, unlimited and free for foldable bikes). Large portions of Dutch commuters do this. Or they can choose for a train subscription including the use of a bike, available at any train station. And there are more options like that.
    The main point I want to make is that sometimes it’s hard to see commonalities or possibilities for implementation similar infrastructure when the differences seem this great. However, the Dutch didn’t get to this point overnight, but it’s also not true that it’s just a cultural/historical thing that we are so ‘blessed’. Just like any other country after WW2, the booming economy and the emergence of the car also pushed bicycle use back in the Netherlands. It wasn’t safe anymore, fewer people than ever before cycled, and there wasn’t any real infrastructure to speak of. A push back started in the late 60′s by people organizing themselves, forcing government to implement new policies, which resulted in the National Bicycle Plan, a comprehensive strategy on local, regional and national levels. Add the Dutch pragmatic nature and ‘a few’ decades (70′s till now) and you’ll understand it’s been a long way to get here, even for us bicycle crazies.
    Weather conditions, hills, other obstacles
    I respect the fact that winters are way nastier in Toronto than over here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a bike with a blizzard blazing either :). Our equivalent are very wet and very windy winters, with occasional snow fall. But people keep riding. The lanes get plowed, just like the car roads. Because bicycles are seen as viable means of transportation as cars. And the benefits of cycling this way outweigh weather conditions. Toronto would indeed be different, but still, a lot of improvements can be made to have people still opt for cycling in between those blizzards. People are resourceful, they just need viable circumstances to feel they can opt for alternatives.
    My thoughts are that for the foreseeable future it’s impossible or unthinkable to entirely replace most car commutes with the bicycle equivalent. But, within an entire metropolitan area, and in between, a lot can be done. But it requires long term vision, comprehensive policies (bottom up, top down), co-orporation, will power. Combinations of different modes of (public) transportation, even including the car (think parking hubs outside city centers). In that light, it’s proven that it IS possible to replace all short and sub-short trips (here: between 0-2 and 2-10 km), which make up most of the everyday traffic, worldwide.
    Most importantly, something I think is universal: build the appropriate and safe infrastructure and people will use it. Which brings me to one of the most important aspects of Dutch cycling: with this kind of infrastructure more and more people (young, old, poor, rich, etc) cycle, safely, in normal clothes on normal bikes. You don’t have to part of some tribe, go ‘sporty’, no need for spandex. No, we dress for work, for school, for whatever and then we hop on. Cycling is meant to be like that. Naturally, more people feel inclined to cycle, because it looks comfortable, safe, easy. When you have that, people will not feel the need for bicycle helmets. And most importantly; there’s certainly no need for bicycle helmet legislation. Let people choose. Enforcing it will only deter people from cycling, making it appear dangerous. Australia, UK, and a lot of US states serve as telling examples.
    So, in conclusion, it’s a long road to bicycle friendliness, but one that’s worth it in the end. Certainly for Toronto.
    cheers, Marc

  • mickih

    A key factor that hasn’t been mentioned — and that must be changed in Canada — is the traffic law. In Holland there is a “no fault” law for cyclists, meaning that cyclists can never be found at fault in a collision. This makes cars really, really spooked about hitting cyclists, and they are ultra-cautious. I have witnessed cars going so far as to stop to let a cyclist pass, even if they have the green light. Compare that with the recent door-prize cyclist death on Eglinton, which as far as I understand it, resulted in no charges being laid against the driver.

  • mickih

    Sorry I was wrong, charges were laid against the driver for “opening vehicle door improperly”

  • amsterdamize

    You’re right, mickih, that ‘no fault’ law sounds alien to many, but it works. Even though most car drivers in the Netherlands are cyclists themselves, thus very conscious (I wouldn’t call it ‘spooked’) by default, the government found it necessary, based on the types of car vs bike accidents, to implement that.
    Also, bicycle traffic scenes are part of the written and practical driving examinations. If you don’t give way to or ignore cyclists during your driver’s test, you fail immediately. And it doesn’t come cheap here.
    No single solution will bring salvation, it has to be comprehensive, top to bottom, left to right.