Amsterdam: My Big Take-Away

Disclaimer: All remarks here are confined to what I experienced in Amsterdam. I am not commenting on the Dutch system as a whole because I have experienced only a tiny bit of it in one city. Further, my remarks are based on my experiences bicycling in the city as filtered through my terministic screens. While much of what makes up my screens are easily discovered reading Carbon Trace, it is important to note that increasing participation is not my primary goal as a bicycle advocate. My primary goals are to educate people how to use the streets we have and to return us to the idea that our streets are a public commons. That more people in Springfield won’t get out and enjoy our streets on a bicycle is tragic.

I began editing video clips and photos yesterday and realized two things: 1) It’s going to take awhile longer to produce this thing than I had first supposed because I have a massive amount of material. I rode for 30+ hours in Amsterdam and was shooting video– front and rear — about half the time. 2) I don’t want this documentary to be just a look at Amsterdam because 30 hours or so does not make me an expert. It means I had an experience — one I want to tell you about in comparison to my experience in Springfield. As I wrote on Facebook during my five days in Amsterdam: “I’d rather ride my bicycle in Springfield.” Some variation of that will become the title, I think.

While you wait, I intend to keep you posted on my editing progress and give you a few thoughts and impressions along the way. Today, I want to give you my big take-way.

Bicycling is a safe activity. The infrastructure in Amsterdam has certainly separated bicyclists from motorists easing to a certain extent the potential for harmful crashes. But it is not the bicycling infrastructure in Amsterdam that’s keeping them safe from more common dangers — primarily other bicyclists.

I believe there is a greater than normal chance that you will crash in Amsterdam owing to the chaos of the street system including: the shockingly tiny space allotted to bicycles given the 40+ percent mode share, the scooters (because by law they must use the bicycle tracks and lanes), the trolley tracks, the oblivious pedestrians (i.e. tourists), the cell-phone talking and texting, the 1-hand and no-hand riding (pictures of people holding umbrellas while riding in the rain are cute, but the reality is a bit more sobering), the handlebars burdened with shopping bags, the near universal lack of scanning, the dearth of signaling, the outright rudeness (I have photos and video of bicyclists — not tourists — pushing their way through a group of school children on a crosswalk — against the light!), the all-too-frequent failure to yield, the flouting of traffic laws, the close passing in tight spaces, and the solipsistic daze so many Amsterdam bicyclists seem to enjoy.

The danger in Amsterdam isn’t the cars. The cars are mostly out of the picture. The danger is too many bicyclists in too little space and too many of them acting badly.

There is much we can learn from Amsterdam — both positive and negative. After riding there for five days I realized, however, that we mostly get a cherry-picked view. Yes, the city is filled with tall, beautiful girls on bicycles gliding by with hardly a care in the world. Yes, families use bicycles for everyday tasks. Yes, kids ride to school. Yes, there are large parking facilities where bicycles are safely stored.

But also yes, there are all those things I listed above that increase the likelihood of a crash.

I intend for my video to offer a more balanced view of Amsterdam. It was a wonderful experience to ride in a city where bicycling is utterly normal. That’s a function of culture, not infrastructure. If it were a matter of infrastructure, Portland, Oregon might achieve more than a pitiful (but still best in the USA) 7 percent mode share. The Dutch mode share is at least 40 percent. In the U.S., riding a bicycle for transportation is an odd thing to do. No amount of special infrastructure will change that. I am not making an argument against infrastructure, although my thoughts on typical American bicycle lanes are no secret.

Let’s get back to my big take-away. In my opinion, Amsterdam is an incrementally more dangerous place to ride a bicycle than Springfield primarily because of the behavior of its bicyclists within a space inadequate to handle the mode share — and yet it is safe. It is safe because bicycling itself is safe.

Later today I will drive my bicycle the 2.25 miles to downtown along quiet streets and among polite motorists and wonder in disbelief about a culture that thinks this is odd and unsafe. And across the pond, thousands of bicyclists in Amsterdam will crowd themselves into narrow lanes among scooters and scofflaws and think they are normal and safe.

Well, they are normal and safe because bicycling is safe and their culture correctly considers bicycling to be normal. We have much to learn from the people of Amsterdam.

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Comments 14

  1. Ian Cooper wrote:

    But Dutch culture doesn’t consider bicycling to be normal enough to allow free and full access to the road. As I understand it, in the Netherlands, many bicycle paths are mandatory for cyclists.

    Posted 21 Jun 2012 at 9:43 am
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Ian … One could make that argument stick ;-)

    Posted 21 Jun 2012 at 9:46 am
  3. John Schubert wrote:

    Amsterdam had four coffin-corner bike/truck fatal collisions in one year. I doubt it’s as safe as this article states. As you say, bicycling is inherently safe — and precisely for that reason, injuries and deaths caused by the infrastructure are particularly damning.
    Also, Amsterdam had been famous for its huge bicycle theft rate. Did they fix that?

    Posted 21 Jun 2012 at 10:19 am
  4. Andy Cline wrote:

    John… I have photos and video of some manufactured right-hook conflicts — so that’s not at all surprising. I’d also like to find a comparison of bicycle deaths and injuries/deaths for Amsterdam versus other Dutch cities and the country as a whole.

    Bicycle theft is still a problem. But a larger problem is bicycle litter. Those cool pictures you see of hundreds of parked bicycles? Well, it was interesting to see how many are nonfunctional.

    Litter.

    Posted 21 Jun 2012 at 10:24 am
  5. Keri wrote:

    Yes, yes. Bicycling IS safe, but we must increase risk, frustration and workload in order to make it FEEL safe to the uninformed.

    Posted 21 Jun 2012 at 6:38 pm
  6. Chandra wrote:

    Amsterdam is on my list of cities to visit. Have fun!

    Posted 21 Jun 2012 at 9:44 pm
  7. John S. Allen wrote:

    Thanks so much for your work. Keri and I among others are working on an assemblage of videos of U.S. and Canadian bicycling environments and it’s great to have some of Amsterdam to compare.

    The need is to show what it is actually like to ride in one place or another, rather than the usual Streetfilms videos which elaborately conceal that. You may find me on Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/jsallen/videos. Can’t wait to see yours!

    Posted 23 Jun 2012 at 8:24 pm
  8. Andy Cline wrote:

    John… Thanks! Since I’m planning a fairly extensive video, it will take some time to finish.

    Posted 24 Jun 2012 at 8:35 am
  9. Erik Griswold wrote:

    Amsterdam is a big rough-and-tumble world-league city. Most Dutch avoid it like the plague, even if they have to work there.

    Of course Springfield, any of them, is going to be a nicer place to ride bicycles. (Big) Apples versus Oranges.

    But imagine a Springfield with cycle-tracks? You really needed to visit a city like Groningen.

    Posted 25 Jun 2012 at 4:35 pm
  10. Ian Cooper wrote:

    I’ve cycled the length and breadth of the Netherlands (including Groningen). I prefer free and full road access to forced use of bike infrastructure (which is what the Netherlands law demands in many places).

    The road is fine as it is. Why cycle on narrow paths when you have a perfectly good 10+ foot wide traffic lane?

    Posted 25 Jun 2012 at 6:14 pm
  11. Erik Griswold wrote:

    Ian,

    Netherlands law also finds the car at fault in every crash. If that is the benefit of being “forced” to use a cycle-track, I’ll take that trade, thanks.

    Posted 26 Jun 2012 at 4:35 am
  12. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Since I’ve never had a crash in 40 years of cycling, apart from one I had on a mandatory use cycle path, I reckon that’s a horrible trade. Cyclists have more accidents per mile (and more dangerous ones) while cycling on cycle paths than they ever do on the road.

    Besides, Thomas Jefferson once wrote something along these lines: “Those who would give up liberty to buy safety deserve neither”. I think his words aptly denounce your viewpoint.

    Posted 26 Jun 2012 at 6:50 am
  13. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Anyway, finding a car (I hope you mean the driver of the car) at fault doesn’t keep you safe – it only keeps you (or your next of kin) avenged.

    Posted 26 Jun 2012 at 6:52 am
  14. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Sorry, it was Ben Franklin. I always get those two confused.

    Posted 26 Jun 2012 at 7:45 am