These days the closest I can come to those warm, sunny rides is have a glass of fresh mint tea.
After returning from Amsterdam, most of my friends were asking, “What’s the coolest thing you saw over there?” That’s a hard question to answer; so much was new, exciting, and interesting that it’s difficult to pick one solitary thing that stood out as the “coolest” or best memory.
As I look back, it’s some of the smaller details that stand out as the most memorable. The castles, museums, breweries, and other attractions were interesting but I had seen previews of those online and in books. Small artifacts of everyday life are distinctly different from life at home, and therefore stand out and make a more lasting impression than popular tourist attractions. Many of these details relate to bicycles but some are interesting just in how they contrast my city’s version of “normal.” These details might not make for exciting bar conversation, but they’re interesting nonetheless.
Starting literally from the ground up, there are far fewer markings on the street in Amsterdam than I’m used to at home. Around Portland we have sharrows, bike lanes, flashing lights, reflectors and other varieties of painted, bolted, and cemented instructions. Contrasting with that, Amsterdam’s streets were relatively devoid of arrows, lane lines, or other markings. They can get away with this in many areas because the road is only one lane wide, with cars limited to one-way travel and bicycles and pedestrians allowed to travel in both directions. The most prolific ground markings in Amsterdam are “zebra-striped” pedestrian crosswalks and sets of white triangles which show who has the right of way when entering an intersection.
You do find occasional bicycle symbols on the ground. Some are smaller than the bike lane markings we’re used to in the United States, but bicycles of any size look pretty cool when they’re placed among Amsterdam’s characteristic cobblestones.
Unlike ground markings, there are many more stair ramps in Amsterdam than in Portland. The ramps are in place to allow bicycles to roll easily up and down stairs. These ramps are present just about anywhere there is a flight of stairs. Amsterdam is so flat that you rarely find a set of stairs in public, though. Most streets and paths rise and fall gradually, gently sloping towards the next intersection. In the uncommon situation when you do find yourself outside and stepping up or down, there’s either going to be a stair ramp or the steps will be so long and shallow that you can easily bump your bicycle from step to step.
Even rarer than stairs or ground markings is the sight of a bicycle helmet. Most people on bicycles do not wear a helmet, with the only exception being very young children. Riding a bicycle (and walking and driving) on the streets of Amsterdam is so safe that it doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind that they need a helmet. It’s perceived as being about as necessary as putting on a helmet before you play tennis or climb a flight of stairs.
Helmets are of course available if you want to wear one. And most the helmets we did see, on heads on the street or for either sale or rent in shops, were Nutcase Helmets. That’s including at Black Bikes, the bike rental shop just a few doors down from our hotel.
While we take a brief detour from bicycle-related topics, it’s worth mentioning that there were some decent breweries in the Netherlands. And while their beer isn’t as amazing as beer from my favorite Oregon breweries, they do have the upper hand when it comes to cool buildings. In Amsterdam I visited a brewery inside a windmill, and on a ride out to Haarlem we stopped at a brewery in an old church.
Like people in Portland, the inhabitants of Amsterdam clearly love their pets. Portland is home to many dog owners and it’s not uncommon to see dogs jogging along side their owners all over the city. In Amsterdam however, the favored pet seemed to be felines. There are some dogs, but plenty more cats, most of which are orange.
Before I get back into the social artifacts directly related to bicycles, I want to also comment on how few signs of poverty there were in Amsterdam. No one was begging for change, we saw no obviously homeless people, and we didn’t see any lines of people waiting for hand-outs. I’m sure there are social issues unique to the area that we didn’t see, but I thought it was interesting that the only “Soupkitchen” I found was actually a moderately swanky restaurant.
But enough rambling; back to bicycles. Just like in Portland, plenty of parents use bicycles to transport their children. It was fun to see all the creative ways people found to fit extra passengers, safely, on their bicycles.
Bicycle parking is something Portland does pretty well. Most of the time you can find a parking space when you need it, and locking up your bike does a pretty decent job of protecting it from theft. It’s about as easy to find parking in Amsterdam, but while parking is hard to find in Portland due to a lack of bike racks, parking in Amsterdam is difficult to find due to the sheer number of bicycles.
Finding space at a bike rack is a game of Tetris with bicycle-shaped pieces. That’s true whether the parking is on the street or in one of the larger parking structures.
In Portland we have hit-and-miss bike parking in residential areas, with smatterings of DIY bike racks and racks at local parks. Many of the neighborhoods in Amsterdam have found ingenious ways of incorporating bicycle parking into the structure of their buildings.
Cargo bikes were something I thought I’d see more of, but some of the only ones I saw parked outside WorkCycles. Thinking about it a little more, that makes some sense. The doors, windows, and stairs of most buildings in Amsterdam are so small that most things that fit inside can easily be carried on a standard bicycle. It’s not like many people are carrying around king-size beds or 82″ televisions.
Another subtle difference I didn’t notice at first was the wear patterns in the road. It’s clear you’re in a city that favors bicycles when, instead of two parallel tracks worn into the pavement by cars, there’s a single line worn down the center of the road from dozens and dozens of passing bicycles.
Most impressive to me was how simply and subtly bicycling fits into everyday life in Amsterdam. It’s not something people do to be hip, it’s not something people do to be fancy, it’s not something people do to be sexy. Bicycling is transportation, plain and simple. Seeing an old, rusty – but functioning – bicycle is far more common than seeing a shiny new one.
At first it looks like, by leaving their bicycles outside to rust, the Dutch don’t value bicycling. Nothing is further from the truth. They’re enthusiastic about bicycling, but the enthusiasm isn’t for the physical bicycle itself; the enthusiasm is for all the benefits that bicycling brings and a rusty bicycle brings the same benefits as a shiny new one. In the end, even with all these small differences, Amsterdam’s people and culture remind me in many ways of Portland. Experiencing Amsterdam first hand really helped show how simple it would be to better integrate bicycles in the daily life of people in Portland, and even in the suburbs, if we just made a few subtle changes.
When I first stepped of the train in Amsterdam, the number of bicycles on the road was overwhelming. In my normal daily routine I quickly sense any bicycles present in my vicinity and, if possible without being too creepy, take a couple of pictures. This habit proved a bit of a problem in Amsterdam as there were so many bicycles riding and parked almost everywhere that I found myself quickly running out of room on my camera’s memory card.
Large bicycle parking garages overflowed with bicycles and smaller impromptu “parking lots” formed anywhere that there was a reasonable amount of empty pavement. No one seemed to mind that there were bicycles on sidewalks, throughout plazas, and in other public spaces. The fact that people rarely blocked doors or walkways with their bicycles helped the matter, but tolerance of the impromptu lots was higher than it would be in the States likely because nearly everyone had a bicycle of their own and knew that they had to find somewhere to park.
Two other examples of how ubiquitous bicycles are in Amsterdam came moments after I stepped into the city for the first time. Just seconds after I started snapping away in my normal fashion, getting photos of everything bike related that I could, I saw three people riding their bikes across an intersection and none were wearing helmets nor were they wearing any spandex; these were “normal people” using their bicycles to get around the city.
Shortly after I saw those three it started to lightly rain and folks on bicycles started to break out umbrellas as they rode along. This contrasts with many places in Oregon and around the United States where most people scatter and hide indoors when it starts to rain.
If you have any remaining doubts that bicycles are one of the most popular means of transportation in Amsterdam, just take a look at some of the other photos from my visit. They’re all available on Flickr.
While I was over in Amsterdam I was constantly amazed by how safe, comfortable, and pleasant it was to be in the city. I had heard that Amsterdam was one of the densest cities you’ll find anywhere, but most anywhere you walk it feels like a small, quiet, residential neighborhood.
One factor that seems to help promote this feeling is the fact that all the streets in the city are set up to be friendly to people. That sounds like a very basic idea, but if you compare Amsterdam’s streets with those in most any other city in the United States you can quickly see that US streets are designed primarily to move cars as quickly as possible. Amsterdam’s streets, on the other hand, are easy to navigate on foot or by bike. It’s rare that you have to use a crosswalk longer than two car lanes (if the road is wider, there’s a pedestrian island where you can stop part way across) and motor vehicles aren’t traveling very fast.
But it’s not just the layout of the roads that makes the city feel more human. Even the signs seem to convey a sense of personality that is lacking from many signs in other cities and countries.
In place of words, arrows, or stick figures the crosswalk buttons pictured above feature realistic drawings of human beings. It’s a subtle yet powerful way to demonstrate to pedestrians and cyclists that they’re a part of the street, just like cars. More than an afterthought, pedestrians and cyclists are two forms of traffic that are given an equal footing with motor vehicles.
While there is no tangible increase to statistical pedestrian and cyclist safety from these signs, the simple fact that they show people using infrastructure goes a long way to make people feel safer and more welcome on the roads of Amsterdam.
After spending a straight 24 hours awake and traveling, we’re back home. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programing, but there will be more on Amsterdam and Copenhagen in the upcoming weeks after I’ve poured through more of the photos from the trip. Until then, you can check out a slideshow of the photos I’ve gotten through so far from each city.