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Bicycle Anecdotes From Amsterdam

Here we present our final -- and most informative -- Streetfilm from Amsterdam. It provides a nice cross-section of commentary on life in the City of Bikes. If you’d like to skip directly to a certain section, use this table of contents:

0:17 Rejecting the Automobile
2:15 A bike system that works for everyone
4:05 There's a science to what looks like "bicycle chaos"
5:55 Coming to The Netherlands from the United States
7:33 Dutch Bicycle Culture

Make sure you check out our other Streetfilms from Amsterdam: No Amsterdam is Not "Swamped" By BikesAmsterdam Draws Bike Boxes to Organize Bike Parking, and Some Things You Might See While In Amsterdam.

I still find it amazing that a five-year-old in Amsterdam can ride straighter and with more confidence than the average American adult!

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • Todd Edelman, Slow Factory

    :-) Again, longer is better... also with wheelbases.

  • http://brooklynspoke.wordpress.com Doug G.

    Another home run. This could have gone on for another hour and I wouldn't have minded one bit.

  • Joe Zahner

    Very interesting. The bicycles are everywhere and I can tell you it takes a couple of days to learn how to be a pedestrian!

  • Martin

    If only more governments would do something like this. I smiled all the way through this film, thank you.

  • crank

    *sigh* gorgeous.

  • Kevin Love

    How long does it take to learn to be a pedestrian in New York City?

  • Upright Biker

    While you find it amazing that a 5-yr old could be a bicyclist in Amsterdam, I find it terribly sad that that same 5-yr old would likely be terrorized trying to ride on almost any American street, because the car culture here is just so deeply ingrained.

    I see it in myself – although I ride a bike every single day, the second I get into an automobile I become someone else: Intolerant. Impatient. Sometimes downright belligerent.

    It's going to take us a long time to change this, for society as a whole let alone within ourselves.

  • Joe Enoch

    It was three years ago that I went to Amsterdam and it changed my life. I haven't owned a car since 2006, but that was simply to save money and parking headaches, having lived in DC and NYC. The, three years ago, I visited Amsterdam on a whim with my friend and it changed my life. We rented bicycles and it was just so much FUN to get around. Even in the snow (it was January), it was just the most fun way to get around the city. Now, it's the only way I get around NYC. Thank you, Amsterdam!

  • PaulScott58

    I was invited to speak at an e-mobility (electric cars) conference in Haarlem just outside of Amsterdam a couple weeks ago. It was my first time in The Netherlands and I was astounded at how civilized the country is. The bikes were a big part of it, but it was more than that. There were no homeless that I could see, no obesity, and virtually no crime other than the pilfering of bikes, I was told. That was mostly because all the bikes looked alike and were unlocked, so there seemed to be a lot of people just taking something that looked like theirs.

    What cars I did see were very respectful of the bikes. Everythign was slower and calmer than the U.S. Also, as this film showed, almost no one wears helmets, another tribute to how safe it is there.

    My biggest complaints were the scooters making noise and stinking up the place. I encouraged them to phase out the internal combustion scooters and replace them with electric bikes and motorcycles. Also, too many people there still smoke tobacco. They really stunk up the place. Otherwise, it was near perfect.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I like the discussion on "bike culture" even though I will say that the Dutch must have a bike culture just as we have a "car culture" here in the US. In many ways they are analogous.
    Bicycle chaos: Looks more like the "Critical Mass" once talked about with regards to the large numbers of Chinese cyclists in the 1980s.
    Also, how many obese people did we see in that video???
    Finally, if there are no or very few cars, do you even need bike lanes? This is the future that we should be shooting for in our cities and residential suburbs.

    BTW, Amsterdam really does have a bicycle parking problem. I really can't think of another city that could benefit more from having a Bikeshare program.
    Another great video Clarence!

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Thanks Andy B. The first video we did did talk some about the bicycle parking problem: http://www.streetfilms.org/are-there-really-too-many-bikes-amsterdam/

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Paul, most people I hung around in Amsterdam shares your concerns about the scooters. Let me tell you, the place would be the easiest place to film except for those loud scooters!!! I actually had to lose a few soundbites because they would go by and ruin the sound..

    It is a great word to use "civilized".

  • john

    Excellent video and truly inspirational that a large city can improve the quality of life by spending less on transportation. Few if any STOP lights and thus civility governs interaction. As others have written, no obesity (a constant visual scar in America), no helmets, no problem. Thanks it made my day!

  • http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/ Karen Lynn Allen

    Though I've been an urban bicyclist in San Francisco for four years, I will say as an American bicycling in Amsterdam takes some getting used to, largely because of the customs and norms, so natural for anyone growing up in the Netherlands, are not always easy for Americans to figure out. We took a four hour bike tour of Amsterdam with a guide, then got up our nerve and rented bikes for three days. The first day riding on our own was often terrifying, maybe just because of the speed and frequency of all the bikes flying past and the knowledge we were invariably doing the wrong thing. (Our family of five did ride single file on the bike paths to let speedier riders pass us!) Sometimes there would be separate lights for bicyclists, sometimes not. Trams appear to almost always have the right of way over bicyclists even in places where in the US they would not. And copying what other bicyclists did, while usually helpful, was not always a way to avoid doing the wrong thing. This last weekend I biked on Citibikes with my husband and daughter in NYC (Brooklyn and lower Manhattan) and though I found some of our adventures hair-raising (and the Brooklyn Bridge completely nuts) my daughter said biking in New York was far less stressful than biking in Amsterdam. Can't say I share her view, and I would guess after another week biking in Amsterdam she would've felt a great deal better, but for the tourist it's not exactly for the faint of heart.

    Some observations, some just confirming those in the video:
    1) The Dutch are really, really good bicyclists. Though I admit my rental bike was on the pathetic side, I was amazed to see people in their sixties and seventies fly past me.
    2) No one wears helmets. No one. In three days there while witnessing about a gazillion bicyclists, we saw one bike collision. It was in the inner ring area in an uncontrolled intersection of two narrow streets. Two guys on bikes ran into each other, but since neither was going that fast, no one was hurt, both got up and cycled off. Saw no motorist/bicyclist collisions.

    3) The nature of the bikes the Dutch ride--heavy, upright bikes often rusting because they are constantly left outside--helps with safety. While the Dutch are generally pretty fit and are by no means slow pokes, no one is zipping around at the speeds bicyclists in US cities like to go. I would say the stream of bike traffic in dense areas is about 12 mph. This speed really does add to the civilized, low accident nature of Dutch bike riding.
    4) Very little in the way of something to lock your bike to. Very few Dutch are able to bring their bike off the street to park, either in something akin to a garage or even an off street courtyard. The lady we rented our flat from was very concerned our rental bikes would be stolen even with all five of them chained together. She insisted we lock them to her family's bikes overnight (they lived in the flat above ours.) They had installed some small metal rings into the side of their building to lock their bikes to. Though officially you're not supposed to lock bikes to canal bridge railings, of course everyone does because no other options are available.

    5) Being outside year round is hard on bikes, and most of the bikes did not look very pretty, though they were extremely sturdy and tough. (In fact, many bikes looked like they'd seen service since WWII.) The Dutch don't seem to mind?
    6) Bicyclists in Amsterdam do not routinely yield to pedestrians. Pedestrians are expected to look and keep out of bicyclists' way. Pedestrians don't seem to resent this at all, maybe because they are all bicyclists themselves and when on a bike don't want to have to constantly stop for pedestrians. American pedestrians, on the other hand, pretty much despise this aspect of Amsterdam.

    7) The Dutch are an athletic people who value being fit. On weekends, for example, doing some type of physical activity or sport is very common for all ages because they enjoy it. They absolutely long for a good freeze in the winter so they can go ice skating on the canals.
    8) Literally everyone cycles for most purposes. My landlady in her fifties was a violinist at the Concertgebouw. She cycled to and from rehearsals.
    9) Car drivers are very, very careful around bikes. I was amazed.
    10) There are many residential neighborhoods where cars are limited in entrance and exit points to certain streets, whereas bikes can go through at will. This results in almost no cars cutting through these neighborhoods and very little car traffic. This in turn makes very dense neighborhoods quite close to the city center very calm and livable.
    11) Much of the bike paths we rode on were made up of stone/concrete pavers set in sand. They were so well done that these pavers felt like smooth asphalt, no bumps from the seams at all. Very impressive.
    12) When there was construction on a high traffic street, a bike path separate from traffic, even if it had to be made of wooden planks over open dirt, was always present. Bikes were always thought about and accommodated.
    13) Our flat was just about at ground level and we could see a stream of bicyclists gliding by quite noiselessly from 6am until past midnight. A hundred bikes don't make as much sound as one internal combustion engine.

    14) The gas-powered mopeds and scooters riding on the bike paths are vile, spewing pollution and noise. Since they go at speeds similar to cars (even while on the bike path), why exactly are they allowed on the bike paths?
    15) No U locks, mostly big heavy (heavy!) cloth covered chains which I thought were a pain. Not sure why this is the preference.

    16) The trams are pretty expensive--$3.50 or so. The Dutch are practical. Biking really is the cheapest, fastest way to get around.

  • andrelot

    Coincidentally, I'm have been living in the Netherlands for 2 years and counting for work reasons. I live in a 200,000-big city 80 km from Amsterdam. As it is usually the case with videos about cycling in the Netherlands produced by or to a foreign audience, I have some criticisms of it:

    1) the central areas of Amsterdam are not representative of cycling infrastructure in the country, or even in big cities. 90% of those movies are shot in the old narrow quarters of Amsterdam full of canals, where less than 1/5 of Amsterdam metro population actually lives. It is not a good area for cycling at all. There are far less dedicated infrastructure (totally separated bike paths), more conflict with pedestrian and vehicular circulation than in most other big cities. Cycling infrastructure is better outside the first canal belt and best on the newer subdivisions built after WW2 where there are plenty of totally separated (including in various instances grade-separation) bike paths. Driving and walking is also better on those places. A win-win.

    2) the practice of putting busy bike routes sharing space with busy pedestrian ways while allowing car traffic is not standard at all. I wish they stopped using what is an exception in Netherlands to make a case for dangerous measures elsewhere. Shared street space is restricted to residential areas where traffic (of everything) is rather low, in general.

    3) there is no adulation or even adoration of cycling culture among most locals. Cycling infrastructure is there, and so is the superb highway infrastructure (including a major road expansion plan - read here in Dutch http://www.rws.nl/wegen/plannen_en_projecten/index.aspx) and good rail infrastructure. Mile-passenger per capita driving in Netherlands is about half of that of US, lower for sure, but not something non-existent. Except for a fringe minority, cycling is not a polarizing political subject, nor something that defines your "lifestyle". Most drivers are also cyclists, and riding a bike to place B then in the afternoon riding a car to place A is not going to raise eyebrows on most natives. I dislike how many films/clips/articles try to portray a polarization that doesn't exist. Amsterdam just finished - the horror! - a new elevated expressway and is widening its ring highway and some access highways. They are tripling the number of park-and-ride places around the ring - something many people in US will often loathe and dismiss.

    4) as with anything that comes in large numbers, bike traffic in Netherlands presents its own issues. For a starter, the "Spandex Crowd" doesn't stand a chance of riding very fast on cycle path - and they are forbidden to ride on car lanes when a cycle path exists, and forbidden from all access-controlled highways and many 2-lane expressways altogether. You can't ride at your own pace it if is too fast for the rest of the cyclists on most congested bike paths. You can't park your bike right in front of the place you want to go on busiest areas - you need to park your bike on a parking facility, often underground, and then walk the last bits.

  • andrelot

    I don't like to define things in terms of "bike culture" or "car culture". In the Netherlands (where I currently live for work reasons), both are just normalized. People don't ride bikes to make some lifestyle statement, nor are most cyclists concerned with environment or what else.

    For what it is worth, according to CBS (the Dutch bureau of statistics), car ownership in Netherlands is 594 per 1000 inhabitants. Lower, but not overwhelmingly so than in USA. Cycling account for 8% of km-passenger vehicular trip aggregate (trains account for 13%, local urban transportation for 10%, cars for almost all the rest), and for 29% of all work commute trip count.

  • Rebecca Albrecht

    Some people here in the states think, oh it is
    easy to ride a bike in the Netherlands, it is flat, the Dutch cyclists
    are slow. What this video shows is how skillful the Dutch are on a
    bicycle. When I was in Amsterdam six years ago it was difficult
    riding a bicycle when I was surrounded by so many other bicycles. This
    time I learned the “rules” of the road. I learned to read the road
    markings and their system of who has right of way. It was still
    difficult as an American when I was in Amsterdam this Summer a few weeks
    before this video was shot. But at least I knew who had right of way.
    Crossing intersections was tricky. With so many bicycles crossing paths,
    it felt like a dance and I had two left feet, or like I was jumping
    into a game of jump rope with the rope turning. My strategy was to
    remain focused and stay out of everyone’s way. The straight sections
    weren’t hard. When I heard a bicycle bell, I moved to the right to let a
    passing cyclist through.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    For me, I got the hang of it once I started thinking less about myself and more about the good of everyone as a whole - riding responsibly but not meekly either and trying to maintain a constant speed. It was quite fun and I can't wait to return without a video camera and just relax and become imbedded in the general public.

  • BJToepper

    With due nods to Dutch success at opposing car expansion, it's rather difficult to compare the U.S. situation now with Amsterdam in the 1970s. At their "worst," they had something north of 20 percent bicycle mode share. Children were being killed in the street *on their bicycles*, setting off the "Stop the child murder" protests. By contrast, the best city in the U.S. -- Portland -- has less than ten percent mode share. Children riding on the street in most American cities are as rare as hen's teeth. We have a long way to go, and most of it is unchartered waters.

  • Andy Thornley

    Ranks among Streetfilms' finest works, beautiful wonderful stuff!

  • Leona

    I didn't see any snow like we have in Ottawa Canada. Several months of snow, slush, salted roads, and cold make all-year cycling not so nice.

  • lagatta à montréal

    Leona, this past winter, there was a lot of snow in Ottawa, and in Montréal where I live. However, there was almost none in the two previous years, and practically none at all in Toronto or even Kingston. The climate has greatly changed, and the average winter is much shorter than when I was a young woman cyclist.

    People cycle year-round in Copenhagen, and even in Helsinki! You just have to plough the cycle paths.

  • lagatta à montréal

    Yes, there are still too many private cars in the Netherlands.