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No, Amsterdam Is Not “Swamped” By Bikes

In June, the New York Times published a story headlined "The Dutch Prize Their Pedal Power, But a Sea of Bikes Swamps Their Capital" that instigated much debate (over 365 reader comments in one day) and a torrent of emails to the editor. The Times followed up by seeking a "dialogue" with its readers about the supposed "swamping" of Amsterdam by bicycles. Then came all the echoes of the Times narrative in other media.

So, are there really too many bikes in Amsterdam? On a recent trip to the Netherlands, I got to experience this "sea of bikes" first-hand, and I saw no true problems other than pockets of less-than-ideal bike parking accommodations.

Over 30 percent of trips in Amsterdam are done by bike, and many locals have decried the Times article as hyperbole. See what some of them have to say about the situation in this Streetfilm.

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  • The Overhead Wire

    I have a great idea. Let's give everyone with a bike a car. And that will fix it right up!

  • bz2

    Actually, almost all residents of Amsterdam ride bikes. The 30% you quote is roughly the proportion of *trips* that is done by bike. Bike owners and avid riders still use cars and transit for certain purposes, like interurban travel or heavy shopping. A recent poll by a dairy company showed that 99% of Dutch middle aged adults ride a bike at least once a week, so I imagine that in cycle-mad Amsterdam the proportion of the population that owns and rides a bike is far higher than 30%, more in the region of 90% or higher.

  • Clarence

    Ahhh, I will correct that to mode share for trips. That's what I meant of course!

  • http://amsterdamize.com/ amsterdamize

    in the city centre bikes make up a 70% mode share, within the ring road it's 55%, overall (the metropole, 1.2 million people) 44%.

  • JimMoore70

    A great vignette of this issue. Well done and thanks. Excellent All-Star cast of speakers, wonderfully supported as usual by the citizens of Amsterdam.

  • Ari

    The bike shop owner in this video correctly identified a real issue in Amsterdam and other cities: derelict bikes.

    All cities, including NYC, need more aggressive policies toward derelict bikes:
    - If it's not usable (in it's current form), tag it.
    - If it's still there in a week/month, clip it and recycle/donate/trash it.
    - Repeat.
    Public space is no place for unusable crap, especially personal crap.

  • alex

    NYC needs Bike lots that are monitored at all times. parking could be set at 5 cents for a square foot for all cars and bikes making a bike slot about 25 cents an hour and a car around 8 dollars an hour. making bike parking and car parking equal would eliminate inequality disputes. parking spots for bikes could vary in sizes to accommodate larger bikes perhaps with wagons and kids bikes. locking up bikes on the side of the street to poles will become illegal or street parking for bikes can only be used for short periods of time (30-45 min max).
    people need places to know their bike is safe and sound as well as places to grab a citibike.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Whether or not there is a problem of bike parking now, there certainly is some limit. Bikes really do have smaller versions of basically all of the problems with cars, apart from emissions. They go faster than pedestrians and can collide with them (though much less seriously than cars), and they require parking spaces (though much smaller than car parking), and can leave you tied down to your parking spot when wandering a neighborhood. Most of this stuff probably only becomes an issue at around 10 times the density at which cars become an issue (I'm just guessing on that number), but at some point there does have to be more efficient use of the space, either by bicycle share (which needs much less parking and leaves you free to abandon the bike when wandering the neighborhood) or mass transit.

    Of course, the NYTimes was probably wrong to suggest that the entire city is at the levels of congestion where this is a problem, but it seems likely that there are a few central spaces that need better transit to allow some of those people to leave their bikes at home.

  • SteveVaccaro


  • John Stoner

    So who will do the article about Dallas or Atlanta being swamped with cars?

  • James

    Hmm, I like this video but feel a little like it's building a straw man. The NY Times article in question actually acknowledged that there would be no way to park the number of cars that people would need if people switched away from bikes. I've mostly seen pro-bike people posting the article around as a way of sighing jealously at the dream problem of only having to deal with a lack of bike parking in a city, rather than having to solve a larger issue of dangerous roads, etc. But I think it's great to see the message sent more clearly. The NY Times definitely could have written their article better.

    And it's also interesting to hear that this is something that gets recycled decade after decade in the Times, because it gives a lot of historical perspective on the oddity that we treat Amsterdam as. Get with it, U.S.!

  • http://n8han.technically.us/ Nathan

    The Times' careful passing on of one quote pointing out the obvious, that cars would be far worse, almost makes it concern trolling rather than a hatchet piece. It's still a junk article and it's hardly battling a strawman to point out that its purportedly serious concerns about too much cycling in Amsterdam present a false characterization of public opinion there and the outcomes of a high cycling mode share, apparently motivated by a desire to tramp down our meager imitations of that success back home.

    Which is to say, I think it's better if the Times doesn't write that article at all, this or every other decade. They should write a factual comparison of traffic conditions here and there, if they want to publish something useful.

  • Clarence

    Actually most people in Amsterdam like riding the bike and prefer it to transit. Transit moves too slowly in many parts of the city (heck I walked while pushing my suitcase instead of taking the tram or taxi) because it was easier. While transit is great, the better statement would be that they need better transit to allow some drivers to leave their cars home which will create more space for the bicycles. That's a win for everybody!

  • Guido Bik

    @Clarence Eckerson,

    I hear you are in Groningen and are doing some more reports about cycling in the Netherlands. Here are some pointers (from me being Dutch) I believe are essential to understand why there are so few bicycle traffic accidents over here, on top of a good infrastructure:

    1. Everyone learns to ride a bike, just after they walk, and not just for fun, but to get around.

    2. At elementary school we have bicycle exam (or at least when I was young) to test and learn bicycling norms and rules in practice.

    3. Traffic rules: most important the one being that the most vulnerable in the traffic needs most protection; thus in a car-bicycle collision, the car-driver is always at fault.

    4. In a cycling environment you have to get used to the fact that bikes can always cross your path. Thus Dutch pedestrians know they always have to take a good look before crossing (we are learned look left-right-left and cross), and before opening a car door.

    5. Even if the people are adjusted to cycling traffic, people still make lots of mistakes or are arrogant. So as a cyclist, you must always look ahead and anticipate (especially to avoid renegade pedestrians). On a regular day I would likely hit two persons, if I didn't avoid them, even if I had priority

  • Guest

    I just saw your other documentary about Dutch cycling: http://www.streetfilms.org/from-the-netherlands-to-america-translating-the-worlds-best-bikeway-designs/ It is one of the best (most extensive) I have seen so far, good job! Also it handles most of the pointers given in my reaction above, so feel free to ignore a couple :).

  • Jaxson

    I'd be willing to make a donation if you promise not to use that font again.

  • Miles Bader

    Of course you're right, and transit/walking (and increasingly bike-share) will always be major components of transportation, probably more so than "own bike" bicycling. For most people, bicycles tend to be better suited for shortish-medium trips, and NYC's a big place, and where it's "small," it's usually very dense. The transportation-mix that works in works in a large, dense, global city is very likely quite different than that which works in a small regional one (which is one reason why the constant comparisons with Amsterdam/Copenhagen seem just a tad silly).

    Still, as you say, bicycles are orders of magnitude more space-efficient than cars, and not just in raw space-per-vehicle either—the vastly lighter weight and higher maneuverability of bicycles means that you can build (much) more cheaply, save tons of "ancillary" space (e.g. the access path to the actual parking spots), and use tricks like dual-level racks and robo-parking far more easily than you can with cars, and fit bicycles into places that would never be suitable for car-parking.

    In other words, the real comparison that needs to be made is against cars: how many bikes could be parked if you just started getting rid of car parking (and other car infrastructure), and using that for bicycles instead?

  • sandy

    I've biked in Amsterdam and it was amazing!

  • andrelot

    Your stats are bogus. And I live in The Netherlands. More than 1% of Dutch adults have some serious disability that is inherently incompatible with the physical act of riding a bike. Why not check the statistics of CBS, one of the most respect statistical and public data institutes of the World, instead of relying on "a poll made by a dairy company (for publicity purposes)"?

  • andrelot

    I live in the Netherlands at the moment, and I really don't understand why so many North American cyclist activists got so worked up and on arms about that NYT article.

    Nobody is seriously suggesting that Amsterdam (or other Dutch cities where the problems repeat) would be better off with cars instead of bikes. Many activists/bloggers also get it completely wrong by saying absurd things like "they should eliminate yet more car traffic" - anyone who has lived (not just traveled for a couple days) here knows that car traffic along major cycling routes is minimal, since car traffic is usually routes towards inner city ring routes that directs them to parking garages (almost always underground, and usually expensive) on the edge of most central areas. Car traffic within or across the canal belt in Amsterdam, for instance, is low already. There aren't large surface parking lots for cars.

    In any case, bicycle parking problems are very real. The logic is the same of excessive car demand for parking, only operating at a smaller scale - which is negated when numbers are high enough. Actually, whenever you have a lot of traffic density for any vehicle, there will be problems arising from parking them while not in use - be them cars, bike, boats, airplanes, helicopters, snowmobiles and (in the past) horse-drawn carriages.

    In some areas of some Dutch cities, there is not enough bike parking (nor are there much space to be taken over from cars, from that matter). There is a culture of "park your bike as long as you want" that clogs major bike racks, especially those around train stations, universities etc. This further reduces availability. In old post-medieval quarters, streets are already narrow, and can't cope with bike racks without severely disrupting pedestrian traffic.

    In some limited areas, there are enough bike traffic that it warrants a more harsh parking policy akin to that of cars: you need to park your bike a bit far from your destination, and walk to it. No big deal.

    The problems presented on the NYT article are very real. They are byprodutcs of an otherwise successful policy of incentives to cycling, but they are still real issues to be dealt with.

    Nobody is suggesting the solution is change bikes for cars! That is insane, it would be laughed here. If you carefully read the article, nowhere the author implies that either. Only a cyclist activist with a "war on cars, us vs. them" mentality would read the article on that light.

    There are other policies here in the Netherlands that would probably shock these extremist cycling activists. For instance, bikes are not carried on buses. It would be detrimental to put bikes on bike racks on buses (and most trams), since the number of users is so high.

  • andrelot

    Your logic doesn't apply to the Netherlands. Surface parking lots on city centers is almost unheard off, and even street parking is severely limited and very expensive (costing often $ 6-8 PER HOUR). There is no free street parking at all on central areas of major cities. If you want something like a monthly subscription to park in central areas of major Dutch cities, costs can reach $ 400 or more, easily. In certain areas of Amsterdam, they reach $ 700. And there are not many places available either.

    So the strategy of go after car infrastructure (by taking their space or charging drivers) to finance bike improvements is a non-started in cities like Amsterdam.

  • Miles Bader

    I was talking about NYC, not the netherlands.

  • James

    I guess so. I mean, like I said, The Times could have done a far better job covering the piece. I didn't interpret it as an attempt to clamp down on bike enthusiasm, though. I thought it was more in the realm of "hey look at this curious thing in cultural current affairs".

    It's a great video, in any case, and well worth sharing. Well done, Streetfilms!

  • Al from PA

    The big issue to my mind only touched on very briefly in the video is the presence of motor scooters in bike lanes in Amsterdam. There are a lot of them, they are too fast, and quite dangerous. It's surprising they are tolerated. And, as others have said, there are way too many derelict bikes in Amsterdam--in some places it seems like 50% of the parked bikes are rusting and abandoned.

  • JL

    Excellent points, andrelot - as a bike commuter in the US, I think our knee jerk reaction to articles like this is indeed to become defensive. The big fear is that, as a car dominated society, people will read the NYT article and use it as an argument against more bikes being a "blight" on neighborhoods. This is a legitimate concern, but it shouldn't stop us from talking about and preparing for real problems that will come with increased ridership. I guess it would have been nice if the article made it even more clear that cars would, as you say, be considered a laughable alternative.

  • Jan

    CBS numbers, all for the entire country:
    In 2007, 13.57 million dutch people owned at least one bike. (Out of 16.38 million, 83%).

    In 2012, 14.8 out of 186 billion km was done on a bicycle. (8% of km).

    In 2012, 0.74 out of 2.68 trips per day were done on a bicycle (27.6% of trips)

    In Amsterdam, these numbers are quite a bit above the average, except possibly for bicycle ownership.

  • andrelot

    This just proves my point: while many people own bikes, it doesn't mean they are the dominant form of transportation. Dutch car ownership is also quite high (562 vehicles/1000 inhabitants of all ages).

  • Jan

    Please note that the above numbers do NOT include cycling to a train station, since those trips are counted as done 'by train'.

  • Jan

    Bicycles aren't dominant, except in city centers. Most trips are still done by car, and public transport beats the bike on #km. Otoh, on short trips and in city centers, bike usage can reach over 50%, beating all other modes combined. In summer, these numbers are even higher.

    The difference with other countries is that most dutchies own a bike and use it regularly.

  • Fietsklik bv

    Scooters with a blue license plate are aloud on the bike paths because they can officially only travel up to 45km p hr. Its dangerous, if the driver on the scooter is driving reckless, i grant you that. But as you may know cyclists have priority over combustion motor vehicles. Consequences are severe for hitting a cyclist in the Netherlands with any other type of motorized vehicle and is punishable by law. The cyclists is innocent until proven guilty. This method of governance is not carried over in the United States, a car driver may hit a cyclist outside the bike path and have little to no consequences. That is insane..., how can the car be more protected than a persons life? I see more traffic deaths by bike occurring in those countries than don't adhere to Dutch, Danish, German bicycle policy, as the ridership increases along with population increases in cities. Check out what we think about bicycle safety on our blog. http://www.tumblr.com/blog/fietskliknl

  • Amsterdam-Velo

    Savez vous quíl existe des visites guidees en francais a velo et dans les grands musees? Pour ceux qui on du mal a parler neerlandais.

  • Sandra Berger

    I actually just read another article stating the exact same positive facts about biking in Holland (http://www.bicycling.com/blogs/roadrights/theres-another-way ). In fact, almost everyone has positive things to say about biking in The Netherlands. My own biking experience in Holland has been very similar. The countries' roads are practically MADE for bikers and you notice it everywhere around you. I was there last year on a biking trip (with this wonderful small Dutch bike tour company: http://www.hollandcycletours.com/ ) and the biking was noticeably different as in the states. It's unbelievable that we haven't copied their idea here in the US.

  • Amsterdam-Velo

    They organise guided bike tours at the windmill park Zaanse Schans and around very close to Amsterdam! http://www.zaanseschans-tours.com

  • Walter Crunch

    I would rather be swamped by bike than by cars. Well...motorcycles and bikes..