Biking in Amsterdam
The history of biking in Amsterdam
Take any typical Amsterdam street and you’ll see countless cyclists heading to or from work, taking their kids to school and carrying anything from groceries and pets to impressively tricky things like ladders and bulky furniture.
It can seem to outsiders like cycling is simply built into the Dutch DNA. Yet in reality, the Netherlands’ renowned cycling prowess is a hard-won combination of urban planning, government spending and people power.
Despite this, most visitors are still amazed by the vast numbers of bicycles and the wide variety of cyclists. From students to police officers, bank staff and couriers, cycling is the most egalitarian mode of transport. The Mayor of Amsterdam and City alderpersons cycle to work and even King Willem-Alexander cycles regularly with his family.
So when you bike yourself or take a cycling tour in Amsterdam, you really get a feel of for this vibrant city.
The popularity of cycling in Amsterdam is undoubtedly aided by the fact that Amsterdam is flat, compact and densely populated with a moderate climate. But, as Gerrit Faber of the Fietsersbond (Cyclists’ Union) notes, “It’s not what we have because of our genes. We built it – and other cities can too.”
He’s referring to the investment in cycling infrastructure that began in earnest back in the 1970s, following a post-war boom in auto reliance that led to unacceptably high death rates of cyclists. “At that moment”, Faber says “…people decided we don’t want it and we built what we have today.”
There are now around 400 kilometres of bicycle paths criss-crossing the city, with an estimated half of all city journeys taking place on two wheels.
Pretty impressive for what began as an ‘elitist pastime’ in the 1890s.
Rolling rebellion in wartime
Cycling remained the main mode of transportation in the country’s pre WWII days and even played a role during the Nazi occupation of the city in the 1940s.
“The Germans hated Amsterdam cyclists,” says Pete Jordan, author of In the City of Bikes. Especially “their attitude full of bravado, like it is today – running red lights and being anarchistic.”
As Amsterdam cyclists purposely slowed up convoys and refused to give way to German vehicles, Jordan argues that cycling became “the biggest expression of resistance to the Nazis…It gave ordinary people satisfaction that they were hindering the Nazi cause.”
With the car replacing the bicycle after the war and even the city’s mayor tolling the velo’s death knoll in 1965, urban planners rushed to accommodate four-wheeled vehicles. One 1960s plan to pave over the city centre’s historic canals to make way for cars was thankfully nixed and more cycle lanes were built all over Amsterdam.
The cars that 50 years ago haphazardly filled the city’s most famous squares are now gone and in their place are thousands of bicycles.
Fun facts - Biking in Amsterdam
Number of bikes in Amsterdam: 881,000
Kilometres cycled in the city each day: 2 million km
Percentage of Amsterdammers that cycle daily: 58%
Total length of cycle paths and bike lanes: 767km
Dedicated cycle paths: 513km
(Source: www.iamsterdam.com, 2016)