Here’s the thing about bikes in Amsterdam: they’re everywhere. If you know anything about Seattle, you know that bikes are fairly prevalent there too, but Seattle is not even in the same constellation as Amsterdam in terms of the concentration of bikes in a single city. Since bikes and their environs have become an inescapable part of my everyday life, I thought I’d share some observations I’ve made thus far.
It definitely seems as though bikes outnumber cars here, and I’ve heard it said that there are 0.75 bikes to every person in Amsterdam, which puts the bike count at about 500,000. That’s a veritable ton of bikes! Unlike Seattle, which is really hilly, Amsterdam has a largely flat terrain which makes it ideal for biking. Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, and it shows in the infrastructure of the city: there are bike paths on just about all of the main roads that are wide enough for two bikes to ride side-by-side and painted brown to clearly delineate the bike path from the rest of the road, and there are traffic signals specifically for bikes. There are also tons of bike racks throughout the city, but it’s also very common to see bikes locked up against street signs, benches and the rails of bridges.
Apparently bike theft is very common in Amsterdam, so people take extra precautions to keep their bikes from being swiped. On most bikes there’s a small lock attached to the back wheel that keeps the wheel from moving when locked, but heavy-duty metal chain locks are also used pretty widely.
Something that immediately stood out to me about cyclists was that there is no single age group or socioeconomic class that subscribes to biking as a way of life. Whereas in Seattle the bulk of bicyclists were comprised of hipsters and highly conscientious middle-classers, people from every walk of life bike in Amsterdam. I see mothers biking with their children, businessmen biking in their suits and talking on their cell phones, and grungy-looking youth biking alongside each other on a daily basis. It’s pretty cool.
Speaking of biking with children, there are these nifty little contraptions called bakfiets that make transporting kids pretty easy. A bakfiet is a bike with a sort of cart in the front for kids to ride in. I use one to pick up the kids from school a three times a week, and while it’s convenient, it’s also a bit of a workout. I have a feeling my legs are going to be really ripped at the end of this year. There are also bikes with extra small seats attached for little children to ride in.
Which brings me to perhaps the most alarming aspect of bike culture in Amsterdam: the ways they approach safety are so different than in the U.S.! I don’t think I’ve seen a single bicyclist wear a helmet (not even children), and I see people talking on phones while biking all the time. I also see an exorbitant number of people who ride on the handle bars of bikes, or who sit on the rack over the back wheel of a bike while someone else pedals. I don’t think I can criticize because Amsterdam is an incredibly safe city to bike in, so I think they’re doing something right, but it’s just been shocking for me to witness these things because they’re so unheard of in the United States. In Seattle, you get ticketed if you don’t wear a helmet or if you ride with more than one person on a single-seat bike, but here it’s just a normal thing that everyone does.
Something else that’s vastly different from the U.S. is who has the right of way on the roads. In most places in the U.S., the pedestrian always has the right of way, then bikes, then cars. In Amsterdam, bikes rule the road, and thus always have the right of way. ALWAYS. Then cars. Then pedestrians. If you’re walking and you come to a street you need to cross, don’t expect a bike or scooter or a car to stop for you and let you cross, because they will not do it. You don’t want to learn that lesson the hard way, I can assure you. All of which is to say: respect the bikes first and foremost, and you’ll be fine.
These are just the things I’ve noticed so far. As strange and unfamiliar as it has been initially, I feel pretty lucky to get to experience such a world-famous bike culture firsthand. It still makes me a little nervous, but I’m learning. I just hope I get to a point where I’m not anxiously sweating bullets every time I cycle through the city sooner rather than later!