A trip to Amsterdam

A guest blog post from @briseglace, just returned from Amsterdam.


I knew before I ventured out to the recumbent land of mild cheeses, windmills and Heineken beer, that it was a place where cycling is not only looked upon favourably, but embedded deep within the rhythm of daily routine.

I have cycled in London for 6/7 years, and can still remember the days when seeing someone else on a bike at traffic lights was so unexpected, that it would compel both riders to tease out some kind of brief cycle-related conversation. It was a momentary camaraderie of sorts, simply by virtue of the fact that you had chosen a means of transportation that 99% of the capital had shunned. It was obvious why that was the case, and although there are more numbers in the city now, it is remarkable how little of the landscape has changed since then, save for a few dashes of bright paint. It makes for a frustrating and stressful experience, and I ride, largely I think, because my body is used to it, and to go a day without it makes me feel sluggish and devoid of energy. The tiny grain of pleasure I derive from cycling in London can all but vanish sometimes, and it's still difficult, even after all these years, to completely eradicate the thought of quitting. 

So I was excited at the prospect of visiting a place where all these concerns might never surface, and of going to a place where cycling didn't take so much out of you, where it didn't demand so much concentration and athleticism. A place where it was nothing more than the simple act of turning a few pedals. I wondered if it might even tempt my father (who often grows weary of my talking of bikes and would never think of riding one in the UK), to jump on a saddle and explore.

We decided to drive from Calais to Amsterdam in the end. Circumstances dictated it, and though taking the train would have been preferable, I thought that it might also prove interesting to see what it was like to be a driver, cyclist and pedestrian in Amsterdam. It's often implied I think, that to cater to cyclists means to take away, or "worsen", the experience for drivers, so I was intrigued to see whether this was the case in a city where bikes came first.

It only took the approach towards the city environs to see that comparing Amsterdam to London is to compare not just two cities, but from the perspective of the urban environment, two different galaxies. It's clear that the bicycle comes first in even the smallest details of road design. What surprised me is that it didn't make driving more stressful either. Although it demanded attention and care, it actually made driving a calm, almost relaxing experience. The roads made clear that as a driver, you were a guest in someone else's terrain, and as a result you were never induced to drive recklessly or speed unnecessarily. In fact, the roads kept you at a constant speed, a complete contrast to London, which ramps up frustration by inviting you to drive fast, only to screech to a halt yards later at a traffic light. Amsterdam, it seemed to me, exercises a physical and psychological "traffic smoothing", and as a result, rarely feels dangerous.

I think it's also worth mentioning something about space and general motor provision in Amsterdam. It's an oft-cited argument that London has no road space left, that it's narrow and congested, and that there simply isn't the width to accommodate decent cycle lanes.

Having seen how Amsterdam, with similar road widths to London, accommodates bicycles, it's clear that this an excuse to detract from the politically-challenging notion of taking space away from cars and giving it to cycles. Amsterdam has provided for bicycles with considerable gusto, to such an extent that if anyone here in London thinks that we are in the midst of a war on the motorist, then I can only say that you are lucky not to live in Amsterdam. For over there, and probably the Netherlands as a whole, the war has been positively atomic. The most discernible difference, is the great number of main roads (that in London would accommodate between 4-6 car lanes), have been shrunk to one car lane in each direction. I rarely saw any roads in Amsterdam that were 4 car lanes wide - it took the drive out towards the suburbs and motorways as we drove home to see the kind of wide roads you find located all over central London. And like I said, it works. It is as close to a stress-free experience as I have had, driving in Amsterdam. But what is key is that the landscape accommodates you as a visitor. And as such, there is virtually no wriggle room for drivers to misbehave, because the road design invites careful driving, at moderate speed.

Picture by Amsterdamize

As for the experience of cycling, I still can't quite think of the words to describe it. It is astonishing to be in a place where your every need is catered to and respected, where your journey on two wheels is deemed the absolute priority, and not that of those on four. I think the best way to illustrate it is to say that in Amsterdam the word "cyclist" just does not exist. At least in the everyday, utilitarian sense of being someone that uses a bicycle. Absolutely everyone does it (it took me a good couple of days to stop from staring at the sheer variety of people on bikes - old grannies, young kids, the stylishly well-coiffed, in Gucci suits or laden with make up and in high heels, mums carrying kids in cargo bikes, musicians carrying guitars, families carrying dogs, young ladies carrying flowers - the sight was a constant source of amazement) everywhere, and at every hour of the day and for every conceivable reason (the Friday evening we arrived, we went to a nearby restaurant/bar and I lost count of the number of well-dressed couples that brushed by on bikes, seemingly on the lookout for a good place to enjoy a dinner date). And perhaps most crucially, with not a jot of hi-vis or helmets in sight. Young or old, come as you are. The way it should be.

Picture by Amsterdamize

It really is a place that deserves the highest of praise - the bicycle has not only made it easier for the people of Amsterdam to get around (and made them fitter; I didn't see one person I would classify as overweight/obese in all the 4 days I was there), but it has actually helped to civilise the place in the process. It's not toxic with fumes and noise in the same way that London is, which makes such a world of difference when exploring the place on foot or on bike. And you can hear yourself speak when walking down the road - no need to elevate your voice to a scream as you would when trying to converse with someone on a main London street. In short, the humble bicycle has given a metropolis a feel of community where in many other places there is none, and the city gets its rhythm from people, not cars. It's such a delight, that I couldn't stop smiling for the entire trip, and you'd have been especially hard-pressed to wipe the beaming grin from my face whenever I took to a bike.

Picture by Amsterdamize

It's that good and then some. And if you don't believe me, ask my Dad. For a man who doesn't like bikes, he rode with more eagerness and vigour than I did.