Space and its use in the city of Amsterdam

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has long made the case that cycle tracks, and space for cycling more generally, should not be seen through the prism of getting cyclists out of the way of motorists, but rather as part of a strategy of humanising and civilising our towns and cities. We have consistently argued that safe, pleasant and convenient routes for cycling should be created in order to facilitate modal shift; to move people away from cars to bicycles, particularly for those short urban journeys which make up the majority of car trips made within towns and cities, regardless of their size. In doing so everybody benefits, because demand for space on the road network diminishes if these policies are implemented successfully. 

Car use can be made more difficult, but it is not fair to do this without providing people with a comfortable and convenient alternative. Removal of routes for cars, and the taking away of road space, has to go hand in hand with the creation of space for cycling.

We can see how this has been achieved in Dutch cities like Amsterdam. When the subject of the reallocation of road and street space is raised, is often accompanied by talk about how different Dutch streets are. How they are narrower. Or wider. Or older. Or newer. And that because our British streets are so wide, or so narrow, or so old, or so new, Dutch-style improvements to those streets - to make them more attractive for cycling - couldn't possibly work here.

But this kind of talk is, generally, completely irrelevant. It misses the point. The streets we have, and the way they are laid out, are the direct result of political choices about how the space they contain should be allocated, and what types of users that space should be for. Whether those streets are new or old, narrow or wide, Dutch or British, they will reflect those choices.

It's instructive to look at the streets of central Amsterdam, which (as it happens) are generally narrower, and older, than streets in most British cities. Often hemmed in by canals, or old buildings on both sides, there quite often isn't very much space at all in Amsterdam. Add to that the difficulty of constructing a metro underneath the canals and wooden foundations of the buildings, and you have great competition for that space among the different transport modes, including surface public transport such as trams and buses. Indeed it wasn't very long ago that Amsterdam city planners were thinking about filling as many as fifteen of their canals to create space for more roads and cars. That policy was not adopted; instead they chose to make more careful and sensible use of the limited space they had.

In a British city like London, typically that space would be given over, almost entirely, to private motor transport, with the exceptions of bus lanes. But Amsterdam is very different. Here's the Koningsplein, a shopping street, and quite wide (for central Amsterdam).

There is only one, one-way lane for private motor vehicles, in all this width. The rest is given over to pedestrians, trams and bicycles. If we follow the tram tracks northwards, this is the arrangement on the Singel.

Still just one lane for vehicles, heading south, but a northbound cycle track, a southbound cycle lane, tram tracks, and pavements. Further north, the cycle track blends off into a cycle-only street.

On Sarphatistraat, to the south-east. Cycle tracks on both sides of the street, tram tracks (in the grass), and just a one-way street for motor vehicles.

Below is Weteringschan. Again, cycle tracks on both sides, trams along the centre, and just a one-way street for cars. In this case, the vehicles cannot continue further along the street, and (as the red car is demonstrating) are being diverted radially outwards.

Because cars are diverted like this, cycling along these streets, even without too much segregation, feels quite pleasant. There's barely any motor traffic, because they are not useful routes (note that a cycle track lies on the other side of the tram tracks).

Here are two more wide streets, with trams, wide cycle tracks, wide pavements, and only one vehicle lane.

This is Rokin, south of Dam Square, where there are building works on the east side. A cycle track southbound, tram tracks, and a cycle lane northbound.

Now a street of a different character, Theophile de Bockstraat, to the southwest of the city centre. It's a residential road, that also doubles as a major arterial cycling route. Note again that this is a one-way road for cars, but with space allocated for cycling in the form of a wide, segregated two-way cycle track. The picture is take from a bicycle-only bridge.

Many of the genuinely narrow streets in the centre of the city are bicycle-only, sometimes with loading exemption periods.

Dedicated routes in new developments exist solely for pedestrians and cyclists.

There are also the more familiar one-way restrictions, from which bicycles are exempt, either in the form of cycle lanes ('uitgezonderd' means 'except') -

Or signs that exclude vehicles with four wheels -

There's sufficient space for cycling in parks too. Despite its width, this is not a road - it's a route for bicycles and pedestrians only.

There are, of course, roads for cars in Amsterdam. While a great deal of effort has been made to limit car use in and around the city centre, motor traffic is less restricted on the periphery and on circular routes. But, equally importantly, space on these roads and streets is given over to bicycles too.

Everywhere you look in the city, space is given over to cycling in subtle, and not so subtle, ways. The central point is that on whatever the type of street, however wide or narrow, or however old or new, bicycle use is either privileged or smoothly accommodated.

This is a principle that is universally applicable to any city; surely even more so to cities like London which have excellent public transport networks away from the street (in the form of the underground, and overground railways), unlike Amsterdam. The issue is not one of space; it is one of political will, and the choices that are made about which forms of transport should dominate our cities.


I love how there isn't a helmet in sight in any of these photos because cycling infastructure makes it so safe to cycle anyway. Great post.

Great post! What would have made it perfect (for me personally) are some cyclist and motorist volumes for the outer arterial roads that are shown and the Overtoom, which has separated two-way travel paths for peds, cyclists, trams and automobiles, is  I understand one of the busiest non-freeway non-highway roads in Amsterdam carrying large volumes of all of these modes, has a high residential density and is also busy commercially. Thus it would seem to be a great model for a workhorse city street that has to function well for everybody who uses it and lives on it.

What worries me slightly is what happens away from cities - some of my worst experiences (in the Highlands) have been with Dutch motorists who appear to have no clue how to interact with bikes.  Clearly this is pure anecdote, and maybe all the Dutch drivers I haven't met are brilliant, but is there a danger of life getting worse for cyclists in areas not served by this excellent infrastriucture?

If they can do it.... it can certainly be done anywhere. Following an example should not be that hard. Meet and greet car parking Manchester