A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital – Part 1

By Ren Thomas, Spacing Vancouver

If you’re an avid cyclist, urbanist, or public transit advocate, you’ve probably read more than a few articles on cycling in Amsterdam. Cycling is so synonymous with Dutch life that bikes adorn postcards and calendars, miniature bikes can be seen in gift shop windows, and bikes occupy the #1 spot on www.stuffdutchpeoplelike.com. Planners around the world have used Amsterdam as an example of widespread non-motorized transportation, both in policy and practice. But what’s it really like commuting by bike in Amsterdam if you weren’t born with a two-wheeler attached to your seat?

I would consider myself a reluctant cyclist. I’m not athletic, my health is less than perfect, and I am much more affected by weather than other people (rainy, windy weather is the universe’s way of telling you to stay inside!) I’ve lived in Amsterdam since July 2012. Having cycled to work in Amsterdam on a regular basis for ten months, I can tell you that cycling here is fraught with difficulties you’ve probably never thought about. If you like to bike and are in good shape, you probably won’t let any of these things stop you from riding–but this is an article for the rest of us.

Here’s the familiar part of the story: since the 1970s, the Municipality of Amsterdam has worked hard to create separated bike paths and dedicated bike lanes on virtually every street, a total of 513 km of bike paths. Parking for cars has been reduced and the remaining parking spots charge high rates. Motorists are severely penalized for accidents involving cyclists, with the result that they are very cautious around cyclists.

Kids are introduced to the safety aspects through take cycling courses at school–many of them have already traveled on the front or back of their parents’ bikes as infants. The city has one of the highest cycling modal shares anywhere: 32% of all trips are by bike. Cycling increased by 40% from 1990-2008, and the piles of bikes adorning every street corner are visible proof of cycling’s popularity. Bikes are cheap (from 50-150 Euros, or $65-200 CAD) and simple; bike shops are never more than a few minutes away for quick repairs, and you can pick up a waterproof jacket, pants and panniers for under $60 CAD at many stores.

Now for the part of the story you haven’t heard: there are characteristics of Dutch cycling that would make it difficult–or even undesirable–to adopt in a North American city.

The Dutch and their Weather

While the Netherlands doesn’t have a very harsh climate, if you commute here, you bike in the rain and/or wind for about eight or nine months of the year. Amsterdam only gets half of Vancouver’s annual rainfall, but it’s spread throughout the year in brief, unpredictable showers: that 10-euro waterproof jacket stuffed in your bike bag is worth every penny.

It is very Dutch to tough it out: Dutch Protestant religious roots have ingrained cycling as a practical, cheap, and healthy way of getting around. Cycling has a “no frills” appeal in this cultural context. On the occasions when I told my Dutch co-workers that I wasn’t going to bike in the rain, their response was simply, “Just put on your rain coat and pants and you’ll be fine.”

On the days when I caved in and took the tram to work, I’d see cyclists outside, looking utterly miserable in their sopping clothes, occasionally biking while holding an umbrella. As I write this, the country is gripped in an unusually cold spring, with temperatures hovering around freezing and winds up to 45 km/h in March.

“I see you’re becoming Dutch,” one co-worker told me after I biked to work on a cold February day.

“But I hate biking in this weather,” I protested.

“Yeah, but you do it anyway,” she replied.

You wouldn’t find this weatherproof attitude among many Canadians: not many Canucks would bike through snowy winters.

The Low Country

The widespread acceptance of cycling in the Netherlands is also linked to its flat landscape. It’s possible to bike with a minimum of effort, making cycling popular for a broader range of people. Tourists to Amsterdam often notice that the local species of cyclist wears regular clothing rather than the spandex shorts and Gore-Tex jackets of the North American cyclist.

The reason?

You don’t sweat much while you bike here because it’s so little physical effort. It’s also completely acceptable to arrive for any occasion soaking wet, with wind-mussed hair, or otherwise dishevelled–it’s assumed that you’ve biked there. This is in no way acceptable in most North American workplaces–which is why cyclists in Canada and the US have been pushing for showers and change rooms for years.

The fact that you can bike here with an upright or cruiser style bike with coaster brakes and without gears has all kinds of implications on your cycling habits. Without gears or brake lines, your bike can sit outside in the rain all year without major damage to delicate parts: Dutch bikes typically have chain guards and are otherwise very simply constructed.

Contrast this with Vancouver: when I bought a bike a few years back, more than a few cyclist friends pleaded with me to get a hybrid with gears, but I disappointed them by buying an Electra cruiser. It did sit out in the rain on a regular basis with no damage done–a valuable characteristic in a rainy climate.

The Code

Amsterdam has developed a complex social code for cyclists. These are unwritten understandings, like when the cyclist behind you sees you glance to the left, he assumes you’re going to turn left. Or that if you’re turning a corner, the cyclists going straight have the right of way–they will not look for you or let you merge into their traffic. Or that there’s a certain amount of visual confirmation used for merging into oncoming bike traffic.

Amsterdam cyclists are extremely aggressive–they will pass you on the left, then cut you off by turning right immediately so that you have to brake quickly to avoid a collision. According to Pete Jordan, who examines Amsterdam’s cycling past in his new book In the City of Bikes: The Story of Cycling in Amsterdam (2013), Amsterdam’s aggressive cyclists are part of the history of the city, dating back at least as far the 1920s. Cycling in other Dutch cities, such as Den Haag, Utrecht, or Rotterdam, is much less stressful with less confusion over the social code, and broader streets with more room for cyclists.

Like most social codes, the one in Amsterdam is difficult for outsiders to learn. I cannot tell you how many Dutch friends have complained to me about tourists who “don’t know how to bike”: tourists don’t know the social code, and are thus condemned to violate it (e.g. tourists tend to look around all the time, which is the social code for turning).

One co-worker, who has returned to Amsterdam after years of living in the US, told me that the social code has all but disintegrated in the past twenty years. It used to be that every cyclist followed the unwritten rules, but now things have deteriorated. It can take months to figure it out, to stop hearing loud sighs, frustrated comments, and unsolicited “advice” from the cyclist behind you, which may help explain why many newcomers to Amsterdam don’t bike.

Immigrants and their children have significantly lower rates of cycling than the Dutch-born population. The Municipality of Amsterdam even offers special courses to encourage immigrants to take up cycling. But in a city in which 48% of the population are foreign-borm, there are bound to be different attitudes towards cycling–in many cultures, cycling was simply never taught or learned, or bikes (let alone cars) were too expensive.

A co-worker of mine was recently in Copenhagen, where she says cycling rules are widely understood and used, an impressive development in a city that has been making slow but steady strides towards its long-term goal of a 40% mode share for cycling.  The social code for cyclists is about more than just understanding what’s going on around you: it’s participating in the rules of the road, which is essential for safety and comfort in a city where you’re often shoulder-to-shoulder in a peloton.

Join me next week when I continue the discussion on safety, and touch upon some of my other experiences as a reluctant cyclist in Amsterdam.

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Ren Thomas is an urban planner interested in the complex social spaces, interactions, and policies found in cities. She has written extensively on issues such as public transit provision, affordable housing policy and city governance on her blog. She is now a researcher at the University of Amsterdam.

10 comments

  1. This article reminds me of the struggles I had when I moved to Toronto from a smaller city in Canada. I had to learn how car traffic worked in the big city, as it moved at a faster pace and deal with aggressive drivers, geting to work in the cold wintery days by subway and to deal with slush and snow. Oh, the hassle, how does anyone survive?!

    Adding simple gears to a dutch style bike was figured out 80 years ago, and the English had bike sheds everywhere.

    The problems presented here don’t seem insurmountable. I guess the Dutch are just more determined to fix the problems of living in cities than North Americans eh? It’s too bad the fat, lazy car driving people of Canadian cities will be outlived and out-classed by fitter, healthier, smarter Europeans.

    And still you bike to work in February.

  2. You’ve managed to peel back the superficial fascination North Americans have with cycling in Amsterdam. Natch, once revealed, we smug readers can say, “Oh but of course, sorta like the social code of driving in Calcutta.” But honestly, I hadn’t given this much thought until your article opened my eyes. Enjoyed your ethnographic perspective. It drills much deeper through that superficial sheen of chic we perceive in North America. Well written.

  3. Everywhere you ride, there are unwritten and written rules. What you describe sounds no different than Vancouver, Toronto or Ottawa and Montreal (where they have real winter). I thought I would find some fascinating eccentricity to riding in Amsterdam or that it was more intimidating than reported? As far as riding in weather? Take a tram those days if you don’t like the rain or snow – or buck up – I assure you, you are not made of sugar. If your health is impediment, then take it easy. So people pass you. So what? It happens to even fast cyclists – someone else is always in more of a rush. Riding slowly in the rain isn’t any worse than walking in it. This article really does sound like an “unexperienced cyclist” moaning about what most people get used to in a single riding season and learn to deal with. My biggest problem riding in the Netherlands was finding a space to lock a bike. A good problem to have. Unlike in Toronto, where a bus pulled out without seeing me, forcing me into a central lane, where an SUV sounded their horn as if I was in their way. Give me a break.

  4. It would be interesting to find out what the median length of bicycle trips are in Amsterdam, both in distance and time. My work ride in Toronto is 20 km each way, usually in the 50-52 minute range all in, under reasonable conditions. I try to ride at least once a week March 21-Dec 21 (start of spring through end of fall) and once per month in winter. 2013 has been pretty difficult. If it’s windy, rainy (or sleeting) and cold, it means an hour or more spent in miserable conditions. I’ll take the streetcar then, thanks.

  5. This is a bit silly. Cycling in Amsterdam is not so hard. (I’ve lived in Amsterdam since November 2011, ex-Torontonian). I see kids and grandmothers on their bikes (sometimes the same bike!) all the time; they don’t seem to be having a problem. As for the flat-country argument, you pointed out its antidote yourself: the wind. But people here still bike everywhere, “because” and “despite” all that.

    The real reason people bike in Amsterdam (and all Dutch cities) and not in Canadian cities? It’s the infrastructure! Amsterdam has 3.7 times* the intensity of bike paths as Toronto, and the quality of these bike paths is almost universally of much higher quality than what you find in Toronto (even the lanes on Sherbourne are poor by Dutch standards). At this point the advantages just start piling up on each other; because coverage is so good, connectivity also improves. Interaction between cyclists and drivers is almost completely eliminated. It’s quite possible and easy to find a route from A to B that consists entirely of high quality bike paths.

    You literally have to explain to people what “dooring” is, because they have never heard of it. Same with the “right hook”. These concepts are just foreign here. Same with wearing a helmet. You don’t need one, nobody uses one, it’s just completely unnecessary.

    * Toronto: 400km bike lanes, 630km^2 Amsterdam: 518km bike paths, 220km^2; 518/220*630/400 = 3.7

  6. Thank you for writing about your experiences, Ren. I can’t believe most of the comments so far have been negative, focusing mostly on your personal dislike of terrible weather or minor technical oversights. Congrats Peter and Ed, hope you nail a personal best on your century ride this weekend, you hardcore gnarly dudes!

    I’ve cycled in Amsterdam for a day and, despite my best efforts, was sure I was making a mess of the rules. I definitely looked left and right without realizing that this is the way to signal a turn.

    It is always interesting to see how other cycling cultures operate. I’ve lived in another big European city, that does see snow, and it’s refreshing to see all types of professionals cycle in all types of weather (not just the lycra/spandex crowd). And I agree with your assertion that, for a professional cyclist with a sub-5km commute, a single speed/coaster brake utility cycle is the way to go. For cycling to be seen as “normal” in Toronto, we need more “normal” people to commute on “normal” bikes.

  7. This article illustrates in part why ‘let’s look at Amsterdam’ is not the most accurate way to get an idea of how cycling is integrated and normalized in Dutch society. I am sure there are still many cyclists there who follow the real, original rules (signalling, no cutting off, right-of-way rule as applied in other traffic) and I think the author would do well to write about cycling experiences in other Dutch cities (which are perhaps more comparable to some Canadian ones in terms of density and traffic).

  8. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I am bit puzzle by this “glancing the direction you turn to” rule though. How does that work? Whenever I turn a corner, I’d look both directions to make sure I am not on collision path with traffic going straight, right? It would be suicidal not to look left before turning right.

  9. Yu, there are certainly cyclists in Toronto who turn right from a side street into a main street looking only to the right. And not stopping, of course.

    That they are turning right into the path of cyclists who are riding along the main street, maybe fairly quickly, apparently does not cross their minds. I ding my bell at them, but that’s okay, they are deep in iPod-land and are not troubled by the evasive action I have to take.

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