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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital – Part 2


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Last Monday, I explored the the remarkable persistence of the Dutch cyclist in all types of weather, the Protestant roots of the culture, the impact of the flat landscape on the type of bikes commonly used and the ability of average people to cycle with little effort. I also introduced the complex social code of Amsterdam cyclists.

In this final part of our series, I continue discussing other issues that would make such high levels of cycling difficult, or even undesirable, to translate to other urban environments: Amsterdam’s increasing rate of injury among cyclists, the fact that bikes compete with public transit for short trips, and levels of bike theft so high that the Municipality was forced to take action.

Safe Cycling

Amsterdam has the reputation of being one of the safest cycling cities in the world. Cycling fatalities are certainly quite low. But as cycling has increased significantly here in the past decade in severely limited road space and the social code has deteriorated, the percentage of cyclists injured in accidents has increased. In 2009, 56% of people seriously injured in accidents were cyclists, and the Municipality estimates that 42% of those collisions involved confusion over right of way. Even though the Dutch work fewer hours than of any OECD country and the city has a relaxed atmosphere, cyclists have little tolerance for those who aren’t speeding along as fast as possible.

Although the incidence of bike-car collisions is so low that even small children aren’t required to wear helmets, the likelihood of getting in to a bike-bike or bike-scooter collision is higher. Scooters and mopeds with a top speed of 20km/h are allowed in the separated bike paths and designated lanes–but anyone who has biked here knows that they often top 60km/h and pass within four inches of you. I’m glad the people behind the new crazy cart scooter are thinking of ways to prevent this using GPS technology. Although they are used for only 1% of trips in Amsterdam, 16% of all serious injuries involve moped and scooter riders and 7% of serious bike accidents are with scooters. Although they are generally very good at judging width for passing, and will usually slow down to allow you to move over if needed, they can be extremely unnerving.

Bikes Compete with Transit

Cycling isn’t the only way to go: 16% of all trips in the city are transit and a whopping 27% are by walking. You wouldn’t know it by the use of space: bikes obstruct nearly every sidewalk and open space. Particularly within the constrained inner city Canal Belt (Grachtengordel), pedestrians have to continually step off the sidewalk into the bike path or road because the sidewalk is obstructed by doorways, stairwells, parked bikes, and service vehicles. But as soon as you do this, you’ll nearly be run over by a speeding cyclist: you’re in “their” space.

When crossing the street, pedestrians are expected to yield to cyclists in every circumstance–even when traffic signals indicate otherwise. Amsterdam residents will tell you that the only people who walk here are tourists; walking has as little respect as a mode of transportation as it does in Canadian cities. Again, there are cultural aspects that may impact walking in the city: in my neighbourhood with a high percentage of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, many of the women walk rather than bike. As I mentioned last week, immigrants and their children are much less likely to cycle than the native-born Dutch population.

Public transit doesn’t fare much better than walking. As many transportation experts would tell you, one of the main reasons the bike isn’t a viable option for many North Americans is because travel distances are much longer than in older, more compact European cities. For short-distance trips, biking doesn’t take much longer than driving, but once you get past trip lengths of 30 minutes, most people would be unwilling to bike (my daily commute of 30 minutes is long by Dutch standards, with many of my co-workers biking less than 10 minutes). According to my fellow researcher Lucas Harms at the University of Amsterdam, the median trip distance in the Municipality of Amsterdam is 3.9 km. The choice for longer trips becomes public transit or the car.

In Canadian cities like Toronto or Calgary with more dispersed land use patterns, this leads to a high mode share for the car. In Amsterdam, where you can bike across the city by bike in less than 40 minutes, the result is one of the lowest public transit mode shares in Europe. Restrictions on driving and parking have contributed to much lower rates of driving, particularly within the Municipality of Amsterdam. Driving mode shares rise in the inner and outer suburbs, while biking mode shares decrease.

Amsterdam’s public transit system is underfunded and unreliable by European standards. At the metropolitan level, when trips cross suburban and urban parts of the city, transit is particularly poor (and I say this in capacity as my  researcher on transit-oriented development); regionally, commuter trains to the nearby cities are much better. After the public transit “curfew” of midnight in Amsterdam, bike lanes are full of people on their way to and from cafes, clubs, and social events. There are night buses, but like in Canadian cities, they run once an hour. Combined with the restrictions on parking, widespread cycling infrastructure, and the small size and compact form of the city, this makes biking the fastest option and most convenient in many cases.

For What it’s Worth

Despite the low costs of new and second-hand bikes in Amsterdam, there are high levels of bike theft.. The Municipality actually had to include a program to decrease bike theft in their latest land use plan, and get the cooperation of bike shops to avoid reselling bikes that had potentially been stolen. Perhaps to combat this reality, many of Amsterdam cyclists own two or three bikes.

This is partly due to the polycentric nature of the region: people take the train in from Rotterdam, Delft, Utrecht, and any number of smaller towns and cities on a daily or semi-daily basis, leaving bikes at both train stations. But partly it seems to be a response to the fact that bike theft is so common that it pays to have a backup—or two. There are approximately 880,000 bikes in Amsterdam for 802,000 residents.

Owning two or three bikes is a problem in a small city with limited space: there is never enough bike parking. The Municipality plans to build 1,700 new spaces at Central Station, 4,500 around the Leidseplein, and 5,300 in other places by 2020. It is also slowly trying to force Amsterdammers to accept that they might have to pay for long-term parking: at Station Zuid, cyclists can park free on the first day, but from the second day onward they pay 50 cents. The Municipality is also pledging to crack down on cyclists who leave their bikes locked up in high-demand locations for weeks or even months on end. Amsterdam will spend 200 million euros to invest in bicycle infrastructure by 2040, 170 million of which is for parking facilities.

The Down-Low

A number of unique factors have contributed to the high rate of cycling in Amsterdam: attitudes towards the weather, the flat landscape, and the compact form with short travel distances. For those of us who are relatively new to cycling, traveling daily by bike is very safe compared to North American standards, although the increase in the number of cyclists, the presence of scooters and mopeds in the cycling lane, and the deteriorating social code among cyclists have contributed to an increase in the incidence of injury in recent years.

Major restrictions on car use, high parking fees, and penalties for accidents involving cyclists have led to increased cycling, but so have relatively poor walking infrastructure and public transit service. Amsterdam is much better for cycling than many Canadian or American cities, but its unique cultural and spatial contexts make it difficult to translate this to North America.


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.



  1. Very interesting article. I just got back from a vacation where I spent nearly four days in Amsterdam. I enjoyed renting what we think of as a “Dutch bike” and seeing the city that way, though I found it somewhat surprising that unlike London, Paris or even Brussels, there’s no Bixi-style bike sharing system, which I would have found especially useful (I tried it out in both London and Brussels on the same trip). I also found the mopeds intimidating when I was using the bike lanes; though I found the cyclists at least, if not more, well-mannered than Toronto cycle commuters, always stopping at lights, for example. I’m a regular cyclist here in Toronto, but quickly figured out the unwritten code of cycling in Amsterdam.

    What I liked most was instead of one-way streets in residential areas, a sign on one side would simply ban autos from entering (making it a de facto one-way street), but exempt cyclists/cyclists and mopeds. I’d love to see that in Toronto to allow cyclists to legitimately utilize quiet streets in the central city without breaking the law or having to take circutious routes meant to discourage motor traffic.

  2. I thought this was an oddly anti-cycling blogpost. Almost the usual rightwing crap about cycling not being applicable in North American cities. And yes, I have cycled in Amsterdam. I cycle most of the year in Montréal, certainly in weather as bad as you describe (I don’t cycle when there is a lot of snow and ice; I’m well into my 50s).

  3. I’ve been reading Ren Thomas’s blog – not only erudite but far less heavy-handed than her rather negative comments on mass urban cycling here. Perhaps she was in a bad mood due to the nasty cold spring (which we also have this year in Montréal). I’m aware of the current problems with Amsterdam cycling, but these can be solved – get the damned scooters and motorbikes out of the cycle lanes, for one thing.

    By the way, here too we have an initiative to encourage cycling among people from immigrant backgrounds, and in particular among women from such communities, who face a double or triple barrier.

    On en parle même à Radio Nederland!

  4. I think the author should visit a different city in the Netherlands – maybe The Hague, or Utrecht – and look at a cycling environment that is more comparable to some Canadian cities. The situation in Amsterdam is complicated by the sheer volume of (bike) traffic, large numbers of pedestrians unfamiliar with the city and the issues she touched on regarding unwritten rules and expectations among cyclists, which are actually contrary to the cycling code in effect in the rest of the country, and which presumably are due partly to congestion and partly to Amsterdammers’ characteristic rudeness.

  5. “In Amsterdam … the result is one of the lowest public transit mode shares in Europe. Restrictions on driving and parking have contributed to much lower rates of driving, particularly within the Municipality of Amsterdam.”

    So what? Is this a problem? People are getting where they need to go.

    “Amsterdam is much better for cycling than many Canadian or American cities, but its unique cultural and spatial contexts make it difficult to translate this to North America.”

    Nothing in this post supports this conclusion. The post is just a superficial collection of info about cycling in Amsterdam. Who says North American cities should translate the Amsterdam model anyway? We can come up with our own models. And every single city on Earth has “unique cultural and spatial contexts” that must be dealt with. No getting around that one, and a planning professor should know that.

  6. I don’t see the problem with low mode shares for both driving and transit in Amsterdam. Driving into Amsterdam has always been a bad idea (you end up driving concentric circles within the canal belt, just looking for parking), which is why people tend to drive to train stations and then take the train to the centre. Public transit use within the core is much less than between the core and the outskirts. Again, looking at a more representative Dutch city would be useful.