Early Learnings from Amsterdam: Day 1

What are the key elements of success for building a city for bikes? Why are Amsterdam and Copenhagen leaders in cycling rates, while other European and North American cities lag far behind? Is there more to creating a bike-friendly city than painting bike lanes and infrastructure? These are some of the questions that have been laid out to be answered in Planning the Cycling City, the experiential learning course I’ve just started at University of Amsterdam. Over the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring the city by bicycle with 30 other students from 16 countries, learning from Dutch professionals from a range of backgrounds including history, geography, and planning.

The first day of the course focused on the historical context of cycling in the Netherlands, and here are some of my key take-aways:

Peak bicycle use happened over 70 years ago

Prior to the propagation of the automobile, the bicycle was a dominant mode of transport in many Western cities. It was highly regarded for its efficiency and speed, and the individual freedom it delivered. Enter the automobile, and things changed drastically. Planners and engineers saw the car as the transport mode of the future, and designed policies and regulations to restrict bike use accordingly, despite cyclists drastically outnumbering motorists at the time. Only in recent decades has the bicycle been experiencing a renaissance, though it is far from the usage rates in its heyday.

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Bicycle mode share across Europe peaked during WWII, then dropped sharply as the automobile became more popular in the following decades.

Strong local advocacy is needed to drive change

One of the suspected reasons by the Netherlands kept a strong bike mode share in the car era is the strong presence of advocacy from Dutch citizens. United by a national group, the General Dutch Cyclists Union, Dutch citizens fought against modernist planners and traffic engineers to regain space and consideration for bicycles, even occupying buildings and resisting police to prevent destruction of neighbourhoods for planned motorways. This advocacy was more fragmented in other countries, and as a result, cyclists lacked a uniform voice against the seemingly-inevitable proliferation of the automobile.

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The highway above was proposed but never built, due to strong local opposition from Amsterdam residents.

Traffic calming in its essence aims to reduce car use

In the Canadian context, we often use “traffic calming” as a term to describe measures like lowering speed limits and adding speed bumps – the idea that slower-moving traffic is safer for other road users. By contrast, the Dutch use traffic-calming specifically to reduce car usage, by making it less attractive than other modes. This includes measures that many Canadian cities struggle to implement like increasing parking rates, closing streets to through-traffic, and reducing vehicle lanes. This is highly evident when travelling around Amsterdam, where vehicle use is highly-restricted, and few streets contain more than one lane in each direction.

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Even suburban Dutch roads feature minimal traffic lanes, and reduced lane width to encourage drivers to slow down, especially at pedestrian crossings.

Those are all of the thoughts I have time to provide at this point, but I can assure my readers that many, many more are stewing after the past two days. I am humbled by the opportunity to be here, learning in Amsterdam, and am very excited for what is to come.

 

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