Two Saturdays ago I had two appointments scheduled in the afternoon. First with Joe Peach, contributor of ThisBigCity, who was traveling around the Netherlands to do research for his upcoming Masters dissertation. He studies Sustainable Communities and the Creative Economy and his dissertation explores how cycling infrastructure encourages social sustainability in cities.
Suffice to say, Joe had a few questions for me, we went through a whole range of topics regarding the benefits of cycling and hopefully it made a contribution to his body of knowledge. I for one am looking forward to reading up on it, when the time comes. We rode off, he went east, I had only a short bit to cover, so said goodbye at De Waag on Nieuwmarkt, the proper 'bike blogger' way ;).
Next, I met up with Anthony Robson, the cycling lawyer of CityCycling from Edinburgh, Scotland. His online magazine is well known in the blogosphere & as it turned out, expectantly, he and his wife were a delight to talk to. Because of time constraints we didn't get to ride together, but they shared their experiences with me over some good beers at their hotel bar. Allow me to quote Anthony's take on cycling in Amsterdam verbatim, as its premise is not unlike others, but most others don't look beyond it like he did. From his post 'Anthsterdam':
Ah, Amsterdam. Cycling utopia, land of the free, an orange canvas of criss-crossed canals and segregated safe cycle lanes where everyone and their dog (literally) cycles in an airy manner reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Erm. It doesn't necessarily help to paint such a picture before you visit a place, but it's safe to say that I'd managed to do that before going to Amsterdam, and found myself brought back to earth with a bump. I have to admit that a bitingly cold March weekend, with temperatures starting in the minus side of the celsius scale, probably isn't the best time to try cycling in a new city for the first time, but when in 'Dam... And so it was, the first morning after arriving in the city, we visited the local bike hire emporium (with a chap behind the counter who was half 'dammer, half Whitby, and spoke with a fabulous Dutch/Yorkshire crossover, I kid you not). 'Granny' bikes procured, a segregated canalside lane opposite, we pushed off into the upright 'normal clothed' world of cycling.
I can recall perfectly my first impressions which were, in order, this is so flat, superb!; my fixed wheel has a bigger gear than this; and bugger, who has priority at this junction coming up...? The segregation had ended and we were thrust onto the mean streets. This was the first surprise realisation. Segregation of cyclists in Amsterdam is not quite as widespread as we might be lead to believe whenever a debate springs up in the UK about how other countries do things, and more pertinently, how they do things 'better'. The second surprise was just how closely the motorised traffic would follow you, and pass you, when you weren't in your segregated haven. This was becoming more stressful than I had ever imagined, and my better half, who cycles infrequently back home primarily because of traffic fears, but who loved a jaunt around Copenhagen, and even Paris, on a bike was looking decidedly uncertain about our choice to cycle for the day.
It didn't really let up. Roads shared with cars, trams and scooters just created a constant 'buzz', and as for the pedestrians (tourists mainly, it has to be said) stepping out in front of you... I used the bell on my handlebars more int he first five minutes of riding than I have the rest of my cycling career. And then Mel saw a scooter rider elbow a moving cyclist out of the way to squeeze by as a tram was passing both. And I almost ended up in the side of a Mini that pulled out in front of me (at the time I didn't realise the rule was to give way to traffic coming from your right and had blithely assumed, once more through ill-informed 'facts' given about cycling in Amsterdam, that cars were always looking out for bikes and ceding passage to them all the time).
What had happened to my dreams of a cycling utopia? That evening we met up with Marc van Woudenberg, the man behind Amsterdamize. And so began the education. He immediately seized on the recounted experiences and simply stated, "You're riding like a Brit." Strangely this made sense, not much more explanation was needed. In the UK when a driver is sitting right on your tail, or squeezing through an impossible gap, it's done so with a veneer of aggression. In Amsterdam, if you don't move to the right for a car behind to be able to squeeze through then that car will simply drive behind you and (usually) not get annoyed. True, we heard a few exasperated horns, but in the UK if everyone rode in a Franklin-primary down narrow streets the sound of horns would build to a cacophony.
For two hours cycling was discussed with Marc, the comparisons between the Netherlands and the UK and Denmark and the US. And after availing myself of the notion that the Netherlands are not the UK, it was also made clear that they are not Denmark either. They may be another bastion of upright daily people who cycle, rather than 'cyclists', but the way they go about it is different. In Amsterdam there aren't the 'green phase' light sequences that favour bikes, or, as already pointed out, the proliferation of segregated lanes (Marc pointed out that they are put 'where needed'). The riders are much more geared up to cycling 'with' the traffic, with an eye always on the errant pedestrians. It actually, bizarrely, almost felt like a British infrastructure (granted, the BEST that Britain could offer, with no 'Cyclists Dismount' signs and the like) partnered with a Dutch 'go with the flow' attitude that extends into the drivers.
It's hard to put into words, but the phrase 'organised chaos' springs to mind more readily when thinking of cycling in Amsterdam. Copenhagen is a ballet; Amsterdam a rave. The following day we reverted to bipedal transport, but I was paying closer attention to the cyclists. Watching interactions. Taking account of styles. And it all started to slot into place. You could see the directions that cyclists were looking as they approached an intersection; and you could see the drivers looking in that same way, but (and this is a key difference) the drivers slowed down more, taking account of the fact that their field of vision was somewhat more obscured. Yes, they were still riding what I would consider far too close toa cyclist in front, but as soon as they came to a crossroads the cyclist would steal a march, and the driver would be left to play catch-up again.
There were rules. And those rules are completely different from 'laws'. For example, red lights seem entirely advisory to cyclists. The day before I had indulged in a little experiment. The riders ahead had all gone through red lights, and I had followed, copying their slowing down and checking before carrying on. Something I would never do in the UK (run the red light, that is). And then I decided to stop at one. A curious thing happened, the 7 or 8 riders behind me also stopped. I couldn't quite fathom it at the time, but I wonder if, over and above the 'human sheep' response there was a belief that I had stopped for a reason and therefore they would be better stopping as well. Here the rule (being careful) was actually more important than the law (stop every time). Sometimes the two coincided, but it was always the former that took precedence. Pedestrians were still, and ever, an issue. Stepping out constantly (though to be fair the pavements were incredibly often covered in parked bikes), the sound of the bell is more ever-present than the car horn back in the UK.
But there was one last thing that struck me as I pondered the quandary that is Amsterdam cycling (and no, it wasn't a bike). No matter where or when a bike ran a red light; or used a pavement as a convenient cut-through shortcut; or dinged a bell at a pedestrian in the way; no-one complained. No-one raised their voice. No-one even raised an eyebrow. I'm sure it must happen sometimes, but it was accepted as being part of the way bikes operate in the city. As Marc had put it the night before, they are not cyclists but rather pedestrians who simply move a bit faster. Or as my friend back in the UK, David Gardiner, a recumbent rider with years of experience on the roads of the Netherlands, coined a phrase, bikes are shoes to the Dutch. Comfortable shoes at that. A Brit in Amsterdam just needs to break them in.
Good stuff, well observed & insightful, thanks Anthony! To extend on it: the (historic) downtown area is basically 60% sharing the road (which means people on bikes dominate cars), 20% bicycle-only & 20% segregated. Downtown, car speeds are low and access restricted. So the more you venture outside the city center (where you'll cross paths with arterial routes into town), the more segregated bicycle infrastructure you'll see.
In general, when we talk about overall implementation/application of bicycle infrastructure (up to code) in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is not the yard stick, because its grid, history & car route/access dynamics are different from most other cities. Yes, Amsterdam does use the same building code as the rest of the country, but it applies it differently.
Regarding the 'rules': Anthony is absolutely spot on. Yes, people will run red lights, I do too, when the volume of traffic allows it, and if often does.
Lots of visitors stare in wonder at the 'organized chaos', as in: "How come they don't crash into each other?", I answer accordingly: "They don't because they grow up biking and never stop. They're skilled and the key thing to their effortlessness is that they're good at anticipating traffic, specially other people on bicycles." Add to that that car drivers also cycle, and you have a situation where people on bicycles are taken seriously. This video from this post gives a good impression of that.
You have to see if for yourself to understand it. It helped Joe & Anthony in different ways, but from equally important angles. Hopefully they're able to translate their experience to something valuable in their realm. If needed, we can always ride some more ;). Cheers, mates!