Course Day 5: Day trip to Amsterdam!

On Friday, we took a break from the class and Delft/Rijiwijk to visit Amsterdam, the City of Bikes. I’d never been to Amsterdam, but I’ve been reading about it for years (I’d highly recommended the history of Amsterdam by Russell Shorto if you’re interested). It fully lived up to my expectations. There were cyclists crowding the streets and parked bikes crowding the sidewalk. Every space that didn’t have a bike locked up had some signage indicating, in the words of one stencil, “NO BIKES NO BIKES NO BIKES.” Even then, there were probably still a couple bikes locked up anyway. It’s all gedogen?

Meredith and our group at the start of our ride near Amsterdam Central

Near the centre of Amsterdam, Meredith and our group at the start of our tour.

We started the trip with a “onion” tour from Meredith Glazer peeling back the layers of the cycling story in Amsterdam. Our first section was part of the older city layout that had a huge swath destroyed as part of modernist city planning movement. However, Amsterdamers, perhaps even more force than residents of Greenwich, Keniston Market and Strathcona, protested to stop the construction of wide, fast-moving roads in their city.

In North America, forcing highways through the city’s heart often destroyed communities. The oral accounts I’ve read of urban renewal often sound like those of people who experienced the bombing of their city. I was very impressed that Amsterdamers were able to come back from this and revitalize their city. I’m interested in looking deeper and finding out if this was related to their previous experience rebuilding after wartime bombing. Could it even be related to the relative status of those who these actions were against, the white, middle- to upper-class populations rather than people of colour targeted by urban renewal?

As we moved through the city, we saw that many of the post-protest infrastructure interventions were simply transfers of space from motor vehicles paths to bike paths. Even on main streets, roads were simply closed to traffic, paved with red asphalt ( dutch geometrics call for red rather than green seen in North America) and bicycles were able to ride there.

In the image below, you can see an intersection where an entire lane was turned over to cycling. Additionally, traffic signals had recently been turned off as a two-week pilot project. It was so successful, several months later they were still off and there had been no collisions. Tactical urbanism at work?

Look ma! No lights!

Look ma! No lights!

Turning the lights off was possible because of something we’ve seen throughout de Nederlands, unspoken communication between road users. People don’t always follow the rules of the road, but they do make sure users around them are aware of what they are doing. I’ve felt much safer biking here because I believe that vehicle operators accept that I should be on the road. Even though using different bikes has reduced my skill level (especially with the coaster brakes on OV fiets!), drivers are accepting of mistakes, waiting for me to move to safety or finish crossing. I can’t imagine turning signals off at an intersection in Vancouver because everyone would fight to go first, rather than communicating and finding a rhythm.

After the tour and a lovely dinner break by a canal, we visited the wrap-up event for the Planning the Cycle City summer course at the University of Amsterdam. This course seemed similar to ours, but had more focus on planning and urban design than engineering. The talks they gave were very focused on encouraging Amsterdamers attending to appreciate cycling, rather than design projects.

A couple key points stuck out for me that Meredith has also mentioned in passing earlier in the day. First, bicycles are not mini cars. Piloting a bike will never feel like piloting a motor vehicle and infrastructure and plans must respond to this. And this is a very positive thing. Bicycles create and enforce community connections. Even biking to the talk, I was able to see a classmate and sit down with them. In a car or even on transit that may not have happened. We can’t expect those on bikes to follow every road marking, but maybe when they double back or block a sidewalk they are doing it to see a friend or look twice at sometime else.

Second, we need to continue to celebrate and appreciate cycling in Vancouver. This is also something that the Indigenous Community Planning (a program within my urban planning program) presentations this year included in many of the presented plans. We need time and space to dance so that other people can want to be part of the celebration and in doing so, be part of the action.

A wall with two Netherlands bikeshare bikes leaving against a wall with an "I heart bikes" sign painted on.

Amsterdam loves bikes! (And OV fiets.)




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