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Pro-bike but anti-pedestrian?

Cycling is growing in popularity every year, even in North America, where road engineering standards are often bike-unfriendly. Even in New York City, where residents fought hard against Janette Sadik-Khan’s bike lane proposals six years ago, 66% of residents surveyed by the New York Times now feel that bike lanes are a good idea.

As most of you know, I’ve recently relocated to Amsterdam. Among the red tape and endless legwork that go along with an international move, I’ve had some time to observe the workings of this famously bike-friendly city. In the process of riding my rusted-out beater bike to and from work, I’ve picked up a few tips on cycling in Amsterdam:

  1. Separated bike lanes and dedicated traffic signals make it a lot safer to bike in Amsterdam–that is, you’re unlikely to be hit by a car. Hence no cyclist (including the infant riding in the seat on the front of the bike) wears a helmet.
  2. While you won’t be hit by a car, your odds of getting sideswiped by the scooters and motorcycle driving at 60km/h in your 1.5m-wide bike lane are pretty good. Remember the driving school tip on checking your blind spot before changing lanes in a car? Ditto–you need to look about 6 inches over your shoulder before turning.
  3. There is a code of conduct among Amsterdam cyclists, e.g. occasionally giving a hand signal to indicate left turns, venturing slowly across a road if cars are nearby, timing your entry to a bike lane to merge with the 25 other cyclists.
  4. The code of conduct is very loose; cyclists are often quite aggressive, especially when it comes to allowing pedestrians to cross the street. Most near-collisions I’ve seen have occurred between bikes and scooters or bikes and pedestrians.
  5. It’s clear where the priorities lie–cycling paths are rarely obstructed by parked cars, garbage cans, or planters, but sidewalks often are.
  6. Locking your bike to a rack is optional–more commonly, the back wheel is merely locked to the frame. Bikes generally stand freely in any area of the sidewalk or square, blowing over in daily wind or rainstorms, and blocking sidewalks.
  7. Helpful bike route signs direct cyclists as they move about the city–assuming you know enough of  the city’s geography to know you’re supposed to cycle in the direction of Osdorp or Station Zuid or Oosterpark.
  8. The typical Amsterdam bike is black, rusty, and mono-gear with fenders and a chain guard. Bright colours are an advertisement: please steal my bike.
  9. Doubling your boyfriend on the back rack or carrying your large-breed dog in the front (I hesitate to call it a ‘basket’ when ‘milk crate’ would suffice) are commonplace during a weekday commute.
  10. An Amsterdam cyclist can perform any activity while biking: smoking, talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, unpacking a messenger bag, dragging a suitcase along beside them.

The city is built for reluctant cyclists like me: as one British expat told us, “The Dutch just bike to get around. They don’t necessarily enjoy it.” In a city that seems custom-built for bikes, it’s definitely the quickest and easiest way to commute, provided you have the guts to battle the scooters and motorbikes and the ability to duck quickly under an awning during sudden rain showers–as the Dutch do. Amsterdam cyclists don’t bike for fitness (smoking while biking?) As a Polish expat noted, “When I first came here and saw people biking in suits, and the women in high heels, it was as if they were going to the gym in a suit or heels. At home, biking is only associated with fitness.” With very good bus and tram service in the city (although the Dutch would disagree on this point), I suspect the major appeal of cycling in the Netherlands is its cost-effectiveness…it’s a thrifty culture!


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