Amsterdamize : Unwritten Cycle Rule #1 : Be honest
July 4, 2008, 2:13 pm
Filed under: amsterdamize, unwritten cycle rules | Tags: , , ,

I wrote an introduction to this topic a while back. Now that I’ve established sort of a blog framework, highlighting the essence and cherries of cycling in Amsterdam (and the Netherlands), I’d like to actually act on what I promised: giving the out-of-towners a few handy (and probably life/face saving) tips before they hop on and venture into the city on their own.

However quaint and lovely this Amsterdam looks, don’t be fooled. When it comes to riding around town, you need to be overly aware of all modes of traffic that swiftly move around everyday and share this extremely compact city:

  • Cars, vans, trucks
  • Motorcycles, mopeds
  • Trams, busses, taxi’s
  • 300.000+ daily cyclists (700.000+ bikes)
  • Pedestrians

Ok, the first rule of this series obviously has to do with you, the newbie, the guest, the cycling visiteur being among others. Those ‘others’ would be us, the locals, going from A to B, to C, D, Z and back, ziggedyzag. Day by day, for every errand, for every task, for any venture, we take our bikes and we rule. Mind you, it’s in our blood, we don’t consider it a culture or something quaint. It’s there, we use it, period. We don’t know any better.

First, there’s one important thing I’d like to get out of the way. When you visit and you decide to cycle around, do me and yourself a favor, forget ALL that you think you know about (city) cycling. Why? Because your preconceptions and experiences from home will cloud your judgement. Open your mind, get a grip, try to understand this…in this town you are Nr 1. Yes, YOU, on the bike, are Number 1. Not just for ‘green’ coolness and efficiency, no. 99% of the time you have right of way, cars will be mindful, stop, etc, because drivers are cyclists too. Plus, by law, no matter what mistake you make as a cyclist, you can not be faulted. Aka, in any circumstance, no matter what happens, the car driver will be liable for prosecution for not being careful enough. How’s that, huh? (Just be aware of the speedy trams)

I’m well aware that Amsterdam has its perks and while you’re pumped up about being in this mythical and notorious town, nothing’s seems more fun than mixing up some doobies with a few drinks and then ride the red monster. For argument’s sake, let me disregard that daring prospect for now and deal with it later in another Unwritten Cycle Rule.

Rule #1 is aimed at those that are:

  • unfamiliar with Amsterdam
  • unfamiliar with cycling
  • unfamiliar with cycling in Amsterdam

For most tourists Amsterdam can be overwhelming, disorienting, strange, weird/quirky, unexpecting and a lot of other things. And that’s fine, would be weird if it was anything else, right? The last thing you want to do, as a newbie Amsterdam cyclist, is not appreciate these facts and let them sink into your brain. Unfamiliar grounds, people, traffic, situations, sounds, smells, etc etc. 

Tourists and their Mac bikes

So, before you mount the (rented) bicycle, be honest with yourself:

  • when was the last time you cycled (excluding childhood memories)?
  • when was the last time you cycled downtown, in a more than average sized city?
  • are you a person worried about the amount of ‘personal space’ people allow you?
  • are you a person who’s not known for paramount control of bodily functions?
  • have you ever been in a cycle accident and do you still worry about that?
  • assuming you come from a typical car-dominated culture, have you ever cursed those crazy cyclists?

If you think you didn’t score that well and you’re still being honest, then we’re on to something. A lot of those millions of tourists that have been so bold to discover this town by bike weren’t so honest. I’d know, I’ve seen them fail, put themselves in harm’s way and basically give tourists a bad name (among the locals).

But I don’t want to spook you…because that would be bad, there’s enough bike related fear mongering going on in this world already. I want you to have fun, without having to worry too much about whether it’s safe or not. The activity of biking in itself is harmless, you’ve just been brainwashed and violated a lot in the course of your life, because nobody provided you with the habitat to do so.

When I talk about Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure, I don’t mean we painted a few lines on the road. No, I’m talking about actual bike lanes, signs, traffic lights, roundabouts, intersections, parking garages, designated hubs, the works. All part of making a city for the people, not cars. And, no, we didn’t implement that for tourists, what did you think this place is, Disneyland? 🙂

Hence, regarding biking in Amsterdam, you could take these easy pointers to heart:

  • Most Dutch will tell you a few things by default, but I’m sure you don’t get half of the real deal: either ask specifically what the biking essentials are at the bike rental or go to the VVV (tourist) office at Central Station for this information. It’s free. 
  • With this information (including the map), try to get a good feel for this concentric city. The more you familiarize yourself beforehand, the easier it will be to adapt once you’re on the bike lane.
  • Pick a place (courtyard, square, anything but a sidewalk) to get a feel of the bike, to practice hard left and right turns, braking, stopping, balancing etc. Every bike is different, let alone getting on after not having done so for 10 years or more. Just picking the color of your rent-a-bike just won’t cut it to survive.
  • If you’re by yourself, closely watch what other people do, go with the flow. There’s no need to go as fast as the Dutch, but it’s not wise to assume you’re king of the road either (which will be explained in an upcoming rule).

What I’ve tried to address in this first rule and its pointers is the fact that you need to be aware of 2 important phenomenons:

  1. Amsterdam’s segregated bike infrastructure will allow you to appreciate the city in the best way possible.
  2. Amsterdam’s segregated bike infrastructure doesn’t automatically mean you will be safe from yourself.

Stay tuned for Amsterdamize’s Unwritten Cycle Rule #2!


Amsterdam’s Unwritten Cycle Rules – Prelude
May 2, 2008, 1:02 am
Filed under: amsterdamize, unwritten cycle rules | Tags: , ,

Just as much as I enjoy riding my bike around town, I love the fact that most people visiting Amsterdam try to do the same. I use the word ‘try’ on purpose.

More than once I see cycling out-of-towners stumbling along, despite the designated bike lanes. To us locals it’s easy to dismiss that in the same way we dismiss binge drinking by the Brits, zealous pot smoking by the French and Americans or sex tourism by many (wink, wink): “Do whatever you wanna do, but keep away from me.”

I focus on the bicycle, because it’s at least as much of an attraction as the items mentioned above. The Dutch use their bikes everyday. To go to work, to the supermarket, to go out, etc. We go from A to B, no fuzz, no thrills and we certainly don’t change our attire to do so.

But let me address the obstacles for first timers:

Amsterdam has relatively narrow streets, but high traffic volumes, containing pedestrians, commuting bikers, mopeds, moped-cars, cars, vans, trucks, trams, busses and a great deal of unidentifiable moving vehicles. Buzzing around you like a hornest nest, or Hannibal’s stampeeding army, if you will. At speeds that would make a grown man, albeit a visiting one, cry for help. At a minimum, a lot of tourists on bikes look bewildered, intimidated, scorned, alienated. This situation doesn’t help the natural flow of something as organically sound as Amsterdam traffic. More importantly, there’s a significant chance people will never try it again, and that would a shame.

It’s often excruciating to observe, breathtakingly counter-productive and outright dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for helmets. You can decide that for yourself.

I’m well aware of the difference between a Dutchman (that would be me) and, let’s say, an unexpecting average Joe from Kentucky. I was born in a country that has a profound biking culture. Denmark is on par, but not many more are. Certainly, bike usage worldwide has risen significantly, but most are fighting uphill battles in dominant car cultures.

The reason for this topic, of what I hope will be a concise series of helpful pointers…correction: UNWRITTEN rules, is to go beyond the obvious facts surrounding riding a bike.

The Amsterdam(/Dutch) bike experience is not about getting on (for the first time since you were 10), keeping a straight line and be on your way. I wish it was. Even for me, someone with a biking pedigree as long as the Bill of Rights, it takes some effort to avoid some form of disaster. No, my posts will cover details that seem odd, but are intrinsic to surviving your biking endeavors in Amsterdam.

Hopefully these posts will genuinely prepare/help along any non-cycling aficionado and if all goes well, enabling you to soak it all up, while grasping the essence of what the Dutch take for granted. Bike liberty for all. You’ll feel so much better.

Stay tuned for Unwritten Cycle Rule #1…