Almost heaven for two-wheel pedal-pushers in Amsterdam
Some 60% of residents use their bikes daily and 84% rate journey very enjoyable
It’s probably no coincidence that between 12,000 and 15,000 bikes are hauled out of the city’s canals every year. Photograph: Thinkstock
There are more than a million bicycles in Amsterdam, more bikes than people, in fact. Even so, it has the slowest average cycling speed in the Netherlands at just 14.9 kilometres an hour. That’s because while cycling here is great fun, you’re certainly not alone!
It is reckoned that 60 per cent of Amsterdammers use their bikes daily, many for the commute to work – and, believe it or not, in comparison with commuters in other countries locked in crowded trains or endless traffic jams, 84 per cent rate that daily journey “very enjoyable”.
Given that bikes take such pressure off the roads and public transport, it’s not surprising that cyclists are well looked after. Greater Amsterdam has an extraordinary 4,000km of well-maintained cycle lanes – with tests already under way on heated surfaces to reduce winter accidents.
The beauty of Dutch cycle lanes is that they don’t all follow slavishly along the sides of the main thoroughfares, so that despite your best efforts to stay healthy, you’re simply exposing yourself to motorists’ toxic carbon dioxide fumes as you pedal alongside.
No, the cycle lanes here are part and parcel of urban planning, so they’ll frequently follow a more direct and greener route from A to B – ensuring that those who are converted to the benefits of two wheels don’t become disillusioned. It’s a simple strategy that works.
From a cultural perspective, the first thing you need to know is that the Dutch for bike is “fiets”, pronounced “feets” – and that many Amsterdammers own two, one a so-called “stationsfiets” they drop at the railway station daily, and the other a more expensive model for recreational outings.
They’ll tell you with a straight face that the stationsfiets has two benefits: firstly, you won’t be hugely out of pocket if it gets nicked – more of which later – and secondly, it’s good in a rush to have a fiets that creaks and clanks because other cyclists will hear you coming and get out of the way.
You’ll also find that bikes and trains mix quite easily. Most trains – though not the city-centre trams – have special bicycle carriages where you can take your bike for a small supplement.
The rail operator, NS, even operates an “OV fiets” scheme, which means you can hire a bike at most big stations, whizz to your various appointments, and return it later on your way back to the train.
One thing tourists always notice immediately is that, broadly speaking, Dutch cyclists don’t wear helmets – at all.
There are few, if any, publicity campaigns urging them to do so. You’ll regularly see toddlers without helmets on the baby seats of bicycles – and gaggles of youngsters heading off to school with not one helmet between them.
It seems that helmets just don’t fit with the cool image Dutch cyclists have of themselves as a nation with innate balance, born to career along on two wheels with a crate of beer in one hand and a bunch of tulips in the other, even when they’re old enough to know better.
“Helmets look silly,” said one otherwise eminently sensible father of five young children when I broached the question, despite the fact that he’s fallen and hit his head twice, once even losing consciousness briefly.
In anthropological terms, what this means is that you can always tell with near certainty which cyclists are Dutch and which are tourists, expats and foreigners in general.
For instance, the guy without the helmet, racing along the side of the canal, holding an iPad in one hand and jabbing at it with the other, is most definitely Dutch.
It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that Amsterdam is a cyclists’ nirvana, a paradise wholly without hazards. It’s not.
Amsterdam is well known for its “traffic anarchy” – not unconnected to its narrow streets, confined spaces and lack of parking.
Then there are those ancient cobblestones that look so cute but, for environmental reasons, are laid on sand. These can move out of alignment over time sending you flying off on an unintended trajectory unless you’re constantly alert for the slightest tell-tale wobble.
And speaking of wobbling, here’s the best bit: the steel tram tracks that criss- cross the entire city centre, and in particular the main intersections, most notoriously the busy junction outside Central Station.
Getting caught in them is something of an alarming rite-of-passage for visiting cyclists.
Finally, take care of your trusty fiets, because an extraordinary 55,000 bikes are stolen here every year, fuelling rumours that criminal gangs collect them at night for sale “abroad”.
The real culprits are probably closer to home, however, often late-night revellers who don’t fancy paying a taxi. It’s probably no coincidence that between 12,000 and 15,000 bikes are hauled out of Amsterdam’s canals every year.
All of which leads neatly to the one fiets joke you must know. Question: What’s the easiest way to get a free bike in Amsterdam? Answer: Approach a group of students with their bikes and shout “Hey, that’s my fiets”, and wait for one of them to drop theirs and run.
Apparently it never fails.