Bike Watching in Amsterdam
By Julian I. Graubart
Being cyclists at home in Washington, DC, where car traffic is a nightmare, my wife Barbara and I were excited to experience a city in which there are four times as many bikes as cars and bike lanes are ubiquitous. But, as pedestrians in Amsterdam since arriving five weeks ago, we have found the bike traffic to be irrepressible and the riders surprisingly aggressive.
Each intersection presents risks for pedestrians, as bicycles in a lane shared by motor scooters, along with cars and trams in their respective lanes, stream along with few breaks. Never was the childhood admonition “Look both ways before crossing” so crucial as in Amsterdam. Then, even after you’ve made it across the street, you still face another bike lane before landing safely on the sidewalk.
Parents and grandparents transport babies in small seats mounted in front of them, toddlers in seats behind them, and elementary school aged kids in wheel barrow-like containers in front of them. The children are adorable, chatting away with the elders and watching the passing street scene placidly. Seeing so many parents and grandparents and little ones happily going about their day by bike warms the heart.
It’s also frightening to think what could happen if a cyclist fell or collided with a vehicle. Few—very few—Amsterdam cyclists wear a helmet. And rarely have we spotted a child whose elder has them wearing one. We see helmetless folks in their sixties and seventies riding bikes, unfazed by heavy, fast-moving bike traffic. Even disabled folks, using power wheelchairs, move along confidently on sidewalks or bike lanes. Locals get around at night by bicycle, too, and fewer than half the bikes have lights. The good news is, having used bicycles year round since childhood, Amsterdammers are proficient, safe cyclists. Since arriving, we’ve seen two inconsequential bike spills.
It took awhile for this reality to sink in: most of Amsterdam’s bike travelers ride not for recreation or exercise but to transport themselves and their kids to and from work, school, shopping, and even nights out. Our friend Pete, an American who has lived in the Netherlands for more than 30 years, commutes daily by bike. He dislikes cycling even though he lives in a pretty, small town with uncrowded bike paths.
Watching Amsterdam cyclists has provided unending amusement. Dog owners move their pets around town by bike. Smaller dogs sit in milk cartons or baskets mounted in front of bikes’ handlebars; larger dogs rest in the wheel barrow attachments. Bikes with these attachments are called bakfiets, literally meaning “box bike.”
Late one afternoon, sipping a beer at a sidewalk cafe near the Amstel River, we spotted a cyclist pushing a boat-shaped bakfiet carrying eight(!) little kids. They appeared to be enjoying their snug ride through rush hour traffic. Perhaps Amsterdam‘s version of a summertime school bus? Thankfully, bakfiets come equipped with seat belts inside.
No need to leave your musical instrument at home. One night, after leaving a performance at the opera house, we saw musicians from the show hop on their bikes with instruments strapped to their backs—including a cello in a bright red case! Guitar-carrying cyclists are frequently sighted by day.
As are clever cyclists. Sitting near the busy museum quarter, we noticed a bike rider rolling along at a steady clip nonchalantly steering with one hand a riderless bike at his side.
On a crowded sidewalk partially blocked by construction scaffolding, we watched two college-age gals move a twin-sized mattress through the streets by walking a bicycle with the mattress propped atop the saddle and handlebars. So much for U-Haul. By the way, walking two abreast in Amsterdam is the exception, not the rule, because the sidewalks are usually narrow.
Away from Amsterdam’s busy and narrow bike lanes, we witnessed creative bike engineering in action. On a quiet country path outside the town of Schijndel, two elderly women enjoyed a ride and conversation on a bicycle built for two—but not the usual kind. They rode a side-by-side tandem bike. I had no idea such a thing existed. Such a wide bike would be unmanageable on Amsterdam’s congested bike lanes.
Not surprisingly, we see many riders wearing ear buds carrying on a conversation while rolling along. And we see lots of teenage cyclists in Amsterdam reading their smartphones while calmly negotiating bike traffic.
Which reminds me of bike couriers. Back in the 1980s in DC, before the advent of faxing, emailing, and overnight deliveries, a subculture of bicycle delivery people would weave in and out of clogged downtown traffic with abandon, carrying parcels to law firms and corporate offices. Today in Amsterdam, cyclists deliver meals all over town. Couriers working for one of a few companies stand out by the brightly colored container on their back or mounted above their front wheels. Waiting for their next assignment, they congregate in various spots and compare notes.
What kind of bikes do Amsterdammers own? Amsterdam bikes are primarily bare bones machines—heavy, often black, with wide saddles and handlebars turned back toward the rider, allowing one to sit upright to steer with one hand and carry a shopping bag with the other. Many are single speed and do not have hand brakes. Many are rusted. In brief, forget about the high tech, light weight road bikes or hybrids costing $1,000 or more that Americans favor.
Bike shops are everywhere, it seems, and new bikes lined up outside the shops show price tags ranging between 100 and 300 Euros. Why spend more? Amsterdammers park their bikes outdoors, rain or shine. Many bikes, despite 100 percent use of locks, get stolen. My modest eight-speed bike, which I bought a few years ago for about $450, would stand out as a gem—or an extravagance.
It’s very cheap to rent a bike in Amsterdam—12 to 15 Euros for a whole day, plus 1 Euro for insurance. Before arriving in Amsterdam, we had heard that the locals don’t take kindly to tourists on bikes clogging up bike lanes to snap a photo or savor a sight. Barb and I figured we’d check out the scene for the first week and then rent a bike occasionally from then on. That hasn’t happened. Every week or so, we’ve asked each other, “How do you feel about biking around town?” The answer is always, “No way!”
So we get around by foot (averaging 4 miles a day) and tram. If we do rent a bike before we leave, we’ll do our riding in one of Amsterdam’s beautiful parks.
Julian I. Graubart, a longtime resident of Washington, DC, published books in the medical field there for 24 years. Now a freelance writer, he is also a tutor to D.C. elementary school students through the Reading Partners program. He authored the book Golf’s Greatest Championship: The 1960 U.S. Open.