A friend gave me a copy of Bike City Amsterdam: How Amsterdam became the cycling Capital of the World by Fred Feddes and Marjolein de Lange. In approachable language, the book describes the evolution of bike culture and infrastructure in Amsterdam from the introduction of the bike in 1860s through 2019, thus offering a current look at the successes and ongoing challenges for bike transportation in the city. Despite having a dayjob in the field, I found the content to be fresh and interesting. Part of the charm of how this book is conceived is putting the evolution of the bike within the larger context of the transformation of the modern city.
The book unfolds how the “Amsterdam model” became a success. Of note, much of the city’s post-war expansion was directed by the AUP, a master plan authored in 1934 before automobiles became dominant. The book walks us through the ups and downs of cycling, including how cars took over in the 1960s, fights against urban renewal, and struggles in the latter part of the century to build the systems in place today.
Here are my top takeaways:
Maarten Hajer’s quote “Smart urbanism not smart cities.” The smartest city is one which is not more complicated or vulnerable than necessary, as effective low-tech is smarter than high-tech. Bikes are technological superior to cars because of simplicity. Like an umbrella, “a bike is something but almost nothing.” Bikes are relatively light, take up very little space, and are always there when you need them.
Amsterdam’s bike network mesh size, the distance from one parallel safe biking route to another, is 300 meters (980 feet). This is important because cyclists are “detour sensitive” in that they prefer to take the most direct route possible.
Road safety became a more important issue as the number families with children choosing to live in the city center increased in the 1960s. This became even more relevant as citizens started to prefer to spend free time in the city for its attractions and, later, with the growth of urban tourism.
According to Ivan Illich’s essay Energy and Equity (1973), if you factor in the time spent working to pay for the car and upkeep, the average speed is no faster than walking. Also, the illusion of unending supplies of fossil fuel is a weak foundation for building prosperity.
Even in Amsterdam, the fight for more space for bike infrastructure was against proponents of on-street motor vehicle parking.
Activists pointed out that traffic lights are only necessary because cars exist, so cyclists should never be the victim of traffic lights. When urban design for bicycling was later professionalized, Amsterdam started removing white road markings within the city in favor of different color pavers and bollards to help create a human-scale and neutral background for urban life.
The bike is good for everyone, even those who don’t cycle. It is quiet, environmentally friendly, space saving, and not dangerous to others.
What did you get out of the book, or what lessons have you learned from your own experiences trying to create a biking city?
Cover photo Ed van der Elksen/Hollandse Hoogte