Amsterdam’s bicycle culture at stake
This article was meant as an April Fool’s Day article. Read more at the bottom of this article.
This article is about bicycling in the true global bicycle capital: Amsterdam. But I will not write about success stories, I will write about a negative process which will only harm the most environmental friendly mobility. Amsterdam rocks a 34% bicycle modal share, an enormous share compared to EU averages, especially considering the size of the city (ca. 800.000 inhabitants). The vast amounts of bicycle infrastructure together with a mindset of the traffic road user and car restricting policies make the bicycle truly the fastest modality in Amsterdam.
The city is an example of a successful bicycle city and its policies are copied around the world. There even is a Dutch Bicycle Embassy (Idea inspired by Denmark). But things are changing, in a way that the city will not deserve to carry the title of bicycle capital. These changes are a reaction to the so called lawlessness of bicycling in the city (see video, in which it is praised). These unwritten rules are known for the citizens, but unknown for the outsider. Every Amsterdam citizen knows that traffic lights are not meant for them, that ringing a bell to warn his or her approach to a group of tourists is useless as they will only start to run panicky in circles, that they always have right of way, on pedestrian crossings and versus cars or any other moving vehicle including other bicycles. Every wall or pole is a potential parking space, even that little space between two bicycles in a rack can be used, especially at the Central Station three layer parking deck. People have no idea rules actually exist, as they do not have any drivers license (I also don’t, so why should I care about rules) and cycling home completely drunk from a party, not remembering anything of the way home, including the trip to the shoarma fastfood joint, is completely normal and the weekend’s stories of losing the way in Amsterdam-West and Osdorp are shared on the Mondays either at work or in class.
Therefore the traffic agency of the municipality has decided that drastic changes are needed. After the idea by the city centre district to put chips into all bicycles to counter illegal parking, the proposal to introduce paid bicycle parking and adding number plates to bikes. Their latest Mobility Plan consist of a future set of strategies to counter the previously mentioned lawlessness and anarchistic bicycling for once and for all. Lets take a look at the most destructive components of the plan:
The mandatory helmet
Since many cyclists state that safety issues are one of the main reasons to leave the bike in the rack (studies show that 1 in 4 fatal accidents in the Netherlands concern cyclists), the discussion on mandatory helmets is upsurging again. Accidents involving cyclists and cars are especially dangerous for the cyclist without helmet, and such incidents, especially when fatal, serve as a catalyst for the proponents of the mandatory helmet. Still, opposition by several bike organisations is strong, but the city of Amsterdam is not longer willing to expose its biking masses to unnecessary danger while cycling. Taking New York City as an example, where the helmet is seen as an accessory (see here, p.2) or Sweden which is one step ahead of us in developing a fashionable helmet with airbag-function (see video below), will even convince the hardest opponents and fashionistas under the cyclists and make cycling a better alternative while moving between all the outlaws on the streets of Amsterdam.
Drivers licenses for cyclists & no tourists on bikes
Another major policy change requires all cyclists to hold a valid cycling license at all times. This is not a new policy proposal, as calls for cyclist licensing programmes have gained popular traction with residents of cities such as London, New York, Portland, and Toronto. Amsterdam’s proposal to institute cycling licenses, however, is the world’s first known implementation of bike licenses. Amsterdam’s licensing policy will be similar to driver’s licenses for cars in the United States. In order to apply for a license, an individual who is registered in the city of Amsterdam must take proof of their registration (e.g., a housing contract) to a city office, take a cycling exam that involves a written and a practical component, and pay a fee of €65.
A major implication from the new licensing scheme is that tourists will be unable to rent or ride bicycles, as being a resident of the city is a requirement for eligibility. This could have detrimental effects on tourism, as many companies such as MacBike and Yellow Bike depend largely upon rentals from visitors rather than renting out bikes to locals. Historically, one of the best ways to explore the city has been to go local and hop on a bicycle: the licensing programme will put this popular activity in jeopardy.
Huge fines to ‘break’ the speed
Simultaneously, the Amsterdam City Council’s ‘Dienst Infrastructuur en Verkeer’ (Department of Infrastructure and Traffic [DIF]) will implement a scheme for higher fines. These are primarily meant to ‘avert more problems concerning a growing number of fatal accidents and bicycle parking problem,’ as spokesmen of the DIF Henry Waterdal puts it. Distillated out of government’s reports, the fines include a 70 euro fine for cycling without light, and a 70 euro fine for cycling without breaks. Also, when you are caught driving through red light, one can expect to pay 100 euros to please the policemen. Besides, you have to be careful of where to put your bike: parking outside the designated will cost you 45 euros when you have a small bike, and 80 euros when you have a bigger one (i.e. bakfiets). Former experiments with this measure in the Pijp worked out fine for the government, as this little reportage of the local news channel AT5 shows us.
Obligated to have a bike with breaks and to leave your bike within the designated areas, will perhaps mean the end of the hipster bike and the typically Dutch bakfiets…
Back to the past
Although details regarding the possible fines are still unknown, bicyclists better think twice this summer when they plan to have a nice bike ride along the canals enjoying the (hopefully) nice weather. For many years, residents, but also romantics who claim to possess so-called historical awareness, have been complaining about the amount of traffic that is driving through the 17th century canal ring day by day. According to them, not only the cars, but also the dozens of reckless bicyclists made occur that their beloved canals are rather unattractive for pedestrians to enjoy.
A number of recent occasions contributed to the fact that the city council is currently taking those complaints into account more and more seriously. First, the fact that the Amsterdam canal ring recently got added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List made the people of Amsterdam realize even more that it is very important to preserve this unique historical part of the city. This, plus the fact that the canal ring exists for 400 years in 2013, made the city council decide to come up with a somewhat daring experiment this summer: within the months June, July and August, there will be experimented with traffic-free Sundays at the complete ‘canal ring area’, including the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. This means that not only cars, but also bikes will be prohibited between 8 AM and 10 PM. If the experiment appears to be successful, according to the people of the city council, it is very much possible this policy will become standard in the near future. Whereas many cities try to adjust to the 21st century, Amsterdam seems to possess a certain desire to get back to the past.
It is clear that the global bicycle capital title of Amsterdam is at stake. How can a bicycle city take itself seriously when its citizens are cycling around with helmets, number plates, obeying rules and acting courteous to one another. A true bicycle city needs conflict, rule breakers and lawlessness, to give the city a certain kind of dynamism and make it fun to cycle again. We need to rise up against these restrictive and anti-bicycle rules of the municipality of Amsterdam: gives us back our bicycle culture!
April Fool’s Day explanation
This article has been written by Lukas Franta, Leon van Keulen, Jorn Koelemaij, Adam Nowek and Stephan Valenta and was meant as an April Fool’s Day article. We are all actually really in favour of bicycle transport and use it mostly as means of transport in Amsterdam. Also we welcome the proposed 120 million bicycle transport investments proposed by the municipality. But we did want to warn about the danger of Amsterdam losing its specific bicycle culture and character. Since there are actual discussions about paid parking for bicycles (see links to actual articles), number plates and chips in the municipal and district government, the danger is that these kind of policies will work discouraging for people to use the bicycle. Also we do realize there are many issues regarding bicycling in Amsterdam, as many public space is occupied by parked bicycles and many cyclists do ignore many of the rules. But all this is typical of Amsterdam, not only for bicycle transport. But the typical startled view of a tourist just arriving at Amsterdam Central Station with its roller briefcase and attempting to cross a pedestrian crossing and almost getting ran over by dozens of cyclists from two directions is priceless. It is something which will be remembered and talked about. It is something which belongs to Amsterdam.
Rothar Kolesa, the author of this article, is actually non-existing. Maybe those from Ireland or Slovenia already realized, or when somebody tried to Google his name: both the first and surname mean bicycle in those languages.