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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

How Amsterdam became a cycling Nirvana

This article was originally written for and published on my Medium channel.

There’s hope for all cuties. Amsterdam wasn’t always the cycling capital of the world. It took civic unrest and political will.

Cycling is a way of life in Amsterdam, with cyclists everywhere on the city’s streets. Coming to Amsterdam, you will notice this immediately upon stepping out of the central station, where the first road crossing you encounter is not for cars but for bikes. Before moving here, I had thought cycling was a mere novelty, but upon experiencing the city, it became clear that cycling is deeply ingrained in Dutch culture. It is a common and effortless mode of transportation, just as natural as eating, sleeping, or breathing.

However, it wasn’t always this way. In the post-war era of the 1950s and 1960s, cycling was under threat due to the growing number of vehicles on the roads. As cars became cheaper and more fashionable, the use of bikes decreased by 6% every year. It was on track to be virtually eliminated as driving became more fashionable, affordable and in favour of urban planners and policymakers in the city. Canals were filled in, and streets were modified to accommodate the increased traffic and cater to the vehicle boom.

But, by the 1970s, the tide began to shift in Amsterdam, and the city began to invest in cycling infrastructure. This was triggered by the high death rates caused by traffic accidents in the Netherlands, with 400 of the 3300 deaths in 1971 being children. Campaigns were launched, and the government responded by making roads safer for cyclists. By the 1980s, Amsterdam had transformed into the cycling haven it is today. Urban planners shifted their focus from destroying neighbourhoods to making space for cars to building cycling lanes on virtually every road. No new roads were planned without considering how to accommodate cyclists.

Creating a safe culture

The focus on making cycling safe didn’t just mean painting white lanes to separate the traffic; it meant physically separating the cycle lanes from the roads through bollards, trees, and curbs. A 13-year study on 12 cities found that physically separating cycling lanes reduced fatalities by 44%. To make cycling second nature, Amsterdam built a network of more than 750 kilometres of interconnected cycle lanes, ensuring that all parts of the city can be accessed by bike. The city also provided amenities such as bike parking and bike rental stations to make cycling even more accessible. This includes bike parking in front of shops, bars, cafes, train stations and other public transportation hubs, so people can easily continue their journey by bike.

In addition to physically separating the cycle paths, which makes cycling so safe in Amsterdam, the speed limits on cars that share the roads with bikes also play a significant role in the relaxed cycling culture. Dutch design manuals stipulate that wherever cars are permitted to travel faster than 30 km/h (19 mph), they must be kept separate from bikes, as described above. This allows slow-moving cars on side roads and tight streets to safely share the road with cyclists, making it safer and more comfortable for both groups.

There are also strict traffic regulations that prioritize the safety of cyclists. For example, cars are not allowed to park in bike lanes and must give way to cyclists at intersections. This helps create a safer cyclist environment and encourages more people to cycle.

One of the things you will notice when cycling in Amsterdam and across the Netherlands is that it is an upright, everyday activity, not an endurance sport. Chris Bruntlett, the author of Modacity, describes cycling in the Netherlands as “walking with wheels.” The focus is not on speed but on enjoying the journey socially and conveniently without needing special shoes, helmets, or clothing. This approach helps to maintain an inclusive cycling culture.

What’s next?

Today, Amsterdam is rightfully considered a cycling paradise, with its residents cycling 2 million kilometres daily. City planners across the Netherlands have incorporated cycling into the development of new roads, and no credible political party would consider reducing investment in cycling. As the market and use of e-bikes grows, the Dutch authorities have increased their focus on connecting city corridors to allow intercity cycling through long connected roads, which can now be easily done on the increasingly popular e-bikes without breaking a sweat.

Amsterdam’s transformation into a cycling haven was not a coincidence but a deliberate effort by the government and urban planners to make cycling safe and accessible for all. Other cities can learn from Amsterdam’s example and replicate its success by investing in cycling infrastructure, physically separating cycling lanes, providing amenities and strict traffic regulations, and promoting cycling education and awareness campaigns. With the right planning and commitment, it is possible to create other Amsterdams where cycling is not just a mode of transportation but a way of life.


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