Wednesday 27 February 2013

Amsterdam - Part 1

I have the attention span of a goldfish. Therefore, I thought I'd write this for goldfish and split tit into two parts.

I've visited Amsterdam quite a few times in the past in my university days.

Yes, I realise that the above sentence will have quite a few of you jumping to conclusions about why I was there! In fact I was there with the university judo club for an annual judo competition (It was actually in Eindhoven, but we always stopped off in Amsterdam for a day). Depite all of the 'temptations' available I was always very well behaved, and stuck to the beer.

I can state for the record that whilst there on those trips I did not in any way pay attention to the cycle infrastructure. Cycling at that time was not on my radar.

Things have changed.

I'm not only older, wiser, weigh about 10 kgs more, and a bit more wrinkled, but the sole purpose of this visit WAS to look at cycle infrastructure. As I've discussed in previous blogs I was very lucky to be a guest of BBC Scotland, and spent a full day in the fair city. I boarded an orange and white coloured plane the night before, with some waterproofs (rain was forecast) a change of clothes, a helmet, some gloves and a helmet camera.

One thing was noticeable by it absence.....Lycra.

My flight arrived at Schipol before David's (David Miller the BBC reporter) so upon arrival I set to work straight away by finding the nearest pub and ordering a beer. Dutch beer of course, which was nice. What was odd though, was as soon as the waitress came over to me she spoke English, and yet when someone else sat down she instantly spoke Dutch.

Had she spotted the helmet in my rucksack?

When in Amsterdam....

A while later, and 2 very nice beers later, BBC Scotland arrived in the form of David and Doug  the cameraman.So without further ado we jumped in a taxi and headed to the hotel. This is where I made my first interesting observation.

I happened to be facing backwards in the taxi, and whilst we were chatting about what we were planning over the next day or so I noticed something quite surprising....we were being tail-gated.  We were on the motorway, probably travelling about 60mph and there was a car about 2 or 3 metres back from us. That wasn't a one off either, as I noticed it happening a few times. The tail-gating was actually worse than I normally experience when driving my car back home.

There goes the myth that Dutch divers are better than drivers in the UK!

Following a few beers and for me, a very nice chocolate, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate was off to bed. We had an early rise the next morning as the plan was to film the school run, and in Amsterdam they get to school at 8:30am.

There may have been some chocolate....

Morning comes and after a quick breakfast it was into a taxi to find a good place to film (we ride bikes later...honest!). At first we stopped off at a junction leading up to the school and Doug started filming, as did I. Here is what I recorded.

Wait a minute?!? There is no segregation here! In fact there was no cycle specific infrastructure here at all! Not only that, but we also see a driver parking on a pavement and using their get out of jail flasging indicators! Yes, the driver confirmed once again that dtivers in the Netherlands are no better than here, but it was fascinating to watch the way that this four way junction worked. Cyclists and cars mixed effortlessly.

How did that work!?!?

There is a huge misconception that Amsterdam has city wide segregated cycle paths. It doesn't. This was an excellent example of how you can make cars and bikes mix safely. Keep the speed low. You'll notice that on all approaches to the junction there is a ramp, and that ramp encourages everyone to keep the speed down. Keep the speed down, and suddenly everyone has more time to look around and see what the hazards are, and voila, the traffic (which includes cyclists!) flows freely and safely.

Of course there is more too it than in numbers, most drivers also ride bikes, etc, but designing junctions to slow speeds inevitably makes it safer, which means streets like this where there isn't a huge amount of room for segregation, can still be cyclist friendly.

We didn't stay at the junction for long as we wanted to be outside a school watching how families arrived. So we went along the road a few hundred metres to the nearest school. What struck me straight away was that rather than having a large number of 4x4's parking and jostling outside the school, it had a huge pile of bikes of all shapes and sizes. The camera was set up and we sat just filming people arriving at the school.

I can honestly say that during that time I saw one child being dropped off by car. Just one. I saw every other child either walking with their parents or as the vast majority were doing, cycling to school. In every other way it was just the same as it is back in Scotland:  people are in a hurry, running late, slightly hassled with slightly misbehaving kids....but no-one was fighting for parking, or jossling for road space. Everyone flowed into the school with the absolute minimum of hassle. That's not to say that there wasn't traffic. Just behind where I was stood there was a queue of traffic waiting at traffic lights, but that traffic was through traffic, and most importantly didn't interact, AT ALL, with the school traffic.

You'd be mad to drive the kids to school!

David and Rob chatted to a few parents as they left the school....cycling is safe...cycling is normal....of course I let my kids cycle... Once finished we had a little time to spare so went for a coffee before we were due at Fietsersbond. Fietsrsbond, the  effectively the Dutch Cycling Union is an organisation that represents the rights and requirements of cyclists across the Netherlands. We were going to meet Gerrit Faber, our cycling guide for the day.

So how did we arrive at Fietsersbond? Yes. OK, we arrived by taxi, but this was to be the last taxi we would take until we needed to get back to the airport.....

Hello Fietsersbond Amsterdam!

Upon arriving at the Fietsesbond office and having tea and coffee, we got down to the serious business of chatting about cycling, cycle infrastructure, and the success of cycling in the Netherlands. On the table in the main office was a large map of Amsterdam. At this point Gerrit explained that the green on the map represented routes that were considered safe for cycling, i.e. had specifically been designed or redesigned with cyclists in mind. What was very impressive, was that there was green everywhere. I couldn't see any part of Amsterdam where there wasn't a spiders web of green routes entering and leaving it.


Gerrit did the obligatory interview for camera (mine would be saved for the end of the day) and we looked once again at the map planning our route for the next few hours.

So where should we go?!

Before we could plan anything we needed to work out logistics. We had some equipment to lug around, cameras, tripods etc, so would we need a taxi ferrying the equipment around whilst Gerrit and I went off galavanting?

No way!!

Just a few hundred metres away was a bike hire shop.......I think it should hire cargo bikes as well....

So a plan was hatched. We'd hire a standard bike for me, and a cargo bike for David and Rob. BBC Scotland would be going Dutch!

My bike

BBC bike
So what was it actually like once we got cycling?

Wet. Yes it rained. A lot. Oh and it was cold. It was a good representation of Glasgow.

Oh you mean what was the actual cycling like?

Watch this space for part 2!  


  1. Next time you're in Holland, be careful to apply the word dutch to beers: Heineken or Amstel is from Holland, Wiekse Witte is from Limburg, which is as dutch as scotland is british. If you'll come around again, I can show you some nice beer places in cycling distance. Cheers!

  2. @kruidig: As a dutchy i know you are talking out of your arse

    1. Waarom moeten Nederlanders altijd meteen grof worden als ze het ergens niet mee eens zijn?

  3. Actually studies have shown that Dutch drivers are so predictable that they drive closer to each other on the motorway than in other countries. It possibly has to do with the high standards of road design. Still 2-3m distance a bit too close for comfort.

  4. Just because there is no separated bike path doesn't mean there is no cycling infrastructure. It's the so-well-designed-its-invisible infrastructure that does the trick. David Hembrow did several excellent posts on them. Such as this one:

    I quote:

    "Residential streets in the Netherlands rarely work as through roads for cars, even if they were originally designed to do so. This makes them excellent places to cycle or walk with a high degree of comfort and safety."

    "Woonerven have a speed limit of "walking pace". However, they are not the only roads with low speed limits. In fact, over 40000 km of roads in the Netherlands, a third of the total, have a speed limit of 30 km/h (18 mls/h) or lower. This lowering of speeds on minor roads has been done to the maximum possible extent. It is now difficult to achieve more safety by this method."

    "Many cyclists who visit the Netherlands on holiday remain oblivious to concepts like this. It is common that people who visit on holiday report that they had few problems cycling in the Netherlands despite there being cycle-paths for only part of their journey. Often this is ascribed to better driver behaviour, perhaps through better training. However, people who make such statements have simply not noticed this "hidden" policy. Roads here are not the same as roads in other countries. Segregation of modes takes place even where there are no cycle-paths."


    1. The crossing shown in the blog isn't one of those residential streets though (which are just as described, judging from the one my brother-in-law's family stay on in Den Haag).

      Much as David has done a lot of excellent work showing how Dutch cycle planning works in View From The Cycle Path, I cannot help but feel he's over-egging the pudding describing things as 100% segregated where there are urban streets like the one shown above with bikes and cars freely mixing (and I see them round the corner from the Woonerven I'm familiar with in Den Haag too).
      The planning priority given to bikes does appear to make that sharing a lot more graceful than the UK, but 100% segregation is not what is happening. And saying we need 100% segregation is just giving folk an excuse to say "not enough room, too much cost, no, goodbye".