Boats and ships on the IJ in Amsterdam during a festival in 2015. Phil Nijhuis/AP

A years-long debate over a bridge pits the city’s vision for the future against the national government’s.

Over the past few years, Amsterdam has been caught in a minor existential debate. It boils down to this: In planning for the future, should the Dutch put more emphasis on the city’s role as a lynchpin in the national economy? Or should the day-to-day lived experience of citizens take top priority?

Given the gravity of the questions, the object that provoked them seems small and unlikely: a single bridge.

The bridge hasn’t been built yet, but it would cross the so-called River IJ in central Amsterdam (at this point, it’s really a narrow bay). Advocates for a new cycle bridge—who include both the city’s government and most of the political opposition—insist that it’s vital to speed up and decongest transit to the city’s north, making it an altogether more livable area.

Opponents, meanwhile—including the country’s minister for infrastructure and environment, the inland shipping industry, and the port authority—say the city must build a tunnel instead, because a bridge would hinder shipping access to the very asset that put Amsterdam here in the first place: the port.

After years of wrangling over the issue, the city council finally decided Friday that it won’t just build a bridge—it’ll build two.

The reasoning is so stereotypically Dutch you might laugh, if it wasn’t so obviously sensible. Such is the volume of bike traffic that Amsterdam actually needs two new bridges, both of them reserved exclusively for bikes and pedestrians. The first cycle bridge is probably getting the most central site, lying just east of the Central Station on Java Island, which lies midway across the IJ and is already connected to the right bank by bridge on its southern side. The other will be further upstream, a little to the west of the city center. The exact design, timing, and cost of the project is still somewhat unclear, although the Java Island bridge will likely arrive a few years before the western bridge.

These won’t necessarily be wonders of engineering; the distance they need to cover is no wider than the Thames in central London. This is still a decision that could reshape the city’s future priorities. To understand why it’s so significant, you have to delve back into Amsterdam’s past.

For centuries, sea trade was Amsterdam’s life blood. Initially, ships approached the harbor via the Zuiderzee, a shallow bay that was closed off from the North Sea by a levee in 1932. Since 1876, ships have reached the port via the deep 16 mile-long North Sea Canal. Even today, canal traffic ensures that Amsterdam is the second largest port in the Netherlands and the fourth largest by volume in Europe. According to the port’s own 2016 annual report, the harbor provides more than 67,000 direct and indirect jobs.

These jobs are worth protecting, though most of the ships arriving here are not especially tall, and likely wouldn’t be affected by a new bridge. The port’s mainstay is not containers, but bulk cargo, which is often shipped by barges and lower-slung ships. Tall cruise ships, however, could still pose a problem. In 2014 alone, 144 ships visited Amsterdam’s port, offloading passengers at a terminal barely more than 10 minutes from the city’s central station. With the completion of the world’s biggest sea lock at the North Sea Canal’s outlet to the sea in 2019, far larger craft will be able to reach the city, bringing with them a cascade of port fees and tourist spending.

Keeping port access clear has always been paramount for the city. For this reason, only one bridge spans the IJ at Amsterdam, carefully placed in the shallows beyond the main port. Elsewhere, all access to the north bank is by tunnel or ferry. For much of the city’s history, that inconvenience wasn’t considered too grave because the IJ’s north banks were mainly docklands, quite thinly inhabited primarily by low-income people who didn’t land high on the list of priorities for the city’s elite.

Now, however, things have changed. North Amsterdam is one of the fastest growing areas of the city, with more than 90,000 inhabitants. Forty-six thousand people cross the river daily. It possesses some of the few spaces available for much-needed residential development close to the city center. Museums, restaurants, and offices are also moving north, but access hasn’t improved to match.The ferries are increasingly congested while pedestrians and cyclists are barred from the three busy tunnels that cross the IJ. Everyone agrees it’s time for better alternatives here. The question is what they should be.

The shipping industry and national government (which doesn’t have the final say) wanted to stick to tunnels so as to not limit shipping and clip the region’s economic wings. A few locals on the north bank also petitioned for tunnels as well, in fear that bridges would prove so popular that their streets would become congested.

Taking this fear on board, Amsterdam has agreed that the bike bridge will be at least 11.35 meters (37 feet) high. As a retort, the country’s infrastructure minister complained that the bridge would require such steep ascents that it’ll only be good for “fans of Mont Ventoux,” the French mountain popular among hardcore cyclists for its challenging slopes.

The bridge might indeed need a faintly humpbacked design to reach this height within the space allotted to it. One speculative suggestion by local design cooperative Xoomlab, created long before the bridge plan’s approval, suggests modifying the problem with a bascule design modelled on Amsterdam’s Skinny Bridge.

A possible bascule bridge design suggested by Xoomlab. (Xoomlab)

Even with an opening span, a bridge here means blocking cruise ship access to the current passenger terminal, and the port has already reluctantly announced that it is planning to move farther west, toward the North Sea Canal’s mouth. This might make the city a somewhat less attractive cruise destination, but given the passionate resistance to large-scale liners in oversubscribed cities such as Venice, that might not be a bad thing.

In the meantime, the city is, in fact, constructing more tunnels. A new metro line under the IJ should be ready for service next July, while pedestrian tunnels are also being considered. As a sole solution for bike and foot traffic, tunnels aren’t very pleasant to use, and can feel claustrophobic and dangerous even if their actual safety record doesn’t necessarily match up to users’ fears.

Bridges should make the experience of local people crossing the IJ altogether more pleasant, but that’s not all the city has in mind. With lucrative development land north of the IJ, and recently completed developments on Java Island, increased traffic from the bridge could surely mean more money for developers.

In making the area more attractive, bridges could do more to enhance land values here than tunnels. This is arguably the clincher. Amsterdam may have a long history as a port, and that shows no signs of ending just yet. But in these times of skyrocketing urban land values and frenetic waterfront development, few cities are willing to let cargo—even tourist cargo—rule the quayside now that real estate development is so lucrative. It’s no wonder the bridges won the toss.

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