Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Too many rental bikes are clogging up much-needed parking space, city hall says. But what’s the plan?
Even Amsterdam can get sick of bikes, it seems. The Dutch capital may have a reputation as the world’s most bike-friendly city, but this week it launched a campaign to get a major group of two-wheelers off its streets.
So-called “rogue bike shares” are now in the city’s crosshairs, accused of clogging up valuable bike parking space at the expense of local cyclists. The city announced this week that it intends to ban these private rental companies, which park bikes around the city for customers to rent via smartphone apps. Unlike traditional bike-share programs, these ones don’t have dedicated docks for parking and they don’t coordinate with the government to offer service around the city. Even though the rogue bike-share concept has been widely questioned as problematic, most cities might consider it a good thing to have an easy supply of rental bikes on every corner. For Amsterdam, it risks becoming a nightmare.
It might seem improbable that bike parking could become such an issue, but more people move through Central Amsterdam by bike than by any other means of transit. Finding a suitable parking spot can be a headache for bike owners. The city has been rushing to catch up with demand lately, resorting to adventurous measures such as the creation of bike islands and subterranean bike chambers built beneath the waterfront. Parking is permitted outside official spots unless a sign expressly forbids it (warning: they often do, especially in the busiest areas). But in a city where such huge numbers move by bike, railing space gets snapped up extremely fast.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam has no official bike-share scheme of its own (although it has legion bike rental shops) and the Netherlands as a whole has the OV Fiets system, which is aimed primarily at last-mile transit for people using railway and metro stations. This has helped private bike-share companies to flourish since they arrived in the city last autumn.
As of last month, five companies were operating in Amsterdam. So many bikes have been freshly released onto the streets this summer that some experts have even alleged they’ve caused a shortage of spare parts in bike repair shops. While the sheer number of operators suggests a demand, these bikes can sometimes sit unused in public parking spots for days. It’s no wonder that some people are seeing these companies as another example of tourist industry excess, where rental bikes intended for visitors (Amsterdammers are likely to own) are crowding out space used intended primarily for locals.
This doesn’t mean that this type of bike share is inherently bad. If such companies were actually popular with locals, they could serve to reduce the number of bikes in the streets—something city hall acknowledges. This would work much like car-share schemes, with private bikes that currently sit unused by commuters during work hours being replaced with bikes that are available to others, thus freeing up some precious parking space. Promoting such a model in a bike-owning culture like the Netherlands’ would nonetheless be an uphill struggle.
The obvious solution would be for the bike-share companies to create their own docks, as the company Hello Bike has in the area around Amsterdam’s South Station. Indeed, some of the bike share companies suggest they might even welcome such a policy if it at least gave them some clarity as to the city’s position.
“We’ve been in talks since February,” complained the founder of Bike share company FlickBike in newspaper Trouw. “We sensed that there was no immediate plan. That’s hard work. Half a year later and there is still no policy, but the municipality has its hand on the brakes. When there are no rules, that’s a real pain.”
In the meantime, the city may still face a fight to expel the bikes from regular parking spots, given that actual enforcement of the ban lies not with city hall but within the powers of Amsterdam’s seven boroughs.
For most cities, bike overcrowding of this sort would hardly be the worst problem to have. But even in the supposed bike utopia that cyclin advocates look to for guidance, car drivers still get a proportionally more generous deal than cyclists. As Marc Woudenberg of cycling advocacy organization Amsterdamized told CityLab earlier this year, 65 to 70 percent of all Amsterdam journeys take place by bike, but bikes are only allotted 11 percent of the city’s total road space. The city’s provision of car parking is likewise far more generous than it is for bikes.
Fights over which bikes get to use which racks show how the city’s modal shift has succeeded—these struggles happen because so many people are now getting around on two wheels. Still, when it comes to allotting space for different modes of transit, bikes remain lower down the list of Amsterdam’s priorities than they deserve to be.