A woman rides her bike on a snowy day in Amsterdam.
Making a city where most trips are done on bikes requires utterly discarding conventional car-centric ways of thinking about transportation. Norman Garrick

Skip or short-change any one of them and your city of bikes won’t work as well.

People unfamiliar with the idea of the bicycle as real transportation sometimes see Amsterdam—the famously bike-friendly Dutch capital—as a fantasyland that has very little to do with the grown-up transportation world of cars and trucks. In reality, a readjustment of perspective is needed, since Amsterdam has succeeded in creating a transportation system that is one of the most successful in the world. Transportation in Amsterdam is the epitome of sustainability. It is convenient, cheap, clean, quiet, efficient, and safe.  

Furthermore, creating and maintaining a bike-centric urban transportation network is anything but child’s play, given the complex planning, design, regulatory, and political landscape that must be negotiated to keep the parts moving. Until I spent several weeks in Amsterdam this summer, I failed to appreciate some essential nuances about what makes the city tick for bikes—and how challenging it can be to reverse engineer such a bicycle ecosystem into an American city.

Making a city where most trips are done on bikes requires utterly discarding conventional car-centric ways of thinking about transportation. Over the last 60 years, Amsterdam’s leaders, planners and designers have by trial and error created a template for a city where bikes are the dominant force in transportation planning and design. That template has five essential characteristics; skip or short-change any one of them and your city of bikes won’t work as well.

1. All streets are bike streets

In most cities, the network of bicycle tracks and lanes is far sparser than the overall street network for vehicular traffic. In Amsterdam, the street network map is the bike network map. Almost all streets in the city have excellent bike facilities of one type or another. What is extraordinary is that in Amsterdam you are more likely to need a specialized car map than a bike map, since many streets have limited or no car access.

Amsterdam Style Cycle Track on a main street (Norman Garrick)

2. Separated cycle tracks, not bike lanes

There are few on-street bike lanes left in the city: On higher-speed streets the standard now is separated and elevated cycle tracks, which offer a safer and more stress-free experience. In the U.S., separated tracks are still quite rare, as painted lanes are far cheaper to install—but that’s starting to change. According to the Green Lane Project between 2011 and 2016 the number of protected bicycle lanes (similar to the Dutch cycle tracks) in the USA have quadrupled. Protected lanes have become such important tools that advocates are calling for even more, and they highlight this demand using guerilla tactics such as toilet plunger protected bike lanes in Wichita and Providence, and human bollard protected bike lanes in NYC and other places. As Rock Miller points out in an upcoming Transportation Research Board paper on the history of bicycle planning in the U.S., this move to separated cycle tracks instead of on-street bike lanes would represent a major historical shift in how we design bike facilities. But it is an important shift that’s borne out by a long history of successful experimentation in Amsterdam.

3. When possible, go completely car free

It is too early to call this a trend, but planners in Amsterdam have recently started to convert what the Dutch call “woonerfs” and what those in the U.S would call “complete streets” into shared streets that omit the cars entirely. One prominent example: Plantage Middenlaan, which once had tram tracks, car lanes, bike tracks, and sidewalks. Now, the car lanes are gone and what remain are tram tracks on grass, red bike lanes, and sidewalks in an attractive expanded linear park.

View of Middenlaan Plantage (Norman W. Garrick)

4. Two speeds, both slow

Amsterdam has two speed zones for all streets in the city: 30* mph and 18 mph zones. Speed control here is not left up to the willingness of the driver to follow the law, but is built into the design and planning of the street itself. Every tool in the box is used for traffic calming—textured pavement, speed bumps and tables, narrow streets, and raised intersections. From the perspective of bikers, the speed tables that typically separate low-speed side streets from higher-speed main thoroughfares are a stroke of genius. The cycle track always crosses the side street on this speed table.  Thus a biker on a cycle track experiences a ride that is largely uninterrupted, either by the passage of cars or changes in elevation; it’s the car that is forced to slow down and to give way to the bikers. Not surprisingly, Amsterdam’s traffic fatality rate is below that in most cities, at two fatalities per 100,000 people, a number which has been cut in half over the last 20 years and by two-thirds over the last 30 years.

5. Stress-free intersections

Designing safe intersections for both bicycles and cars is a struggle everywhere. Some cities have come up with complex Rube Goldberg-like solutions. But in Amsterdam, intersections designed with bikes in mind tend to be relatively simple, partly because the mandate to accommodate car traffic is not the preeminent concern. For example, bike boxes are rarely used in Amsterdam to accommodate bikes turning left at larger intersections. Instead, the default design is to use a two-stage approach for left turns: First the bikers cross one perpendicular street and then they proceed to cross the second; each street has its own bike traffic signal. The whole process is straightforward and stress-free.

Amsterdam was not always as bicycle friendly as it is today.  The progress we see today is a product of a 180 degree change in policy by the city government in the 1970s. In 1990, 38 percent of all trips were made by cars, today this is down to just 24 percent. Thus a happy consequence of discarding conventional transportation planning is that you get fewer car trips. This has created a virtuous cycle for the city, in that less space is provided for cars, leading to less car travel, which in turn leads to even less space being devoted to cars. Space that has been wrestled from car use have been put to great use in Amsterdam, with beautifully renovated plazas for the use of people rather than parked cars and with new linear parks and pocket parks all over the city.

One of the most fascinating things about transportation in Amsterdam is that city engineers and planners are always willing to keep experimenting with new approaches. Nothing is perfect, and sometimes it does not quite work. This results in a few head scratching situations, the most disconcerting one being the motorized vehicles that are currently allowed on the bicycle tracks. These vehicles include certain types of motor scooters, tiny motorized car-like objects, and Segway-fitted wagons—usually filled with preschoolers. For me, every time one of these devices approaches stealthily from the rear evokes a moment of panic. This might change next year—depending on final approval from the national government—when motorized scooters are likely to be banned from bicycle ways.

For me, as an outsider, what is interesting is to see how the city has evolved, and to observe how much more bicycle oriented they can become. Have they reached the limit, or will they be able to push the share of trips on bicycles to 60 percent or even beyond? Another looming question: The Dutch system of having drivers negotiate for road space with walkers and cyclists demands the active attention of all road users. If and when autonomous vehicles arrive, will the driverless cars dare to brave the highly complex ecosystem of this City of Bikes?

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated one of Amsterdam’s two speed zones for its city streets.

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