hello amsterdam! what going dutch can do for us

photos: velojoy

If you love cycling and you believe in its potential for improving the quality of life of city dwellers, then riding a bicycle on the streets of Amsterdam for the first time is like awakening to find that all your dreams have come true.

Even without having paused at one of Amsterdam’s famous “coffee” houses, I’m still on a high from the five days I spent last week in the capital of the Netherlands and the kingdom of the citizen-cyclist. That’s not just because bicycling along the city’s picturesque canals and bustling thoroughfares with my son was such a great vacation, but also because I came to understand — in a way that reading or watching videos on YouTube can never quite convey — what it means for a city to have woven cycling into the rich and satisfying fabric of urban living. The kind of living that we do here in New York City.

Shortly before my trip, I told my friend Liz, a cycling advocate of Dutch decent, that I looked forward  to experiencing cycling culture in the Netherlands. She laughed and said, “There’s no cycling culture there. People just ride bicycles.”

What she meant was that there are no distinctions or labels attached to cycling in the Netherlands. Here in New York City, people who ride bicycles are perceived as “other” on streets dominated by cars. Cycling seems complicated, even though it doesn’t have to be. In Amsterdam, it’s simply one instrument in the symphony of city transportation. Bicycles are so pervasive that they almost disappear into the urban backdrop.

How easy did Amsterdam make it for my son and me to ride our bicycles to visit the Rijksmuseum, explore Vondelpark, shop for produce and flowers at the Noordermarkt — even to follow the Amstel River’s winding path into the lush countryside?  The answer is reflected in the number of times in five days that we boarded a bus, hopped on a tram, drove a car or hailed a taxi: zero.

The policies and infrastructure that enable cyclists, cars and pedestrians to safely share the roads didn’t come into being overnight. They evolved, not only in Amsterdam, but throughout the Netherlands, from a series of decisions stretching back decades. They reflect choices to reduce urban congestion, cut down on pollution and noise, and improve the health of citizens. By the measure of that timeline, the leaps that New York City has made in the past four years alone, in adding bicycle lanes and fueling annual double-digit growth in commuting, seem all the more impressive. What’s more, they point the way toward a bright future for cycling, with all its benefits to the quality of city life.

So, by way of delving into what going Dutch can do for us, I’ll share photos, travel tips, conversations with thought leaders, product finds and more in this week’s posts.

photos: velojoy

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  • I finally went to Amsterdam last January and I absolutely fell in love with it. My husband used to live there and had always wanted me to visit, but I figured it would be just another European city. But Amsterdam is different, and I was smitten — to the point where I’m studying Dutch now.

    If you ever need to lower your blood pressure, forget looking at fish swim — watch a video of everyday commuters in the Netherlands. “markenlei” on youtube has several nice ones where he discusses the details of how they make cycling safe there. This one is my favorite.. he takes apart the vehicular cycling argument one bike path feature at a time during a ride around some suburban areas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOR6zm_Yziw&list=FLDDHz2jUEXMI&index=2

    • Holly, “smitten” is the word! Thank you for sharing your experience and also for including the link. As shown in the video, how nice it would be to have someone clearing debris from our bike lanes in NYC. The detection loop for cyclists at traffic lights is pretty interesting, too.

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