If you’ve ever set foot in Amsterdam you’ll already know that the city has embraced the bicycle as a form of transportation to an extent that is unparalleled anywhere on Earth. The ubiquity of bicycles in this, the land of giants, can be a lot to take in for many Canadians visiting the Netherlands, and for some of us is not without its dangers either.
Don’t believe me? Try stepping on to an Amsterdam bike path without looking both ways sometime and see how long you last before being plowed under by a swarm of oncoming bike traffic. Trust me, you might last five seconds, and this only assuming there’s actually been a rare break in traffic lasting long enough for you to mistake one of these unassuming little paths for something other than what it is, a bicycle super-highway!
And yes, since you bring it up, I have made such a mistake before, and yeah, I suppose I could be considered lucky to have emerged from the adventure with only a series of major scrapes, bruises and my dignity compromised. I guess I should also consider myself somewhat fortuitous for being the only person minimally injured as a result of my denseness. When the cyclist I collided with frantically rang her warning bell while yelling something at me in English [she obviously pegged me a foreigner as no self-respecting Dutchman would ever be so stupid as to step into a bike path blindly] I was swift enough to jump out of the way in time so she only nudged me, knocking me off balance enough to see me crash down upon the curb, but not so hard that she would fall off her bike and risk real injury.
It might come as a bit of a surprise, but Holland and/or the city of Amsterdam hasn’t always been as bike-friendly as it is today. In fact, while at the turn of the 20th century bicycles were common and considered a respectable means of transportation, by the time the Dutch economy took off post-WW2 and people were buying cars en masse, urban policy makers had already long abandoned cycling as a viable option for getting around.
Consequently, Amsterdam, like most other European cities, tore down entire neighborhoods to accommodate the relatively sudden, and massive, influx of motorized vehicles operating in the country. By 1950 bicycle use in Holland was declining by a minimum six per cent every year with the vehicles considered well on their way to obsolescence.
By the early 1960s, the popularity of bicycles had deteriorated so much that the remaining cyclists found themselves under threat of being expelled from Dutch cities altogether. It wasn’t until the 1970s before circumstance forced the city of Amsterdam to reconsider its relationship with the bicycle.
Not surprisingly, all that auto traffic in centuries-old cities had not been without its drawbacks, the most painful of them being the absolutely insane number of casualties brought about by automobile accidents. In 1971 alone, the Dutch lost 3,300 citizens to auto accidents, with over 400 of those deaths being children. The almost incomprehensible death toll spawned several activist groups, the two most influential being the Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child murder”) campaign led by former Dutch MEP, Maartje van Putten, and the First Only Real Dutch Cyclists’ Union.
Stop de Kindermoord, for chrissakes!
The Stop de Kindermoord movement was quickly embraced by the public and eventually led to the creation and implementation of something called woonerf’s, essentially a new kind of people-friendly street incorporating speed bumps and bends to force cars to drive very slowly. But the real catalyst leading Amsterdam towards becoming the bicycle capital of the world was the 1973 oil crisis, which saw the price of gas quadruple essentially overnight.
The oil crisis, along with a growing awareness of the ecological hazards attributable to automobiles, prompted Dutch prime minister Den Uyl to give a televised speech urging citizens to adopt more energy efficient lifestyles, while simultaneously announcing new initiatives, such as “Car-Free Sundays”, designed to remind people of what life was like before the hegemony of cars had taken root. Gradually the Dutch grew increasingly aware of the advantages of cycling, and by the mid-80s most towns in the country had created new bike paths and introduced popular measures designed to encourage bicycle use over cars.
Today, as the “bicycle capital of the world”, 38 per cent of all trips taken in Amsterdam are on bicycle, while the relatively tiny nation can boast of having no fewer than 22,000 miles of cycle paths. Which is fantastic when you think about it. You just need to pay attention stepping across them.
Bicycle parking lot in Amsterdam – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Profile
Chris Barry is a freelance writer and musician based in Montreal, Canada.
Website / Blog: Loose Lips