Before the bicycle arrived in Amsterdam in the late 19th century, the city had undergone six centuries of urban development, inadvertently creating an ideal environment for bicycle use. As with most cities, Amsterdam has seen suburban growth, but its compact semi-circular city centre and surrounding inner suburbs remain well suited for cycling and bicycle networks. When I met Mark Minkjan of City Breaths and CITIES earlier in the year, he said ‘I think the size of a city is very important for bicycle use. Amsterdam is compact, and the same in Copenhagen.’ Whilst such an analysis is simple, it is also true – a smaller city is more navigable by bicycle purely because shorter trips are more likely. 85% of journeys by bicycle in Amsterdam are shorter than 5km (3.1 miles), for which the compact size of the city is inevitably a factor.
Amsterdam’s suitability for a bicycle network is about more than its compact size, however. A network of canals throughout the city centre and some 1,500 bridges spanning them mean Amsterdam is essentially a city of islands. Whilst water management was an underlying motivation, most of Amsterdam’s canals were in fact built to encourage property development, meaning a lot of inner city roads have water to one side and housing to the other. The result of this is that road widening is almost impossible. Amsterdam’s urban form is therefore not particularly suited to cars, hence the city’s congestion problems when automobile ownership began to increase. Considerations about how to adapt Amsterdam’s centre for cars were made in the 1960s, but were ultimately abandoned for policies which encouraged bicycle use. This included the development of an extensive network of segregated cycling facilities and bicycle friendly policies which essentially turned most of Amsterdam’s city centre roads into a bicycle network.
On its narrow roads, where segregated bike lanes do not exist, Amsterdam’s cyclists share space with other traffic. Integrating bicycle and automobile traffic can cause problems, but Amsterdam minimised this by turning many narrow roads in the city centre into ‘bicycle streets’ where bike users have absolute priority over the entire width of the street’. Cars are welcome, but are limited to speeds of 30 km/h (19mph), and must yield to cyclists. Strict liability, where car users are automatically considered at fault, unless they can prove otherwise, further encourages those in automobiles to give special consideration to cyclists.
Mixed-use developments typically found in Amsterdam have further enhanced the city’s suitability for bicycle use. With home, work, and leisure opportunities typically located within shorter distance of each other, residents have walkable and cyclable access to retail, leisure, health and education facilities, critical in establishing sustainable communities. Having more people on the street also increases safety and the opportunity for casual meetings. A cyclable city like Amsterdam not only makes it quicker and easier to access urban facilities, it facilitates friendship and networking, developing a sense of community in the process.