Amsterdam’s most prominent international contribution to sustainable communities came in 1997 with the Treaty of Amsterdam – an amendment to the Treaty of the European Union – which called for ‘a harmonious, balanced and sustainable development of economic activities, a high level of employment and of social protection, equality between men and women, sustainable and non-inflationary growth, a high degree of competitiveness and convergence of economic performance, a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment, the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, and economic and social cohesion’. A pretty thorough definition of sustainable communities if ever there was one!
Despite this, the Dutch capital is better known for its bicycle network than its input to the political agenda of Europe’s sustainable communities. Yet in a more tangible sense, Amsterdam’s bicycle network could be its biggest contributor to global sustainable communities, being an often-cited example of the positive effects of a dense urban bicycle network.
Connections between the city’s bicycle network and its sustainability are frequently made. Phrases like ‘one of Europe’s most sustainable cities’ are readily applied to Amsterdam, and research has attributed the city’s longer life expectancies, at least in part, to bicycle use.
Yet whilst the Dutch capital is now synonymous with urban bicycle use, this has not always been the case. The bicycle was introduced into the Netherlands in 1870, and apart from a dip during World War II as a result of rationing and massive bicycle theft by the occupying Germans, bicycle use remained high until the mid 1950s.
Around this time, automobile traffic began to rise as cars become increasingly affordable and desirable. This brought congestion to central Amsterdam’s narrow streets and suburbanisation to its edges, reducing bicycle use in the process. At this stage, the rise of the car in Amsterdam was little different to that of many other European and North American cities. However, when road traffic accidents reached an all time high in 1972, Amsterdam’s embrace of the automobile took a different trajectory. Fueled by public dissatisfaction, safety became a high profile political issue, and as pressure from the Dutch people persisted, the bicycle became a government priority for the first time. The resulting legislation to discourage car use alongside extensive national investment in bicycle networks saw levels of cycling increase dramatically.
After decades of hard work, Amsterdam now sees 85% of its residents riding their bike at least once a week, and has 450km of bike lanes – the majority of which were constructed after the political pressure seen in the 1970s.