Monday, July 04, 2011

Fietsen Van Amsterdam - Bikes of Amsterdam

This post is dedicated to all the Americans who have told me that most people can never bicycle, because (1) you cannot carry your groceries home on a bicycle, and (2) you cannot chauffeur children around on a bicycle.

These people cannot imagine that cities could be designed differently, so people travel shorter distances that are easier to bicycle (for both adults and older children). They cannot imagine that bicycles could be designed so they can easily carry groceries and younger children.

These pictures of bicycles in Amsterdam may open their eyes. One of these bicycles has a battery assist, which is rarely needed in a flat city like Amsterdam but which would be more useful in hillier cities.

The best known bicycling image from Amsterdam is the parking at Centraal Station. In fact, no single picture can show how much bike parking is there, because there are large surface lots in addition to the structure shown below, parking so extensive that you cannot capture it in one picture.

Even more revealing are the pictures of bike parking below, beginning with the parking at the supermarket nearest to where we stayed in Amsterdam, which is part of the largest Dutch chain, Albert Hein. The store does not provide any parking for cars, but it has striped diagonal parking for bikes on the sidewalk, to accommodate all the people who carry their groceries home by bike. (We always walked there, ourselves.)

Likewise, the heavy Dutch use of bicycles is shown in this picture of bike parking on a residential street ...

... and in this picture, which shows how just about every railing in Amsterdam has bikes locked to it.

The most common type bike in Amsterdam is an ordinary one-speed with foot brakes or three-speed with handbrakes. Notice that the chain is completely enclosed, so you do not have to worry about tying your pants cuff to protect it from grease.

People sometimes decorate these simple bikes.

Even these ordinary bikes are enough for carrying two small children, one in a child seat in front of the rider, and one in a child seat behind, as shown below. If you go to Vondelpark (Amsterdam's most popular park) on a Saturday, you will see hoards of bicyclists, many with one or two children on an ordinary bike.

The simplest improvement on this basic bike is an L-shaped bracket over the front wheel, which is built into many bikes. Sometimes people attach crude cargo carriers to this bracket, like this beat-up wooden platform.

Often, they attach baskets...

... and sometimes they attach locking cases, like this one, so they do not have to worry about leaving cargo in the bike while it is parked.

Some bikes have a small front wheel with a larger L-shaped bracket, which lets them attach larger containers ...

... and sometimes people decorate these containers in typically Dutch ways.

A big step beyond the ordinary bike is a cargo bike. The one shown below is most popular, so common that the bike rental places offer them to tourists who want to carry their children around.

These bikes are perfect for carrying large loads of groceries or small children. (Notice that the bike lane below is built into the sidewalk, which is typical on busier streets.)

They come with rain covers to protect your children from the Amsterdam weather. (Incidentally, I myself commuted by bicycle in Berkeley for seven years, rain and shine, and I was surprised to find that it is quite comfortable to ride in the rain if you wear a full rain suit and galoshes.)

Here is the same type of cargo bike with the container removed, so it can be used to carry cheese.

There are also cargo bikes of this type with longer compartments to carry larger loads ...

... and there are modified and decorated versions of this type of bike.

Here is a second type of cargo bike, which is also very common.

This type of bike also comes with a rain cover that does not block your children's view...

... and apart from children and groceries, cargo bikes can also be used to carry your best friend.

Flat-bed cargo bikes, which can carry larger loads, are also an every-day sight, though they are less common than these lighter cargo bikes. Here is one carrying supplies to a food vendor in Vondelpark ...

... and here is one carrying luggage at Centraal Station.

Though they are usually used for these sorts of commercial purposes, flat-beds are also used by individuals to transport their personal possessions.

Some of them have lids that can be locked to protect the cargo.

When they get old and beat up ...

... you can try to renew them by painting them bright colors.

In addition to these specialized cargo bikes, it is common to see trailers for ordinary bikes, similar to the bike trailers you sometimes see in the US.

Here is a cargo trailer with a locking lid and a Burley trailer to carry children.

Finally, it is common to see pedi-cabs waiting to carry tourists around Amsterdam, as it is in some American cities.

Here is my favorite design for a pedi-cab, meant to look like a yellow cab. (Incidentally, notice how quiet and peaceful this scene seems, even though it is near the center of a densely populated city. Now, imagine how much less peaceful it would seem if the bikes were all replaced by cars, and if the road were widened and given extra parking to accommodate those cars.)

Those are the common types of bicycles that you are bound to see if you spend a bit of time walking around Amsterdam. Next, let's look at a few types that are less common.

Here is a bicycle built for two that lets the riders sit next to each other rather than one behind the other. This elderly couple seems to enjoy being next to each other and talking as they bicycle along the Amstel River, a short ride south of Amsterdam.

Here is a conventional tandem bicycle for two, obviously not much used.

Here is a racing bike, designed to minimize wind resistance.

Here is a bike used by an ice-cream vendor.

Here is the pedal saloon, which you occasionally see in the park or in the more touristy parts of Amsterdam. Though it is a bit hard to see in the picture, all those people are sitting at a bar drinking beer and at the same time are pedaling together to propel the bar down the street.

Here is a tricycle ...

... and here is a tricycle with a battery assist. (Though they are not common in Amsterdam, where most people stay in good shape because they bicycle all their lives, tricycles and battery assist would be useful in the United States, where the streets are sometimes hillier and the people are less accustomed to exercise.)

The Dutch attitude toward bicycling is summarized by this bumper-sticker ...

... and by this sign for a bike rental store ...

... which I agree with completely.

Update: 9/19/2011

There is a good history of bicycling in Amsterdam here.

It points out that bicycling in Amsterdam declined after World War II: "In 1955, 75 percent of all trips in Amsterdam were made by bicycle. By 1970, that number had declined to only 25 percent." In addition, some well-known public places such as the Nieuwmarkt were converted to parking lots, and there was a plan to slice up the center of Amsterdam with a freeway. The environmental movement of the 1970s stopped the freeway, reclaimed public spaces from the automobile, and got the excellent system of separated bike paths that Amsterdam now has, increasing the portion of trips by bicycle to 38% of all trips in the entire city and 57% of trips in the city center.

There is also a good video with the same history here, named "How the Dutch Got Their Cycle Paths."

Amsterdam's success at making itself more bicycle-friendly should serve as an inspiration to other cities.

Update: 2/7/2012

A friend forwards this picture of a new addition to Amsterdam's specialty bicycles: a bicycle school bus, powered by pedaling children and by one adult driver. It has an electric motor that is only used to go up hills, a canvas top for rainy days, and a sound system. It is made by Tolkaamp Metaalspecials, which also makes the beer bike.

Does anyone have any theories about why obesity is less common among Dutch children than among American children?