In a city where bicycles outnumber humans, the omnipresence of the machines can be overwhelming. The bikes of Amsterdam cluster at every curbside, line canals and bridges, and sweep silently around you when as you stroll. The urban fabric is saturated with cyclists, flowing through a complex network of bike-optimized lanes, paths, fietsstraten and woonerfs in numbers that can astonish — and intimidate — newcomers.

“You are here in the bike capital of the world,” Meredith Glaser announced to a gaggle of attendees at the Bloomberg CityLab conference in the Amsterdam this week. More than 60% of trips in the city happen on bicycles, she told us. As the director of the Urban Cycling Institute at the University of Amsterdam, Glaser helped develop an online course called Unraveling the Cycling City, which aims to explain how the Dutch transformed their transportation infrastructure to bring the bike to the top of the mobility food chain. 

To tell that story — and show how other cities could follow the Dutch example — she led a group of neophyte riders on a field trip through the city’s streets at dawn.

Many of us were uneasy about setting off on an urban ride bare-headed. Why no helmets? “Look at the bikes you’re riding,” Glaser said.

We rolled out on standard-issue Dutch “black bikes” — utilitarian machines with big fenders, single gears and enclosed chains. Built for comfort and not speed, they allow the rider to sit upright; most riding mishaps are broken wrists, not head injuries, Glaser assured us.

In De Pijp, a now-gentrified former working-class neighborhood, it was easy to see why. We threaded through dense blocks of brick rowhouses on slim one-way streets, joined by only a handful of cars and delivery vans; bollards often foiled drivers entirely. In front of a small neighborhood school, we marveled at the stillness.

“This is hell driving in this neighborhood,” said Glaser, who once lived nearby. On one street, residents had taken their war on cars one step further, converting most vehicle parking spaces into patches of greenery, interspersed with bike corrals and a loading zone for neighborhood deliveries.

It’s not that cars were banned — in fact, for residents with private vehicles, the city built an underground garage nearby. But this maze of one-way thoroughfares leaves drivers at a severe disadvantage. Cars are obliged to pick their way warily through the city, cowed by thousands of tiny rivals. Near train stations, the scale of the bike takeover could be grasped — surrounding plazas were carpeted in heaps of bicycles; thousands more were stashed in underground garages.

For those from North American cities — where even the best cycle networks serve just a small fraction of the metro area and urban bike commuting is something reserved for the foolhardy and athletic — this role reversal was a source of endless wonder. We’d landed in a Planet of the Apes scenario, where bicycles had somehow evolved to be the dominant species.

But Glaser emphasized several times that Amsterdam’s bike-first approach wasn’t an accident of timing and culture but the deliberate product of policy changes that have come relatively recently in the city’s long history. In was only in the 1970s that a popular movement against rising traffic fatalities began to transform the country’s auto-oriented development patterns, and the crackdown on free parking and accompanying wave of parking-fee-funded bike infrastructure improvements didn’t arrive until the 1990s. Several times, Glaser produced before-and-after photos of specific streets, some less than a decade old, showing car-clogged streetscapes that could have been from any US city.

A few Dutch-specific factors helped this process along, Glaser noted. In addition to being very flat, Netherlands has no domestic automobile industry to lobby for car-only infrastructure, and its passenger rail network is so extensive that 85% of the population lives within biking distance of at least one station. The country boasts a robust pre-World War II bicycling culture, and its government’s command of land use can preempt the disputes between property owners and residents that delay or derail so many US transportation projects. More broadly, mobility and safety are universally understood to be public responsibilities — and the first priorities of any new development.

“There’s a deeply different collective government process here,” Glaser told us. “We’re two meters below sea level. That helps instill a sense of ‘We’re all in this together.’”

That doesn’t mean the Dutch bike takeover hasn’t drawn resistance. Equity tensions revolve around plans to drop speed limits and impose new rules on motor scooters, which are widely used by lower-income residents in distant suburbs. Those who cannot bike may find their housing options limited or their mobility needs unmet. The road network itself continues to evolve: Some cycle tracks are transforming into wider fietsstraten that allow a small amount of vehicle traffic, upsetting some traditional bike advocates. And grumbling about parking fees has an ageless ring that any US city leader would recognize.

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