Our trip to the cycling city Amsterdam
With our background in sustainable urban transformation, travelling to another city is no longer the same as it used to be. Even if the primary reason for travelling may not be official, the city shaper glasses always remain on the nose. Accordingly, we took a closer look at Amsterdam on the road. The Dutch capital has a rather positive reputation in sustainable urban development circles. Firstly, Amsterdam is considered a cycling city, and secondly, work has been underway there since 2020 to design the city along the lines of the doughnut approach. We also use their approaches in our counselling, which is why this is of particular interest to us. You can find more about the doughnut concept on this homepage in the description of our approaches & concepts.
The cycling city of Amsterdam, including the entire municipality, has a population of around 900,000, making it one of the larger cities in Europe. Like many larger cities in Europe, Amsterdam is striving for climate protection and sustainability, but still has a long way to go to achieve climate neutrality.
How mobility and space should be designed…
In this first article, we focus specifically on the topic of mobility. Our host, who has lived in Amsterdam for several years, describes the order of priority in Amsterdam’s traffic as follows: “Bicycles have the right of way, then cars [und Motorräder][and motorcycles], then pedestrians”. And that is exactly what can be felt in the city.
In the ideal case of a sustainable and above all people-oriented city (according to Jan Gehl and others), pedestrians would have priority. They are the most vulnerable ‘road users’ (note: we think pedestrian traffic is an unfortunate term) who should set the standard for mobility and especially for staying in public space. In general, our streets and squares should be optimised less for maximum speed in progress and more for a high quality of stay. Our book tip: ‘Movement – How to Take Back our Streets and Transform Our Lives’ by journalist Thalia Verkade and cycling professor Marco te Brömmelstroet.
If pedestrians and especially people with special mobility needs (e.g. in wheelchairs, with walking aids, or with buggies) are the measure of all things, our cities will directly become more inclusive, fairer and more relaxed. In addition, we create adequate cycle paths, e.g. for slightly longer distances and for transport. Adequate means: wide enough, without unnecessary obstacles, easy to use even for unsafe drivers and with sensible traffic routing. This is complemented by a suitable design of local public transport and ultimately of routes for other motorised traffic (with priority for emergency services, trades, etc.), at least on major roads.
We know that transport planners have to consider many details in the implementation. We support with our know-how to think beyond classical transport planning, to plan in an integrative and inclusive way and to incorporate enough forward-looking goal-oriented aspects in the (pre-)planning phase. Sustainable and resilient neighbourhoods and cities are created in joint work with various specialist departments and with our overview.
… and how they can be made even better even in the cycling city of Amsterdam
So much for the theory – now it’s time for the practical test: We took a rental bike in Amsterdam to meet our hostess in the city. The cycle paths in Amsterdam are basically already very good (especially compared to other cities) and they are used by very many people – also for transporting children or cargo. However, the driving style is often a bit rough – just like motorbike and car drivers – which makes driving exhausting. Especially for people who, like us, do not know the routes, this was strenuous, together with partly unclear traffic routing. I.e. mobility for bicycles is already above average in Amsterdam as a cycling city, but it could be made even more relaxed with more consideration for each other and above all with more space for pedestrians.
We also had to deal with a small difficulty with the bike itself. Because already at the first traffic light the question arose: How do I stop this bike? It didn’t have a classic brake. After a moment’s wonderment, we found the back pedal, which had a braking function. In Germany, we only knew this in combination with at least one handbrake. Because unfortunately, the backpedal alone only works as long as the feet operate the backpedal. As soon as you take it off the pedals to stop properly, the bike just keeps rolling. So it’s a case of quickly putting your feet on the ground to stop! If we had known that, we would have insisted on a bike with a handbrake – which is also available for hire. So for future visitors to Amsterdam: when renting a bike, pay attention to the type of brake.
The way back was a bit more relaxed due to swapping bikes with our hostess, who had hand brakes on her bike, and the fact that we only had to follow behind and not pay so much attention to the path. She also said that you have to get used to the driving style first, then it would become more pleasant.
By the way, there are now good rental bike systems in many European cities: This is not only practical for tourists and commuters, but also for residents who want to combine means of transport or use a bike spontaneously. We have already tested the systems in cities such as Paris, Valencia, Vienna and several German cities.
Conclusion: Good approaches to cycling and room for improvement in spatial design
Amsterdam has a comparatively (very) good cycle path infrastructure and a broader understanding of cycle use. However, the city will only achieve its sustainability and climate protection goals when priorities are practically changed as described above and a more considerate culture is also established. This also includes a significant reduction in car traffic, which also takes up a lot of space due to parking, just like in other cities. Creating space for bicycles is a very good step that other municipalities can learn from the cycling city Amsterdam.
In the future, the structures there should be designed even better, especially for pedestrians. The quality of stay can be improved by traffic calming, more seating, more greenery, heat and rain protection for footpaths and cycle paths, meeting places for people such as picnic tables and table tennis tables, etc. WeMaCo supports local actors in the planning and implementation of such comprehensive transformations, which encompass all important aspects of sustainable urban design.
Overall, it is important for Amsterdam and other cities to recognise: Improving cycle lanes is an important step – without a more fundamental rethinking of urban mobility and space use and without a cultural change to sustainability and empathy in (urban) society, this is not yet sufficient for a regenerative and liveable city of the future.