Amsterdam canals

E&M’s Fernando Burgés explores the highs and lows of European cycling culture from Copenhagen to Brussels via Amsterdam.

The flat topography of a city does help, no doubt. A vast network of cycle paths clearly marked, traffic lights coordinated in favour of cyclists, respectful car-drivers and a parking-lot for 10,000 bikes in front of the central station as well. Yet, it is something else that makes cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen known for their bicycle culture. 

Cycling is as obvious as water is for fishes, I was told once at a Dutch bike repair shop. Indeed, children in The Netherlands and Denmark are exposed to an intimate relationship with the two wheels as soon as they get to know the world, with special seats on “bakfiets”.  Over time, bikes become such an integral part of their everyday lives that, as a foreigner, you realize that cycling is not even “a thing” for them. It simply is what it is, as if there was no other possible way. Try asking about it to one of them and you will most likely hear back: I am not a cyclist; I am just Dutch/Danish!

Bicycle-Culture Integration in Amsterdam and Copenhagen

Any travel guides about Amsterdam and Copenhagen has an entire section dedicated to explain the phenomenon to foreigners. “Go local, ride a bike!” they all say. More than with the number of users, recently arrived in Amsterdam I was particularly struck with the outstanding free-hands riding skills of the locals – read: the left one holds the umbrella while the right texts. 

The integration ritual into the bicycle culture follows two straightforward basic steps: first you buy a second-hand bike, then you throw yourself into the wild. Not much in between. At the beginning, crossings at rush hours are scary and the need to dodge at short-notice a life threatening experience. As time went by, I became more acquainted with biking etiquettes. Letting pass if not in the mood for racing, when is socially acceptable to ring the bell, tricks on how to ride with a drunk friend on the rear rack safely and, most importantly, how to become oblivious to weather adversities. 

Cycling is as obvious as water is for fishes, I was told once at a Dutch bike repair shop.

Two years later, already duly assimilated within the local mindset and thinking that I had already seen everything about it, I came across a school bus and realized that the Dutch have no limits when it comes to cycling. It turns out that the “bus”, in fact, was a bicycle, and its wagon contained eight happy singing children! 

Going against the motorised-centric model that is widespread in most of both the Western and Oriental world, urban centers like Amsterdam and Copenhagen ended up like this not by chance, but due to a combination of bottom-up mobilisation and political will. 

The Dutch Velo-Revolution and the Copenhagenisation

History tells that the safety of children was the turning point of the cycle culture in The Netherlands. Bicycles were the main mean of transportation until the car-boom hit the country in the 50’s.  In order to accommodate roads designed for cars, cyclists were squeezed on the margins of the streets. Along with the new four-wheel paradigm, a sharp rise in the number of deaths on the roads surprised the Dutch population – especially the numerous cases of child victims. When it became clear that the accidents would not de-escalate by themselves, a social movement entitled Stop the Child Murder took over the streets to demand safer cycling conditions. The mobilisation was so successful that the Dutch government attended public demand and re-orientated its car-centric road building in favour of a proper cycling infrastructure. Not surprisingly, number of deaths decreased as the new urban bicycle-structure was being erected. 

A bit further north, in the Danish capital, the number of road deaths in comparison with other European cities is as low as Amsterdam. In Copenhagen, about 63% of its inhabitants use their bicycles to go to work. From 2008 to 2011, the city was elected by the International Cycling Union as the first official Bike City in the world and became a role model for other cities.  

The main architect and urban planner responsible for the design strategy known as “Copenhagenization” is Jan Gehl. Now a worldwide reference for other aspirant cities such as New York, Seattle, San Francisco, London, Stockholm, Oslo, Melbourne, Sydney and Amman, Gehl passed on the lessons learnt from the experience gained in Copenhagen. Beyond offering infrastructure, the Copenhagenization is about reconquering our cities. How? Improving pedestrian and cycle networks; the quality of public space to invite behavioural change and inviting people to spend more time out in public spaces, he contends. 

The fact that bicycles dominate the streets in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen means that they shape the dynamics of the traffic and the way people interact with it and with each other. Evidently, cyclists can be mean too and you might be run over a couple of times by fast and furious riders. It is unquestionable, however, that the destructive potential of a bicycle accident is tiny compared to car crashes. Furthermore, in a social space where almost everyone cycles or knows someone who does, drivers tend to be more sympathetic to cyclists. 

The cases of Amsterdam and Copenhagen show that state-sponsored policies are fundamental for creating a sustainable bicycle friendly city. Beyond offering its citizens with a structure to ride safely, these cities promote policies that actually encourage one to opt bicycles rather than any other transportation.  In Copenhagen, bicycles are rent-free, all taxis have racks for carrying two bikes and you can bring yours on S-trains at any time. Amsterdam, in turn, perhaps more than encouraging the use of bike per se, the municipality discourages using cars. Parking one in the street is so expensive and the car lanes so narrow that it is actually a terrible idea to own a motorised vehicle there. 

Brussels: Cycling Next Level

If Amsterdam and Copenhagen represent the highest standard in cycling mobility, how is life on two wheels in other European capitals where the perfect conditions for a smooth ride simply don’t exist? Full of slopes, large avenues and tons of cars, Brussels is a great example to draw this comparison.

Brussels’ cycle hire scheme mirrors that in many European cities | Photo: JT (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Following two years living in Amsterdam, I moved to Brussels with spoiled biking habits. After the initial shock, the realization: assessing how bike-friendly the city is can be tricky. Special cycles paths do exist, but you cannot really understand its criteria. Often, riding for blocks over a nicely demarcated lane you may suddenly find yourself adrift, amidst a hostile intersection with massive traffic. Even worse, in some streets a demarcation with painted bicycles on the road serve as a warning  without legal force  for drivers that bicycles might ride there too. 

Cycling in Belgium is actually a national passion, but mostly as a sport. Apparently, it still hasn’t become a habit to use a bike instead of a car to reach short distances. Although around 65% of Brussels residents are happy with the city’s bike-rental system Villo!  according to the a survey conducted by #CyclingExpats  most users don’t feel safe at all about riding in the streets. 

Despite hostile drivers and poor infrastructure, interesting initiatives are emerging. The Bike Experience Belgium is a project aimed at encouraging Brussels residents to commute by bike and leave their cars at home. During an intensive three day training, a coach offers theoretical inputs and practical tips on how to behave and understand the traffic. Not only that but also during the first two weeks, the coach guides the future-bikers candidates on their way from home to work. Supported by several cycling associations in Brussels, the initiative has consolidated what hopes to be a new paradigm in Brussels’ mobility.

In cities where there has been a growing desire to move towards a cycle-centric urban design, the top demands are the creation of safer cycle paths, the expansion of car-free zones and to raise awareness about the direct impacts that the Copenhagen-model offers. The way a city moves determines much of how its inhabitants behave and feel. Beyond a sport or a means of transportation, bicycle-friendly policies promote emotionally healthier cities. 

Cover photo: Diego Portela (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • retro

    Fernando Burgés is originally from Brazil. Former editor of Europe&Me, he has lived and worked in Brussels for more than four years.

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