The idea of rush hour for most conjures up an image of cars lined nose to bumper as weary drivers make their daily commutes, but rush hour in Amsterdam is something quite different: instead, a sea of bikes smother congested little streets, taking dominance over vehicles which slug along behind in submission, and pedestrians, who either dart across the streets out of harm’s way or more often than not stand dazed and confused in the bike lanes only to receive an onslaught of abuse and bell rings (unsuspecting tourists are keen game for the irritated cyclist).
Cycling in Amsterdam is like a theatrical performance that must be executed seamlessly if one is to survive, and whilst at first glimpse the frenzied scene of bikes hurtling about the streets might appear to be pandemonium, upon close inspection there is an unconventional order within the chaos, an order which must be quickly absorbed by city newcomers. The following areas of etiquette ought to be taken into account for those taking to the streets with their newly purchased (or perhaps stolen) two-wheeled partners, if they wish to make a success of voyaging across the city.
In Amsterdam, bicycle bells are there to be used frequently, unabashedly, and pointedly. In places like Britain, bells tend to have a ‘last resort’ quality which renders them for the most part dormant, but not in the Dutch capital. The sheer number of bikes combined with a high volume of on-foot humans makes bell ringing a necessity for the sake of all in the vicinity. Whilst it might seem rather brash to be pinging away at nearly everything in sight, it’s a perfectly acceptable part of biking culture in Amsterdam, and the daily chorus of bells is soon normalised in the psyche: it is certainly worth investing a bit of money in acquiring a shrill, loud bell to make your presence known in the streets.
Bike brakes in the Netherlands have a rather unique way of operating: pedal brakes prevail over hand brakes, so if you’ve any hope of stopping, you better start pedalling backwards.Getting to grips with pedal brakes can take a little time: but if one thing becomes quickly apparent, it’s that braking at traffic lights with the pedals in the right place for take-off is a must, unless you want to hop along for a few metres like some sort of moronic rabbit as you correct the pedal positioning.
Cycling and rain go hand in hand in Amsterdam; as the main mode of transport in the city, cyclists can’t afford to shy away from their bikes due to a shower, and indeed 63% of Amsterdammers use their bike every day of the year (Monocle, October 2016). The result of perpetual rain is that Amsterdam’s bikes boast a colourful array of seat covers to protect the saddles from the rain. Seat covers can be found in either HEMA or Blokker (Amsterdam’s proliferating handy shops) or on market stalls for a cheap price. Even if you don’t have a seat cover, you might be lucky enough to return to your bike to discover that your saddle has been adorned with one, as advertisers often take advantage of bikes to market their products and services via branded seat covers, particularly around Central Station, where hundreds upon hundreds of bikes are locked up.
Aside from a snazzy cover, the sensible cyclist will also carry a raincoat – crucial unless you want to look like you just took a dip in the canal. Yet even the most robust of rain coats is not always able to protect bikers from the torrents, and for those wishing to avoid getting soaked all together, there are a number of rain foreboding apps which inform the user of when it might be safe to make a dash across the city in between the downpour! Either way, the Dutch are weather-hardened cyclists and will stop at nothing, and you, as a tourist or expat, will be the same if you wish in any way to become culturally assimilated.
The only rule as a cyclist in Amsterdam: there are no rules. Pedestrian crossings are probably the most obsolete road feature in existence, and traffic lights are only a suggestion. The result? Every man for himself. Cycling in Dam is survival of the fittest, and each individual must decide on the safest (or quickest) terms of navigation from point A to B.
What may come as a surprise, and perhaps even as a source of outrage, is that absolutely nobody wears helmets in Amsterdam: not children, not adults, not old people, not dogs (they’re often carted about in bike baskets), not-one-soul. Why remains somewhat of a mystery. Amsterdam prides itself on being ‘bike friendly’ and claims to have a low accident rate on account of the myriad of bike lanes which supposedly make cycling so attractive, accessible and safe. What is more likely however, is that the citizens of Amsterdam have made such an art out of falling off a bike that these days nobody deems such an event as an accident. Speak to a Dutch person about bike accidents, and they will most likely tell you that you’re not Dutch until you’ve had a crash or two.
Certainly there are plenty of hazards: pedestrians, other cyclists, motorbikes (get used to these sharing your precious narrow bike lane which is supposed to keep you so safe…), cars, car doors, lamp posts, wet roads, pigeons, and tram lines (these are particularly lethal – get your bike tyre wedged in one of these wheel-width indents and its game over). The frequency with which one must actively avoid collision gives Sartre’s mantra all the more poignancy: Hell is other people (on wheels).
Those big bulky locks serve a purpose; to protect your beloved transportation from falling prey to the underground bike dealer’s thieving hands. It really is a vicious, yet somehow self-legitimising circle: buy a stolen bike for a cheap rate > have it stolen > buy another stolen bike and so on. Of course, there are other more morally appeasable means to obtaining a bike in Amsterdam: many people sell bikes for low prices on various Facebook pages, and some bike shops offer second-hand rental bikes for a fairly reasonable price if you take the time to search for them. Bike theft is an embedded part of Amsterdam culture, and it’s certainly something to consider when choosing a lock!
A Very Dutch Experience
Ultimately, Amsterdam dwellers are so bike orientated that this notorious method of transportation forms a subculture of its own, and for all it’s idiosyncrasies, it is a lifestyle much-loved in a city so compact that there is no where unreachable by bike. Moreover, the amount of time per day spent cycling helps to limit emissions and keep people healthy (accidents aside). In Amsterdam, inhabitants spend so much time on their bikes that they practically become an extension of the human body, and this is definitely something to bear in mind, if you think living in the Netherlands may be for you!