Steps toward bikes not cars

By Nick Van Mead 11 August 2016, originally posted at The Guardian

Rush-hour bike jams, speeding scooters, ignorant tourists … Amsterdam may be the world’s busiest cycling capital but it is no two-wheeled paradise. ‘Bicycle mayor’ Anna Luten is working to smooth conflict and export the lessons learned.

Anna Luten - the bicycle mayor of Amsterdam
Anna Luten – the world’s first ‘bicycle mayor’. Photograph: Nick Van Mead

Amsterdam’s new cycling mayor, Anna Luten, barely slows as she nears a junction by one of the city’s central canals. Cyclists are approaching fast from six directions – bells tinging, hair flowing stylishly in the light breeze (no one here wears a helmet). As I catch up the crisscross of bikes almost looks synchronised, as if local riders navigating the narrow, winding streets of the historic centre have an innate understanding of their complex flows and patterns.

Cycling is something the capital has become world famous for over the past 40 years and a whole generation of Amsterdammers have grown up so used to cycling that they have learned the skills necessary to effortlessly go with the flow – to be hyper-aware of their surroundings yet appear natural, says Anna. Like most Dutch children she cycled to school every day, helmet-free, and hasn’t looked back since her stabilisers came off.

But while Amsterdam is synonymous with bikes and the ubiquitous Omafiets step-through roadster, it is less of a cycling nirvana than smaller Dutch cities like Utrecht and Groningen. We are touring the city in the middle of the day when the traffic is light. Come back in rush hour – or at a location popular with tourists unfamiliar with the city’s unwritten cycling rules – and it doesn’t work so well, she says.

There are so many bikes – an estimated 1 million for a population of 1.1 million – that rush-hour bike jams frequently force cyclists to stop at every junction on major routes into the centre. “For Amsterdammers it’s frustrating,” says Anna. “Some parts of the city are just too busy – there are too many bikes, too many scooters, too many cars, too many pedestrians. There’s no space. It is a big source of conflict.”

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The complex flows of cycling and pedestrians near the IJ waterfront behind Central Station

Indeed, while bikes account for an estimated 68% of journeys made in the city centre, they are allocated just 11% of infrastructure space, with cars getting 44%. There are further flashpoints around the relative lack of cycle parking (“Tourists love taking photos of bikes chained to canal bridges but the council hates it,” says Anna) and the use of bike lanes by scooters, which are heavier, wider and faster than bicycles. Moves to ban scooters from cycle paths nationally are currently going through parliament in the Hague – but just as that issue nears a possible conclusion, the introduction of electric bikes which can reach speeds of 30mph is threatening to create new problems.

Smoothing out these conflicts by improving communication between cycling groups, the council, city planners and other residents is where the new bicycle mayor comes in. The idea grew out of a Cycle Hack proposal by advocacy group CycleSpace to build on the success of the city’s night mayor Mirik Milan, who has won plaudits for navigating the tricky path between the city’s ever-expanding night economy and the residents and officials who would sometimes rather it didn’t exist. After 17 video applications and a public vote to narrow the field, a jury of city officials and bike advocates last month chose Anna as his cycling counterpart. Unlike other cities which may have bicycle commissioners, chief bicycle officers or cycle tsars, Amsterdam’s ‘bicycle mayor’ – although unelected – is independent.

But how difficult can it really be to sell cycling in the world’s busiest biking capital? “It is harder than it sounds,” laughs Anna, who juggles her voluntary mayoral responsibilities with those of her day job as a brand manager for Giant’s LIV range for female cyclists. “Cycling is so normal for us that it becomes boring and we forget about it, we neglect it. It’s not an identity like it is in other countries and cities – it’s just the way people get around – so, while we are ahead of a lot of other cities we still have to work at cycling to maintain our position, and to improve for future generations. At the moment, many people in Amsterdam think ‘because we ride a bike we own the roads’. We like to think we go with the flow, but sometimes we are actually quite rude. There are almost too many cyclists and bikes. If it goes on like this people will stop cycling because it won’t be safe.”

Anna takes me to Kinkerstraat, a shopping street to the west of the centre where local retailers are up in arms over work to ban cars and introduce a wider cycle lane. “Even in Amsterdam, shopkeepers think their customers come by car but that’s not true,” says Anna. “It’s stuck in their minds and we need to change that.”

Then it’s on to Mahlerplein, a state-of-the-art cycle parking facility in the southern financial district complete with a travelator and space for 3,000 bikes. Cycle parking is such an issue that the city is building facilities for in excess of 30,000 bikes near the central station by 2030, including underwater parking beneath the IJ waterfront and more on floating manmade islands.

Much of Amsterdam’s road and parking space remains allocated to cars.
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Much of Amsterdam’s road and parking space remains allocated to cars. Photograph: Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The issue of how to get cyclists from central Amsterdam – across the IJ – to the fast-developing suburbs to the north is another potential source of conflict. Unless they want to detour a few miles east via the Schellingwouderbrug crossings, the only way across the water for cyclists is by ferry – free and picturesque maybe, but time consuming for commuters. A new tunnel looks too expensive given the city’s marshy soil, while talk of a new bridge has angered harbour operators who fear the lucrative cruise industry could lose out.

And not everyone in Amsterdam shares Anna’s lifelong connection with the bicycle. Increasing numbers of people living out in the city’s suburbs or in areas like Nieuw West with high immigrant populations do not have a history of cycling and often drive their children to school. “Many of these parents think cycling is dangerous, and when those kids hit 16 they get scooters, not bicycles,” says Maud de Vries, co-founder of the CycleSpace group which runs the Cycle Mayor programme. “Cycling gives children such a sense of freedom – and of course it’s great for health and happiness and stress – but it is not seen as cool in some areas and we need to work on that.”

“These are big problems,” says Anna. “At other times it’s minor – like the new trend for fat wheels means they don’t fit in old bike racks. Normally, if you want to get something changed it is hard to be heard as an individual, but now people are coming to me with problems and I have the ears of those in power. I don’t have an opinion or a solution for everything, but it is about communication and city hall have been very receptive. We need to keep innovating or we’ll fall behind.” That innovation may take the form of covered bike lanes allowing business people to cycle to work in the rain without ruining their suits, or new signs to show tourists where to find safe cycling streets. “The willingness to experiment is key,” she adds.

Next CycleSpace plans to export the concept of an independent bicycle mayor to 25 cities around the world – with interest so far from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Beijing, Chicago and Warsaw – and a congress planned in the Netherlands for 2017 to share ideas and knowledge.

“I don’t know if we’re still number one, or if Copenhagen is ahead, but to me that rivalry isn’t important so long as each city is a good place to cycle,” adds Anna. “Cycling has the power to transform. I dream and hope that in 20 or 50 years from now there could be more cities like Amsterdam, where cycling is so normal and accepted that we’re not really aware of it.”