Watch Out for Bicycles in Amsterdam

Amsterdam – 881,000 Bicycles and Counting

Not two minutes after I stepped off the bus from the airport, my girlfriend yanked me back up onto a curb. Before I had time to be startled, a bike whizzed past in a blur, missing me by less than an inch. “You have to be careful of the bicycles in Amsterdam. We cycle everywhere.” She pointed out dedicated lanes paved with red brick in the streets and on the sidewalks, cautioning me to look both ways for bikes, even before considering motor vehicle traffic.

Bicycles in Amsterdam coming out of the tunnel at the Rijksmuseum nearly run me over

Bicycles in Amsterdam coming out of the tunnel at the Rijksmuseum nearly run me over

Indeed, everywhere I went for the next ten days I was surrounded by two-wheeled demons. Men in suits, strangled by wind-driven skinny ties, pedaled furiously to offices with messenger bags strapped across their chests. Businesswomen cycled in skirts and spiked heels. Workmen carried supplies in wheelbarrow-shaped bins mounted to the front of the bicycles and, sometimes, benches added inside these same bins were used by mothers to deliver children to school. Lovers cycled to parks, grandmas and grandpas cycled to the market, brave tourists wobbled around on tandem bikes, and everyone cycled to the bars for a beer at the end of the day.

Crossing the street in Amsterdam was a nervous affair. I never quite got used to looking both ways before stepping off a curb into the red-brick bike lane, then looking both ways again for vehicle traffic. Inevitably, upon reaching the far side, I would forget to look both ways a third time before crossing the bike lane going in the opposite direction. Only by the grace of God – and the dexterity of the cyclists – did I manage to avoid a major collision.

No canal view in Amsterdam is complete without an obligatory bicycle resting against the bridge railing

No canal view in Amsterdam is complete without an obligatory bicycle resting against the bridge railing

A few days into my trip I was flipping through the information packet provided by Amsterdam Tourism and learned that there are 881,000 bicycles in the city, and that 58% of residents cycle daily. Considering that the city’s population, including those too young to ride a bike, is only about 811,000, that number is remarkable. It certainly explained why it was impossible to safely look up, unless I was standing well away from any hint of red bricks.

Another canal, another collection of parked bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Another canal, another collection of parked bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands

And in Amsterdam, one must look up! Charming bridges over narrow canals and intricate gabled roofs demand upward gazes. Without glancing skyward, I never would have realized that many of the houses intentionally lean forward. Built narrow and high to minimize taxes (which were based on the amount of street frontage a building occupied), many of the the houses are too narrow to allow furniture to be hauled up interior staircases. Instead, a hook and cable attached to the peak of the roof are used to winch larger items up and through windows. The forward tilt insures that furniture does not crash into the front of the building.

Hundreds, if not thousands of bicycles in Amsterdam are parked at every major city destination

Hundreds, if not thousands of bicycles in Amsterdam are parked at every major city destination

Near the end of my stay, I was blissfully floating down a canal on one of Amsterdam’s many tour boats when our guide broached the subject of cyclists. “It’s said that the bricks of our bike lanes are stained red with the blood of tourists.” I didn’t doubt him for a moment. Thankfully, not one drop of it was mine.

10 Comments on “Amsterdam – 881,000 Bicycles and Counting

  1. Hi Barbara, you should visit Rotterdam! There are a lot of bikes here too, but following the bombings of 1940, the city had to be rebuilt again, resulting in more modern, spacious – and safer – urban planning. Also, there’s an interesting mix of architecture and it’s the only city here in the Netherlands with a skyline. In general I can highly recommend visiting other places in the Netherlands, such as The Hague, Utrecht, and Groningen, which are less known than Amsterdam, but definitely not less special. 🙂

    • Hi Puck. I’ve been to Den Hague, but Rotterdam and Utrecht are both on my wish list. I’ll probably be there next spring. Have to check into Groningen, thought. Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. That is one thing I found out the hard way. The cyclists can be lethal in Amsterdam. It is great they are limited with cars etc, but a real lesson in watching out around you so you do not get run over haha.

    • It sure took a lot of getting used to for me, Tez. I wouldn’t want to live with it 24/7.

  3. I had no idea the houses leaned forward, ingenious! But isn’t 881000 bikes a bit too much? Is there any bike traffic issues? (Besides being careful when crossing the street… there’s a tip someone absent minded like me could use…)

    • Hi Sandra – that was my problem; I kept forgetting I had to look out for the bike lanes. Basically, the bikes own the road in Amsterdam. If you hit one while driving a car, you’re almost automatically at fault.

  4. I’m glad you navigated the streets of Amsterdam safely! I’m finding more cities are supporting cycling and are very avid bikers. Both Copenhagen and Berlin are two I’ve read about that use bicycle for transportation and I think it’s great for sustainability!

    • I do love the sustainability of bicycling, Brooke, but Amsterdam was just over the top in a way that made walking slightly dangerous. I suppose I’d get used to it, if I lived there for any length of time.

  5. If you live in Amsterdam, you’re probably used to all the bicycles. But if you don’t, it probably feels as dangerous as having a whole lot of cars whizz by. Strange! But better cycle traffic than car traffic… Interesting how the houses are built so furniture can be hoisted up!

    • Yep, I did indeed get more used to them as time went by, Sand in My Suitcase, and they are a better option that cars for sure, but I’m not convinced I would ever get totally conditioned to them!

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