On our first afternoon in Amsterdam, I took a walk down Marnixstraat, where our hotel is located, and I saw a large group of bikers going down the street. My first thought was that it was a bike club traveling through the city, but then I took a look around, and saw bikes rolling up and down the roads everywhere. Everywhere in their designated area, that is. Wherever you go, there is a serious, well-marked bike path on both sides of the street. Riders stream by, heads held high, all the while casually smoking, eating, or checking social media on their phones, with their hair streaming along behind them. No one wears a helmet.
The idea of a bike path does suggest a safe, controlled environment, but it is not quite as simple and orderly as that. At times the sidewalk is fair game, too. I noticed a woman on her bike a couple of feet away, trying to position herself with her companions, who were located up the street from where she was. But in order to get there on the bike path, she would have had to cross the busy street, ride a few yards down, then cross back to her companions. So she ran her bike slowly toward us, front wheel wobbling from side to side, looking like she might knock someone down at any moment. But passersby hardly looked up. The constant presence of bikers is simply a fact of life here.
According to the website iamsterdam.com, there are an estimated 800,000 bicycles in the city, and 63 percent of Amsterdammers use their bike every day. The site 13 Fun Facts about Bicycles in Amsterdam estimates that combined, Amsterdammers “bicycle about two million kilometers every day”.
Bicycles really dominate the traffic here, in terms of sheer numbers alone, but there are also special protections afforded cyclists by local statutes. According to one local resident I spoke to, bicycles have the right of way over pedestrians. I have not checked the books to verify this claim, but what I have observed bears this out. If you cross the street, you’re as likely to be surprised by a speeding bicycle coming out of nowhere as you are by an automobile or a tramway car. They swarm around motor vehicles, ride over the tramway tracks, and jet across the sidewalk as necessary to get to where they want to go. More than one Uber driver we hired has made soft clucking sounds — or more audible sounds resembling swear words — when a bike suddenly darted in front of us. You may appreciate why we have chosen not to drive in this city.
A bicycle parking area is a sight to behold. Bikes, sometimes on multiple levels, are crammed a few inches apart, hundreds of bikes in a single rack, and you wonder how you would ever find your bike in this mess. There are around 250,000 racks in public parking spaces alone (more in private areas), and if you ride around town, you will need to deal with these. The sight of these racks is a little like the racks at a ski lodge, where everybody props their skis and poles before running into the lodge for lunch.
Incidentally, bicycle theft is a thing in this city: in 2014, a grand total of 9,616 bikes were reported stolen, which works out to 26 a day. The local residents I talked to speak about it casually, as an inevitable consequence of bicycling’s popularity. Part of that is a kind of pragmatism that is characteristic of Amsterdammers: if you want to bike, protect it or expect it to be stolen. And as always they go, hair blowing behind them as they ride swiftly away.