Molly Hayward – University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Before I moved to The Netherlands of course I heard how much cycling went on in Amsterdam. It was one of the things that drew me to come here. However, the city has far surpassed what I could have imagined in terms of both, the cultural relationship with cycling, and the infrastructure built up around this culture. This post is going to go over some of the ways biking is facilitated in Amsterdam, how this differs from the UK and some suggestions of things that can help you when cycling around the city.
First of all, Dutch bikes aren’t like English bikes. They have no hand breaks. This was something we all found hard to fathom at first. Instead they have these backwards peddling breaks; you reverse pedal to break. It took about two weeks of wearing away my shoes and nearly crashing into things to get the hang of these, but now it makes total sense.
The only way this works really, is that there are no hills here. The only hills you will find in Amsterdam are the canal bridges. These can be horrible to go up on a bike, and you don’t want to have to pause either going up, or coming down. Getting a good run up is also advised – especially if carrying shopping bags.
This leads me to my first recommendation: Pannier bags. These are bags that hang on the sides of your bike. It took me a while to get mine but they have vastly improved my biking experience. Before when I went shopping I would cycle home with shopping bags on my handle bars, hitting against the tyres and getting ripped up. My bag was from ‘Blokker’ and was about 18 euros. I couldn’t recommend them more.
Along with no breaks, there are rarely gears on a classic Dutch city bike. Again, this is linked to the lack of hills. This has further led to the distinction between a off-road/’racer’ bike, and the city bike. The off-road bike is more like most UK bikes, it has a crossbar and gears etc. The Dutch city bike has a more laid back frame, you sit further back, the handlebars are wider and this changes your posture. People look more relaxed on bikes here, they aren’t hunched over the frame, because with no hills you don’t really need to.
This leads to the next point: people multi-task while biking. People carry all sorts on their bikes, I’ve seen multiple people carrying furniture around. People take calls, eat snacks, have social interactions cycling in pairs. The only thing you’re legally not allowed to do is be actively on your phone.
This leads me to my next recommendation: either a phone holder for your bike or Bluetooth headphones. With headphones you can have google directing your turns, but even better is if you can stick your phone on the handlebars and look at directions as you go.
Another variation in bikes is that most of them have kick-stands. This links to the way bikes are treated in Amsterdam: quite often bike parks are just lines drawn on the pavement. People just line their bikes up all resting on their stands. This mean you can pretty much park your bike anywhere, and the pavement is littered with them. They line the sides of streets, more than you would imagine.
Another way the Dutch accommodate for bikes is the frequency of bike lanes. Rarely are you not cycling on a bike lane here. On smaller roads, where there are few cars anyways, they tend not to have them, mainly because the roads are so narrow, but generally bikes have their own crossings, lanes, and traffic lights. This make it far less scary – once you get used to how it all interacts. The only downside I have to make about this is, motorbikes will use the bike lanes. This can be quite scary as they go a lot faster and will take any opportunity to overtake.
This leads to my final point: bikes generally have priority here. This is evidenced even in the way that their main municipal park is set up. Vondelpark’s main throughway is for bikes. Pedestrians walk on the side paths. This is mirrored on roads; generally people and cars will give way to bikes. This does mean that when walking you have to be alert, but again, once you’re used to it it just seems to work.
Cycling in Amsterdam has been so fun – especially on a sunny day. It makes getting anywhere is so much easier – we even cycle to the club here, something again that blew my mind initially.
All this to say: definitely get a bike if you choose to study here. It’s worth it.