In my sweetest dreams I see a city where everyone cycles – everywhere. No matter if you’re old or young, on your way to work or to the pub – you ride. This is what I do in Vancouver, and so do many of my friends. But a recent brief visit to Amsterdam made me realize how far Vancouver, and most other North American cities, still have to go.
A while ago, during one of the biggest June Critical Masses, where hundreds of cyclists take over the streets of Vancouver for one afternoon, we spoke to a group of cyclists from Holland who participated in a bike conference in Vancouver. We asked them if they have Critical Mass events in Amsterdam and they replied “we don’t need it, every day is a critical mass”. Back then I couldn’t even imagine what they meant, but now I can.
We landed in Amsterdam on a gray Sunday morning. With a nine hour layover we could happily go and explore the city. The first thing we noticed were parking lots, but not for cars. Rather huge bicycle parking lots, where thousands of bikes were piled in crowded rows. Most bikes were old, simple and with no gears. This is one of the advantages of a flat city. We also noticed that no one wears helmets. And indeed almost everyone rides: the old, the young, parents with babies, people returning from grocery shopping and a guy bringing flowers to a lover.
We spent most of our time just walking the streets along the canals. Some streets were completely blocked to motorized traffic and it was a pleasure not to worry about cars. It was quite cold and windy, so in order to keep warm we explored the endless cheese shops, both to look around and for some free cheese tastings. We learned how you really say Gouda (Chouda) and that it is named after a town in Holland. In fact, most cheeses are named after places. Eventually we bought a huge ball of Edam cheese at the supermarket (cheaper than the touristy cheese stores).
We were very tired and sleepy after the flight from Vancouver and the time difference, so some of our memories are a bit blurry. We even went into a small cafe (a regular one, not an Amsterdam “coffee shop”) so Gili could catch a quick nap. But one of the things I am sure of is that it wasn’t a dream – a city where people ride everywhere does exist, and we need to find a way to make it happen in more places around the world.
A lot of it is related to education and starting at an early age. There has to be a change in the mindset and an understanding that we are overly dependent on cars, and that we can have a happier and healthier lifestyle if we bike more, walk more and invest in public transportation, and in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Incidentally, back at the airport, I came across an article about city planning, which said that a city can be either car friendly or people friendly, but it can’t be both – just something to think about.
Our short visit to Amsterdam made us want more, and I am sure we’ll be back sooner rather than later to explore more of the country on bicycle!