Cycling in Amsterdam – does it live up to the hype?

Five years ago, I visited Copenhagen for the first time and was blown away by the sheer numbers of people cycling. It was truly awe-inspiring to stand by a busy central city street and just watch the thousands of riders go by (on the busiest cycle streets there, that could be more than 20,000 cyclists a day).

One of the busiest spots in Amsterdam – and this is not even rush-hour

Fast forward to my recent trip to The Netherlands and, while I saw a high proportion of people biking in every Dutch city I visited, I knew that for large absolute numbers I would require a trip to the largest city, Amsterdam. Given its reputation anyway (with over one-third of trips made by bikes, more in the central city), I think I had to see what the fuss was about.

Canals, bikes – very Amsterdam…

The greater Amsterdam urban area has a population of 1.5 million, and is invariably regarded as one of the top cycling cities in the world alongside Copenhagen. Interestingly the biennial Copenhagenize index of the best (large) cycling cities has just come out and rated that the latter had jumped over Amsterdam to gain the top spot on its rankings (I suspect that many other Dutch cities would stack up pretty well too, but there is a general minimum size for consideration of 600,000 people). The chief difference it was noted was the much greater ambition demonstrated by the Copenhagen municipality to continue growing their cycling numbers by various means; Amsterdam was deemed to be “resting on their laurels” a bit. But they’re pretty good laurels to be resting on…

Biking behind the parked cars (two-way in this case)

Like most Dutch cities, Amsterdam uses all the usual tricks in the book: separated cycleways, slow quiet streets, protected intersection crossings, etc. The additional challenge in some places is the extra pressure brought about by having a lot more bikes and motor vehicles in the same space (although of course again they try to discourage through-traffic on most non-arterial streets). And certainly parking doesn’t get any easier with that many bikes around…

The much photographed multi-storey bike parking building at Amsterdam Central station

One particular issue that is irking the Amsterdamers is the use of scooters on the pathways; the numbers are increasing and some of them were frankly far too fast when I was there. Amsterdam actually petitioned the Government to be allowed to remove scooters from cycleways, and that is now happening in some locations. Interesting to see a rising number of other diverse “mobility devices” on the pathways too.

What counts as a “scooter” these days is rather intriguing – these small mobility vehicles were quite popular

Busy intersections can make for very long signal phasing times to allow everyone their chance. That can increase the temptation to jump the lights. To try to address this at some of the busier sites, countdown timers have been introduced so that people cycling know how long they’ve got until it’s their turn.

Countdown timers display how long until the green light – but this rider can’t wait

There are some lovely parks around Amsterdam and cycling routes certainly take advantage of these corridors. It is notable in The Netherlands that few places have shared pathways, and that includes the parks. Often the cycleway feels more like a normal road, with the footpath up on a kerb, or there are at least separate coloured surfaces. Mind you, we are typically talking about considerably wider pathways than that usually found in Christchurch. When we start to get the peak pathway numbers that Amsterdam experiences, certainly we will need to consider separation (if not before).

Rembrandtpark – Colour is used to denote the separate walk/cycle areas

Again, there are so many things to see (I took over 200 photos), but here’s a snippet of some other interesting aspects:

Cars can go one way, bikes can go both ways
It’s all go for bikes at this intersection (note the small cycle signals down below)
Riding hand in hand is the Dutch thing – note too the separate footpath
All types of riders in central Amsterdam
Underpasses are typically generous of width and separated for pedestrians/bikes
If you need to get up some stairs, wheeling ramps on the sides allow your bike to get up easily
Through traffic with right of way over turning traffic
Urban roundabouts invariably have priority cycleways (and pedestrian crossings)
Vondelpark – Imagine getting from North Hagley to South Hagley Park across Riccarton Ave this way…
A turning bus waits for the riders to go past
That passing seems a bit tight – at least the speed environment is only 30km/h
Even in Amsterdam you can find painted on-road cycle lanes…
…and on-road approaches to busy intersections

So does Amsterdam live up to the hype? Well it actually gets a lot of serious competition from its smaller Dutch neighbours (some of which you’ve seen already; some I still have to show you), but arguably they have an easier job fitting bikes into the landscape when often there are fewer than 150,000 people to deal with. If you are comparing it to the many other “large” cities of the world (whether it be London, New York, Beijing, Auckland, etc) then it is certainly light years ahead of most of them.

Cycling underneath the famous Rijksmuseum is a popular route

What do you think of Amsterdam?

6 thoughts on “Cycling in Amsterdam – does it live up to the hype?”

  1. Nice report, and lucky you had a chance to visit these places.

    You’ve naturally highlighted a lot of the interesting eye-level design features, such as cross-sections, in this post. But I’m also curious about your take on the network structure in either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, as experienced on the ground.

    For instance, is there any connection between the type of treatment (such as painted lanes) and the path’s role in the wider network? Does the ubiquity of protected paths affect your perception of safety on a painted lane, as a user? Do the alternative routes figure in any way in your trip planning (as is supposed to happen with “quietways”)?

    I understand that in the Netherlands at least, there is guidance on how to plan the network across an area, including a principle of spacing or interleaving grids of routes. Was this evident in your experience?

    The bits through parks are interesting, especially to see that they avoid shared paths well off-road.


    1. Thanks for the feedback. Yes, after the various town visit descriptions, I am preparing an overall “lessons to learn from The Netherlands” post that certainly encompasses network planning issues. In fact, after the first few cities I was already seeing a consistent trend that just continued to repeat itself everywhere else.

      Occasionally we get the chance to do something completely from scratch (like my post about Houten’s planning) and that makes it easier to build in good cycle networks. The challenge is to incorporate them into existing cities (like those in NZ), but it’s the same challenge that the Netherlands faced 40 years ago.

  2. Great photos and blog. I’m really enjoying reading your posts. Haven’t been to Europe, but I have visited Christchurch a couple of times, at least! 🙂

  3. “It’s all go for bikes at this intersection (note the small cycle signals down below)” Interesting to note that we have the small signals at the intersections around the new Bus Interchange, but do not have the large overhead version.

    1. We do Rick- they were installed a few days ago. I’m glad they did, as the smaller ones which are attached to the posts are rather useless when approaching at speed. We now have about five bike signals on the approach to the interchange!

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