For a conscientious helmet-wearer like me, it was shocking to see that hardly anybody in Amsterdam wears a bicycle helmet, not even the children.
After asking around a bit, I learned that Dutch traffic planners decided years ago not to make helmets a part of their safety package.
Their reasoning: If you tell people to wear helmets they are likely to get the impression that cycling is too dangerous or uncomfortable, and stop doing it altogether. This results in more automobile use, more congestion, more pollution, more noise, more accidents, more deaths and injuries, less exercise and more heart attacks. In short, the negative results of a helmet campaign far outweigh the benefits.
The Dutch approach to bicycle safety is to invest in the infrastructure and in the education of everyone who uses the streets. They have also made some progress towards allocating public street space more fairly, meaning roughly one-quarter each for pedestrians, trams, bicycles and motor vehicles. To accomplish this took (and takes) hard work and persistence, since it was (and is) opposed every step of the way by the powerful lobbies that promote excessive automobile use at the expense of public health and safety.
Two more lessons of Dutch bicycle policy:
• There is safety in numbers. The greater the number of cyclists on the roads, the safer they are.
• There is safety in skill and competence. If people cycle a lot, starting in early childhood and continuing throughout their lives, they are bound to get very good at it.
Second, third and fourth photos: Young cyclists without helmets.
Fifth photo: This is the only child I saw wearing a helmet. (I did see three or four adults wearing helmets, but I suspect they were foreigners like me.)
Bikes are essential when thinking of Amsterdam! They are literally everywhere; on the curb, parked on bridges, dumped in canals, hanging on lampposts …
Whenever I used to visit my friends in Amsterdam we used bikes every single day, simply because it’s the easiest and quickest way to move around in the city. In the early morning it’s nice and calm but on my way back the streets are filled with people and I have to use my Amsterdam cycling skills to dodge tons of people that suddenly cross the streets.
Rain is sometimes one of the few reasons for not using a bike. On those days a lot of people bike to Central Station and head for the subway. Now the place where used to park my ride is quite special. It’s a floating tower that can contain up to 2500 bikes but usually stores more. Sometimes it feels like every Amsterdam bicycle is parked here at the same time. Which makes the challenge of finding that one available parking spot on the ground floor extra tempting. I liked to watch all the early birds arriving with sleepy eyes and parking their bikes and even more so I loved watching people walking back and forth at the end of the day looking for their bikes like a needle in a haystack (happened to me more times than I had wished for).
Tip -> I heard from someone else: Should you place your bike inside this tower then it might be handy to take a picture of your bike and the scenery behind it. This will help retrieve your bike!
One of the many advantages of bicycles is that they take up much less space than cars do, both on the roads and when they are parked.
In the first photo you can see the typical Dutch bicycle stands. The front wheel is higher for every second bike, so they can park more bikes in less space. Note also that it is always possible to lock your frame and front wheel onto the stand, unlike the useless rim-killer stands that you often find in Germany.
Some people claim to find parked bicycles an eyesore, but these are obviously people with no aesthetic sensibility, LOL.
Second photo: Parked bicycles near the station.
Third photo: Bicycle parking on a street in Amsterdam. In this case it wouldn't hurt to install a couple dozen more bike stands.
Fourth photo: A couple of bikes on a canal bridge. Note that the cars parked along the canal take up much more space that the bicycles do.
Fifth photo: Always be careful to lock you bike to something, otherwise it might end up in a canal like this one.
Visitors to Amsterdam often have the impression that there are bicycles everywhere, but that is not true because street space has been carefully divided up between bicycles, pedestrians, trams and motor vehicles. Just as everyone else has to keep off the bicycle lanes, it is important that we cyclists get off our bikes and walk when we get to one of the clearly marked pedestrian zones, or use a parallel street which will probably be reserved for cyclists.
Second photo: This street, the Reguliersbreestraat between Rembrandtplein and Muntplein, is reserved for pedestrians and trams. No bicycle riding or parking is allowed, and deliveries only from 7 to 11 in the morning.
Third photo: Afstappen means dismount. I usually ignore these signs in Germany, but in the Netherlands they are only put up when there is a very good reason, such as protecting the rights of pedestrians.
Fourth photo: Here cyclists and pedestrians are separately routed around a construction site on an Amsterdam street. I was highly impressed by this, because in Germany most construction sites have no provision for anybody getting by, except automobiles.
When you ride around Amsterdam you will soon notice that Dutch cyclists generally have no hesitation about transporting extra people on their bicycles.
This is another one of those things that are fine for the Dutch, who have been cycling daily since early childhood, but are not advisable for the rest of us.
In fact when you rent a bike in Amsterdam, one of the rules (at least at Holland Rent-a-Bike) is that you do not take along any extra passengers.
Second and third photos: More cyclists with passengers.
Fourth and fifth photos: Two on a bike and phoning.
The Muntplein is a large amorphous square where three major streets, and a number of minor ones, all come together.
It is infested with automobiles, but that doesn't stop cyclists, trams and pedestrians from using it as equal partners.
Of course wherever tram tracks and cyclists share street space you have to be careful not to get your front wheel caught in one of the tracks. This happened to me once, decades ago, while I was coming down off a bridge on a rainy day in Bern, Switzerland, and I had an embarrassing fall. (Luckily it was only embarrassing, and nothing worse.)
Additional photos: More cyclists at the Munt.
...even though the Dutch don't.
For one thing, I don't cycle only in the Netherlands, but mainly in other countries where the infrastructure isn't as good and cyclists aren't as numerous.
My decision to wear a helmet was influenced by what happened to two of my colleagues in Frankfurt am Main.
One was a middle-aged man who fell off his bike for unknown reasons while riding slowly through a parking lot. He was not wearing a helmet, came down head first on the asphalt and was in and out of hospitals for months. I don't think he ever completely recovered.
The other was a young colleague named Annerose who was cycling home late at night after teaching an English class. She was riding past a row of parked cars when suddenly a car door opened and sent her sprawling over four lanes of a city street. She got some bruises, but we all assumed (rightfully or not) that her helmet had saved her from serious injury. I went out and bought one the next day.
(Hi Annerose. If you ever happen to read this, please join VirtualTourist and leave me a message.)
Later, my helmet once saved me from a head injury while I was riding through a narrow tunnel and had to swerve suddenly, hitting my head or rather my helmet on the tunnel wall. The helmet absorbed the shock and I was not injured in any way.
On the other hand, I realize that a helmet can prevent only head injuries, but not other kinds. In over sixty years of cycling I have only been knocked off my bike once by a car (good record, huh?), and when that happened I landed on my hand, not my head, so I had a strained wrist for a couple weeks. Nothing serious, fortunately, but you should have seen what my bike looked like!
Additional photos: More people cycling in Amsterdam without helmets.
Update 2008: While I still consider a helmet to be a sensible precaution, especially for children and for us elderly folks, I would no longer refrain from cycling just because I didn't happen to have a helmet with me.
And I have come to agree with the Dutch (see previous tip) that mandatory helmet laws are totally unproductive, because the damage caused by not cycling far outweighs any slight increase in safety that a helmet might bring.
Here are two very interesting links on bicycle safety:
Although the cycling infrastructure is better in Amsterdam than in most cities, if you cycle there you will be involved in city traffic.
If you are not used to this you might prefer to take a bike tour where you will be looked after, rather than cycling on your own.
For an experienced cyclist, however, Amsterdam is an exhilarating place, despite the traffic. There are so many other people on bikes that you aren't just part of an embattled minority, and even the automobiles don't seem to stink as much because the exhaust fumes are dispersed by fresh salty breezes from the nearby sea.
Additional photos: More people cycling in city traffic in Amsterdam.
For more information on everyday cycling in Amsterdam, have a look at this brilliant film Bicycle Anecdotes from Amsterdam by Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms.
There are numerous places to rent bicycles in Amsterdam. I have only tried two of them so far, and was satisfied with both, but Holland Rent-a-Bike was the better of the two.
It is in the basement of a large building on the Damrak called Beurs van Berlage, and is a five minute walk from the central station. They not only rent bikes, but also buy, sell, repair and store them. (But they don't buy stolen bikes, as a big sign in the shop says.)
Their bikes are in very good condition and do not have signs on them, so you don't look like a tourist when you are riding around -- unless you wear a helmet like I do, which is a dead giveaway. They provided the helmet, by the way, and also a good lock, a loud bell and a basket.
You have to leave a deposit, but this can be in the form of a signed credit card slip which they give back to you when you return the bike.
Second photo: The building Beurs van Berlage was originally built from 1897 to 1903 as a stock exchange. It is now used for concerts and exhibitions, and of course Holland Rent-a-Bike is in the basement.
Third photo: I also rented once from Dam-Bike, Nes 26, which was slightly more expensive but convenient for me because it belongs to the Rho Hotel where I was staying. Dam-Bike is a small shop which seems to rent mainly by the hour or by the day.
Fourth photo: The bikes from Dam-Bike have big signs on them so you won't have trouble finding yours when you have parked it among hundreds of others. On the other hand the sign tells everyone you are a tourist, which might be a disadvantage if you are trying to blend in.
Fifth photo: MacBike at the central station is very popular, but for that reason I never tried them because they were always very full and had long waiting times. Their bikes also have big signs on them which show you are a tourist.
You don't have to worry about the local pedestrians. They know the system, stay in their assigned areas and look both ways before crossing a bicycle lane. Also they are probably cyclists themselves part of the time, so they know it from both sides.
You do have to watch out for those pesky foreign pedestrians, though. When these folks are engrossed in their tourist maps they are liable to step right in front of a pack of rapidly moving bicycles without even looking. And when this happens their gut reaction (assuming they are not seriously injured in the encounter) is to rush to the nearest internet café and post yet another Warning or Danger tip in VirtualTourist about how reckless and ruthless the cyclists in Amsterdam supposedly are.
As a cyclist you have to keep in mind that these folks typically come from morbidly over-motorized countries where they are accustomed to navigating city traffic by ear. In that sort of country nothing moves without a motor, so if you can't hear it you can assume it is probably standing still and can't hurt you.
Second photo: Pedestrian engrossed in talking on her cellphone, across from the Concertgebouw.
Third photo: A lone pedestrian crossing a cycling lane.
Fourth photo: Cyclists and pedestrians in the street called Spui, near Rokin.
It is a well-known fact (or if it isn't well-known let me tell you about it now) that most people look better on bicycles than off.
It is also a well-known fact that many people, especially young women, look their very best when they are talking on their cellphones, because they are constantly smiling and reacting to the person at the other end.
So it should come as no surprise that some people get the idea to do both of these good-looking things at the same time. In Amsterdam you can see thousands of people phoning as they ride.
But if you aren't an Amsterdamer and weren't born on a bike, I suggest you ride first and phone afterwards, or visa-versa. In Frankfurt I once saw a large athletic-looking young man fall to the ground with a resounding splat because he was trying to phone and cycle at the same time.
Second, third and fourth photos: More people cycling and phoning in Amsterdam.
Fifth photo: Here's proof that even the Amsterdamers will sometimes stop and get off their bikes when they've got some serious telephoning to do. (Or maybe they've simply reached their destination and weren't finished talking yet.)
Young or old, rich or poor, white or black, gay or straight, the Amsterdamers all tend to ride traditional Holland touring bikes with a chain guard, a sturdy luggage rack, no gear shift, often only coaster brakes and a dynamo of the old-fashioned kind that has to be pressed against the front tire to make electricity for the lights.
The reason for this is that bikes are often stolen in Amsterdam (by junkies, evidently, who sell them to get a few Euros for their next fix), and if your bike looked any better than average the chances of its being stolen would rise dramatically.
The bikes you can rent in Amsterdam are mainly of this type.
Since Amsterdam is totally flat I didn't mind the lack of gears, but I did once get into a tricky situation because of the brakes. I was making a left turn, in a clearly marked bicycle lane for this purpose, when I was suddenly cut off by some sort of delivery van which I think was making an illegal U-turn. Automatically I grabbed for the hand brakes -- which weren't there! Fortunately I wasn't going very fast and was able to stop just in time with the coaster brake. But it was a bit disconcerting, nonetheless.
Second photo: Two young women on traditional Holland touring bikes.
Third photo: A man and a woman on bikes with slight variations. His is painted red, and hers has hand brakes.
Fourth photo: The young white woman has hand brakes but no lights. The black man has a light but no hand brakes.
Fifth photo: This young woman has hand brakes and a light on her bike.
If there is a city in the world where it is simple to get around on a bike, it must be Amsterdam. With the studio i rented (see accomodation for more details), i had a bike i could use. Wow ! Because of it, i had a more enjoyable experience of this town.
Fondest memory: My fondest memory is me on the bike, the wind in my hair, getting lost or more trying to get lost in the beautifull streets of Amsterdam.
By far the best thing you can do in Amsterdam is to rent a bike, preferably from Bike City, and just ride around the city. There are approx, 350,000 bicycles in Amsterdam for a population of 750,000. That should tell you something right there. At these bike shops they give you a three speed bike and a lock.
Fondest memory: Just riding the bikes and stopping at a pub for a beer.
Favorite thing: One of my fondest memories from Amsterdam are the bicycles. There were bicycles all around me! One of the first sights I had when leaving beautiful Centraal Station were countless bicycles parked there. And as I walked through the city I could see so many more bicycles lined on street. And Dutch cycling everywhere, both young and elderly, with or without children, to and from, doing their shopping, just going everywhere by bicycle!! This is something that amazes me as i live in a city that is built on seven hills, … so doing my daily life with a bicycle is something i am not used to. And Amsterdam stands from other cities i’ve visited, as i don’t remember having ever seen so many bicycles in short period of time and a limited area of the city.