17 November 2005

Amsterdam - City of Bikes

I had the pleasure of a weekend in Amsterdam. It is a city I visited several times on business trips but never really SAW it. So, it was nice to get the real experience.

I have to say it is a pleasant city indeed - nothing as amazing as say London, Paris or New York, but a pleasant capital city nonetheless. Schiphol airport is quite efficient indeed, and the transport into the City quick and cheap. The City seemed safe, and very cosmopolitan - food from all over the world of all types on offer. Like Kyoto which I visited a couple of years ago, it is somewhere I could be quite happy living for a period of time. What it has in common with Kyoto is the bicycle (those who know me, know this as another of my interests which I should perhaps cover more here?).

I had never noticed the EXTREME of bicycle use on my business trips, but this time I did. It seems that a huge percentage of the population travel around the city by bike - generally low-tech bikes. Almost nobody wears a helmet including the many children cycling by themselves or on parents' bikes. The city has been designed with the bike in mind. Lots of proper cycle lanes, special lights which aid the cyclist rather than slow them down as in London. Rules which are meant to help the cyclist, not hinder. When cycle lanes are on pavements(sidewalks) they are done to make it faster for the cyclist not to get them out the way of the car as in the UK. And in doing all this they make the cars more alert to the cyclist - eg allowing cycling down one-way vehicle streets makes the cars a little bit more circumspect.

It's not perfect of course, and it's size and other features mean such methods may not transfer so easily to a place like London, but it was very encouraging to see. Contrast that with the attitude to biking here which is more and more rules to deter cycling, and to slow it down. Possible laws on helmet use are a true disgrace and show a complete lack of understanding of the situation. If helmets really helped safety, would we not see an outcry from the Dutch people about the high death rate from cycling there? What happens is that motorists see that cyclists have helmets and drive less carefully. And cyclists with helmets take more risks (I have to laugh at the cyclists who wear helmets AND iPods). When a driver opened a door onto my partner recently he shouted "I wouldn't have to worry if you'd been wearing a helmet" That sums it up as regards cycling in this country. In Holland, most people - cyclist, pedestrian AND motorist understand that cycling is a GOOD thing for all, and most people manage just to get on and treat each other with respect (and alertness). And of course, there seemed anecdotally to be less obese people.

So, I enjoyed Amsterdam as a city and for demonstrating to me that cycling can be a serious MAJORITY method of transport in a wealthy economy.

Oh, nice windmills too.

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