By Ben Muessig
The Brooklyn Paper
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS — In this old town, bikes are in charge.
On the city’s narrow alleyways and scenic canal-side streets, cyclists dominate the roadways, halting drivers and scattering pedestrians with just the ring of a bell.
And the bikers feel safe enough that they don’t even wear helmets. Seriously, no one does.
As Brooklyn drivers, cyclists and walkers battle for control of the borough’s mean streets, some transit experts are looking to Amsterdam’s cycling-first policies as a way to make Kings County roads safe for all users.
The key to cycling in Amsterdam might be strength in numbers.
More than 75 percent of residents of the 750,000-person city own bikes, 50 percent use them daily, and more than 38 percent of the burg’s use them to get to work — narrowly edging out motorists as the most populous commuting crowd.
In the city’s more central neighborhoods, nearly 60 percent of all trips are made on bicycles.
“The bicyclists create their own safety system in a way,” said Jos Louwman, co-owner of MacBike — a bicycle rental shop that lease out more than 200,000 bicycles to tourists in Amsterdam each year. “Because there is such a huge amount of bicycles here, the drivers have to be alert of them.”
While the sheer number of bicycles certainly makes the cyclists more visible on the streets, the city’s bike-friendly planning has put two-wheelers at the top of the transportation pecking order.
“It’s the quickest way to move around in the city, even more than a car or public transit,” said Ria Hilhorst, top bike planner for Amsterdam’s Dienst Infrastructuur Verkeer en Vervoer, which (we have been told) translates roughly to the Department of Transportation. “It’s a very, very important part of our policy to keep people on bicycles and stimulate the use of it.”
To push Amsterdam residents towards pedaling, the city started constructing its expansive bicycle network in the early 1980s — even if it meant discouraging the use of cars.
Workers laid down kilometer after kilometer of painted red lanes that have become as ubiquitous in Amsterdam as the so-called “station bike” — the retro-styled clunker that most Dutch cyclists favor for their simplicity and durability.
Today, Amsterdam is 90 percent “bike friendly,” according to Hilhorst, boasting a whopping 400 kilometers of protected bike lanes — not merely painted lines as in Brooklyn, but dedicated, shielded space for cyclists.
To date, New York City has just 7.8 kilometers of such protected biking paths.
Amsterdam’s far-reaching bike paths are just one part of the city’s pro-bike policy.
To keep bikes safe, the city has attempted to discourage driving by instating an 18-mile-per-hour speed limit in the central neighborhoods, remapping two-way streets as less convenient one-way routes, and charging as much as 5 Euro per hour (about $7.50) for a metered parking spot.
And if it the street designs don’t keep bikers safe — the courts do.
When a car and a cyclist collide in Amsterdam, the driver is almost always found to be liable, unless there is significant evidence proving that the biker was riding recklessly.
Drivers are culpable for any accident involving a cycling younger than 15-years-old, no matter the circumstances.
I asked Amsterdam transit expert Pascal van den Noort why Dutch drivers seem to revere bikes.
“They don’t revere bikes — they fear them,” he said.
Though the onus falls on drivers, Amsterdam policy makers claim they are also attempting to promote safe cycling.
At many intersections, cyclists can wait in front of cars in a painted box that allows them to get a slight head start on traffic, while making them more visible to drivers.
To discourage cyclists from running red lights, the Department of Traffic, Transit, and Infrastructure has installed 70 special cycling stoplights equipped with clocks that tell bikers how much longer they must wait until the light turns green.
“It’s nice to know how long you have to wait,” said Hilhorst. “This seems to change the etiquette — more people wait now than before.”
Three years ago, cops started ticketing bikers for 45 Euro when they were caught at night without a steady light on their bicycle or jacket.
Although Amsterdam’s pro-bike policy makes it easier to be a cyclist, that doesn’t mean the streets are entirely safe.
Over the past three years, an average of about eight cyclists have died in the Dutch city, compared to an average of 21 in New York City for the three-year period ending in 2007.
Though the roads in Amsterdam are considerably safer for bikers than those in Brooklyn, Dutch bikers face a distinct challenge — the struggle to find a place to park their rides.
To cater to the ever-increasing number of cyclists, the city has installed 250,000 free bike racks, mandated that office buildings include indoor racks for employees, and installed a three-story bike garage on a barge beside Centraal Station that can house 4,000 bikes at a time.
But the racks are never enough, and cyclists often chain their rides to railings, street signs, and just about anything else that doesn’t move.
Unsurprisingly, bike theft is a major problem.Although the crime has declined in recent years, thieves still hijack about 50,000 two-wheelers each year.
To curb the crooks, cops establish random checkpoints and repossess any bikes showing the telltale signs of theft: a missing built-in rear-wheel lock, an etched off identification number, or defaced bike shop plates.
Amsterdam cyclists must also contend with mopeds, Vespas, and motorcycles that ride on the city’s bike lanes. Vehicles with engines under 50 ccs may use the lanes, though larger vehicles often take advantage of the protected paths — including the occasional out-of-town driver who mistakes the broad biking paths for automotive lanes.
Despite concerns about theft and outside vehicles on bike lanes, Amsterdam cyclists enjoy more freedom — and more safety — than bikers in almost any other city on the globe.
And according to Hilhorst, Brooklyn can follow Amsterdam’s example without spending too much cash.
“Everything you do for a bike is very cheap compared to what you do for cars,” said Hilhorst, who claims that many of the city’s far-reaching bike infrastructure improvements cost only 5 percent as much as automotive improvoemand mass transit improvements.
But that doesn’t mean that turning a city into a bicycle mecca is as easy as pedaling in first gear.
“It takes a long-term view and a lot of attention,” she said. “It’s not easy to get results.”
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more