Picture yourself walking through a city where you can hear the gentle rubbing and clicking of chains and the soft mumbling of chatter and laughter. You mistakenly walk into the bicycle lane as it is your first time in this city and a tall Dutchman rings his bell, quietly yet firmly swearing under his breath to remind you that you have encroached on his space. You can hear the low tones of conversations from around the streets and the bell chimes from the Westerkerk reminding you that it is four o’clock in the afternoon. You see couples holding hands on their bicycles, two young girls cycling side-by-side on their way home from school gossiping about their fellow pupils, and a group of teenage boys gracefully hopping from their bicycles and parking near the local liquor store. You can hear doors opening and closing of the houses nearby and the vibrations of the techno music (“unz, unz unz, womp womp”) of a party boat sailing further down the Prinsengracht, one of the three main canals of the city.
This is what I was fortunate enough to experience during a full year academic exchange in Amsterdam from 2010-2011, and where I became interested in theorising and studying the bicycle and its effects on urban spaces. In contrast to Los Angeles (an extreme case of auto-centric urbanity) where about three-fourths of the city’s downtown space is dedicated to the automobile and freedom and freeway are almost synonymous, Amsterdam’s centrum is one of the most peaceful, quiet and automobile-free urban spaces in the world. It is not the car but rather the bicycle that dominates the entire city, and for the Amsterdammer it is almost as if they are born out of the womb holding a fiets (the Dutch word for bicycle).
It is idiotic to not cycle in Amsterdam. Public transportation is more than adequate with an intricate system of buses, trains and trams, but the way in which the city is designed makes cycling the quickest and most enjoyable way to get around. It is any pro-cycling advocate’s dream: bike lanes and separate traffic lights on practically every street; many pedestrian or cycling only streets; high national petrol, car, and traffic congestion taxes; a high density centre; adequate public transportation and effective multi-modal coordination. Throughout my year in the city my life depended on the bicycle: I cycled to university every morning, I cycled through the pouring rain (not with a smile, I may add), and I cycled to and from the bars and clubs with a pack of friends on the weekends—occasionally with a beer in hand. Not only was it incredibly easy to cycle, I felt as if it generally made me a happier individual. I was always carrying my own weight and travelling at a scale and pace in which I could appreciate both the chaos and beauty of Amsterdam life. No matter where I was going for the day I always arrived with adrenaline trickling into my brain.
As an American and having been raised with a sense of “nationalism” (however flawed of a term), I was repetitiously told by politicians, the media, and even indirectly by teachers about our unique sense of freedom and democracy—that we must defend and protect what no one else seems to have. I cannot help but laugh at this notion after spending a year in Amsterdam, which is by far the freest and cohesive city I have ever lived in or even been to. Amsterdam (and the Netherlands as a whole) is known globally for its freedoms in terms of its lax yet sensible social policies, and these are undeniable. But mobility and accessibility can also be incorporated into the framework of Amsterdam’s freedom. A city dominated by bicycles with more-than-adequate public transportation is currently the most democratic solution for giving the largest percent of the population access to a city. This is something that most ‘free’ cities are lacking but are now slowly realising to be an extremely important way to foster urban cohesion.
To be able to live my life dependent on my bicycle in an already remarkable city is an absolute privilege, and it is something that I could not resist coming back to. I have returned after finishing my bachelors at the University of Vermont and after a mild skateboarding mishap, which resulted in broken fibula and a 4 month delay in coming to Amsterdam (I would suggest avoiding the combination of bare feet, white wine and longboarding to those who wish to remain healthy and free of hospital charges). This past summer I was able to get in touch with Marc, the founder of Amsterdamize, and he has taken me under his wing, allowing me to work with him for certain cycling-related projects within the city. He has also given me some virtual space on his blog to write a few entries about my thoughts on mobility issues as well as broader social issues within Amsterdam, Washington D.C. (where I am from) and wherever I may travel. My posts will not aim to obsess over Europe or specifically Amsterdam (Euro-envy can get a bit old!), nor will they be a place for hating on America (this can get old too!). But rather it will be a space to critique, share, reflect, and hopefully open a dialogue to all others who are interested and passionate about these same issues.
Eliza van der Fietser.