Cycling as a Sustainable Solution – Amsterdam leads the way. How cycling benefits your health, finances, air quality, and the environment.
In many places people drive around in cars. From an Amsterdammer’s perspective, these people are potential cyclists. That is because in Amsterdam cyclists dominate the streets. It is widely considered to be one of the best cities for cyclists in the world. When Floris and I moved to Amsterdam, we joined the city’s biking culture and cycled to every destination in town. We sold our cars since they were standing idle and were only costing us lots of money.
To us the advantages of cycling are obvious. Bikes – “fietsen” in Dutch – do not emit any CO2 or any other pollutants, which makes them perfect for tackling climate change and air pollution. They also keep you fit, provided a city has the necessary infrastructure to guarantee a biker’s safety. Bikes are fast and easy to park and take up considerably less space on the road than cars, buses or trams, which is great for clogged up inner cities. Most of them are cheap and there’s a bike for every purpose. Therefore, biking is the preferred sustainable transport solution for cities, as it tackles air emissions, health and use of space all combined!
Still, in many cities only few people cycle to work, to do groceries or to see friends. What is obvious to us, often amazes foreigners visiting Amsterdam. This article therefore focuses on the benefits of cycling and the infrastructure needed to stimulate a biking culture in your city, while also some challenges are discussed.
Cycling is – next to walking – the most sustainable means of transportation. It emits zero CO2when in use, which makes it climate neutral. Furthermore, it also emits zero NOx, SOx or particulate matter, which positively contributes to the air quality. When different means of transportation are compared in terms of CO2emissions, gasoline cars stand out on the high end of the scale with 225g of CO2emission per kilometer per person (when used by one person) (Source: Milieucentraal – Dutch). This provides us with a good indicator of the CO2emissions saving potential when car drivers shift to bicycles.
Riding a bike is a great way of staying fit. The relaxed pace of biking is a like a slow-motion exercise. Even moving around the paddles for half an hour a day already has significant health benefits. These include: prevention of diabetes, burning body fat, cleaning of blood vessels, reducing stress and protecting your brains. This has been proven by scientific research (Dutch).
An indirect beneficial health effect is the lack of air pollution from bikes. Whenever someone moves from a car, motorbike or scooter to a bike, NOx, SOx and particulate matter emissions decrease. Seen in this context, supporting a strong biking culture can be a sensible policy when local governments need to enforce clean air quality laws. Naturally, these health benefits are only relevant when biking can be done safely at all times. And there’s where infrastructure comes in.
Infrastructure and safety
When in Amsterdam, you’ll certainly notice the sheer amount of bikes. In 2015, there were actually more bikes (881,000) than people (821,000) (Source: Amsterdam – Dutch). All these bikes move around quickly and safely because of the cycling infrastructure and the cycling culture working together. The cycling infrastructure invites more people to safely use bikes. Bike lanes are everywhere, clearly marked and very often separated from the streets. When kids learn to cycle at a very young age, they, become very capable cyclists when they grow older.
However, this wasn’t always the case in Amsterdam, and the change didn’t happen by chance. Seeing images from a few decades ago, when the city was choked with cars, really illustrates that point. Although cycling in Amsterdam has a long tradition (as American Pete Jordan describes in his book), in the 1970-ties the residents took some very specific steps to get to where they are today.
The short film “Bicycle Anecdotes From Amsterdam”(in English; credits: Street Film) nicely illustrates a foreigner’s view on the city’s biking culture. When Pete Jordan was asked why he left America his answer is “Because I saw 927 bicycles in 20 minutes”. While that is nothing special to a Dutchman, it apparently is to an American.
The video explains this story of two sides very nicely. On one side the advantages of cars are explained: technological “progress”, economic growth and convenience for those who can afford to buy cars. On the other side their disadvantages become clear: air pollution, public space is taken away and traffic safety conditions worsen.
The key for change in Amsterdam came from a grassroots cyclist movement, assisted by a coordinated public effort to demand policy change. The result is the infrastructure we see today.
Cars in cities use up so much space compared to bicycles, it’s fundamental assault on public space. The picture illustrates that nicely.
Moving people from the car to the bike offers a great opportunity for policy makers to use the public space for different things. Examples could be more bike lanes, planting trees, stimulating urban food gardening, or creating playgrounds for kids.
In Amsterdam, the city policy makers have tapped into the popular biking culture – and further strengthened it – with the “Amsterdam loves bikes” campaign. The city expresses its support for biking in posters and flags, such as this one (whereby the three vertical Xs are a play on Amsterdam’s flag).
The city has developed large-scale, free-of-charge bike parking at key locations. Perhaps one of the most visible icons of this policy is the multi-layer “bike parking garage” (fietsflat) near Central Station, with 2500 parking spaces for bicycles. Imagine how much space a parking garage for that many cars would take up!
Bikes need repair, which is mostly a local activity. In Amsterdam, bike repair shops are on almost every street corner. Our favorite has great service and a great name, too: FreeWheel. Two friendly ladies run the shop. They are very capable, reliable and quick and deliver excellent service. They also sell second hand bikes and accessories.
A nice example of how a bike repair shop can work to provide local employment and connect members of a community is shown in this nice video “The legs of Amsterdam” (In Dutch with English subtitles, by Wytse Koetse)
Different types of bicycles
There’s a bike for every purpose. There are bikes for kids, race bikes, bikes with crates or bags, cargo bikes (“bakfiets” in Dutch), tourist rental bikes, electric bikes, foldable bikes, and many more.
Personally, I prefer a simple bike with a crate, which comes in handy when grocery shopping and transporting stuff to the boat.
The cargo bikes are really popular amongst families. They are used to take young kids to day-care or school, for doing (lots of) grocery shopping or even for moving furniture. Electric versions are getting more popular too. They run on lightweight batteries that can be removed easily and recharged at home, using renewable energy of course.
For tourists, rentals are ideal. There are plenty of good ones in central Amsterdam and renting a bike is surely a great idea when visiting Amsterdam, although we do advice novice bikers to pay close attention to pedestrians, cars and fellow bikers. It is not always wise to copy Dutch bikers (they can seem quite reckless, but most of the time they know what they are doing).