First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Lauren Comiteau
In this city, where there are more bicycles than people, you’d be forgiven for thinking Dutch infants roll out of the womb with wheels in lieu of feet. Toddlers, before fully mastering the art of walking, are often seen scooting around on a loopfiets, or walking bike, a peddle-less device where they learn to balance, securing their two-wheeled future. ‘Cycling is how we walk,’ says Michel Post, formerly of the Fietsersbond, or Cyclists’s Union. ‘It’s nothing special; it’s something everyone does. It’s cheap, fast, easy and fun.’
But in reality, cycling is no more a part of the Dutch genome than it is anyone else’s: Amsterdam’s cycling prowess is a hard-won combination of urban planning, government spending, people power and, increasingly, business innovation. Of course it helps that Amsterdam is flat, compact and densely populated, and that the climate is mostly moderate. But investment in cycling infrastructure began in earnest in the 1970s, following a post-war boom in auto reliance that led to unacceptably high death rates for cyclists. At that moment, and following such ill-fated proposals as paving over the city’s historic canals to make way for cars, people opted for the present system.
So while the cars that five decades ago haphazardly filled the city’s most famous squares – Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein – are gone, in their place are thousands of bicycles, leaving urban planners with the seemingly enviable problem of what to do with them all. ‘We are a victim of our own success,’ says Pete Jordan, author of In the City of Bikes.
Today there are some 400-500 km of bicycle paths criss-crossing the city, with an estimated half of all city journeys taking place on two wheels – pretty impressive for what began as an ‘elitist pastime’ in the 1890s. Sixty-eight percent of every kilometre driven in Amsterdam today is done by bicycle, with Amsterdammers collectively travelling some two million kilometres every single day. With many of those cyclists being commuters, almost all of the city’s 10 train stations have bike-parking problems, with officials recognising that Central Station in particular is now ‘worse than the average disorganised messy public space.’ Iris van der Horst, as the city’s Bike Programme Manager, is tasked with cleaning them up.
‘My goal is to make sure there are 40,000 bicycle parking spaces by 2020,’ van der Horst says. Central Station will be home to 21,500 of them, distributed over seven different sites, including one under the IJ harbour (yes, underwater!) and another in the northwest corner, where construction is already underway. ‘These garages will be of a high standard, and you will want to use them,’ she continues. ‘They’ll be accessible, in good locations and free for the first 24 hours. They’ll keep bikes dry and safe from being stolen.’ The city is working with a number of partners to accomplish its goals, including the private national train carrier NS.
On the right path
Part of the €120 million the city has set aside for its Long-Term Bicycle Plan will go towards new or improved bike lanes to alleviate rush-hour cycling traffic on Amsterdam’s busiest routes. Although ‘alleviating bike traffic is a positive problem if any’, according to van der Horst, the growth of cycle use is straining the city’s infrastructure. ‘We’re trying to give cyclists more “green time” and less time waiting at red lights,’ she adds, of the effort to keep things moving.
All agree that the city needs its cyclists in order to keep Amsterdam accessible and green, the private sector included. International shipping company DHL is using three types of cycles to help deliver its cargo. Its City Bike is a standard racing bike that its couriers use with backpacks. The Parcycle, developed in Amsterdam and now used in 52 European cities, features a 160-litre locker in front, while the Cubicycle has one cubic metre of volume in the back. ‘Bikes in the city can be twice as efficient as cars, especially when you’re stuck waiting behind a truck on a canal,’ says Marijn Slabbekoorn, City Logistics Expert at DHL Express. ‘We only opt to do a shipment by car when we can’t do it with a bike.’
And they’re not the only company to embrace two wheels. Berlin start-up foodora, a higher end food-delivery service, began operations in Amsterdam last year, delivering more upscale restaurant meals solely by bicycle. De Fietsfabriek, once known as the producers of the it family-friendly cargo bike, now reaches out mostly to the B2B market. Beer maker Heineken uses its bikes internally to get around, and 43 ‘ice units’ were recently sold to consumer-goods company Unilever, who will test an ice-cream scooper bike later this year. But much of the innovation still comes from the consumer side. De Fietsfabriek also sells a bicycle to transport disabled people: customers use their own wheelchair to get up a platform, and someone else does the cycling.
Electric-cargo-bike makers Urban Arrow straddle both markets, aiming to move both people and freight the fastest, greenest and quietest way possible. Its bikes are used by local food makers and delivery services such as TringTring and Marleen Kookt, but also by parents such as Marjolijn Hendriksen, who loves her electric cargo bike, especially when it comes to mounting the canals’ inclines. ‘I can carry three kids and the groceries, talking on my phone while I cycle,’ she says atop her silent bike. ‘Tourists look on in awe.’
If the Dutch aren’t quite reinventing the wheel, they are certainly realigning it. Award-winning bicycle maker VANMOOF, which wants to be part of the city’s cycling solution, rolled out its first e-bike in 2014, an electric-assisted urban bicycle complete with a GPS tracking system. (And in this particular case, VANMOOF literally did reinvent the wheel, placing the bike’s motor in its front tyre.) Six bikes that had been stolen, in Amsterdam, Berlin and even Florida, were found via the tracking system. The company is now working on getting GPS into non-electric bikes. According to Assistant Brand Manager Tessa Hofte Koesveld, theft is the origin of so many of the city’s biking problems. ‘We believe the problem with many unruly parking spots is that people leave their old, ugly bikes parked there because they’re scared that new ones will get stolen,’ she says. ‘If we can get over the theft problem, we can get rid of the traffic problem.’
The city, says Iris van der Horst, is experimenting with so-called ‘smart spaces’. In February, it started a pilot project near Leidseplein, where sensors on bike racks can detect how long a cycle has been parked. Most racks are 80% full, with many of the bikes sitting there unused for months, which eventually have to be cleared away. The city is hoping the sensors provide a more accurate picture of how and when the racks are being used (or abused), and that one day cyclists will even be able to reserve their own parking spaces via this ever-evolving technology. With cities worldwide, from London to New York, investing heavily in bike infrastructure, Amsterdam has know-how to spare. ‘If we can do it here,’ says VANMOOF’s Koesveld, ‘we can teach the world how to bike.’