Amsterdam: your keyhole glimpse into the future

99.9999% of the world’s population will never live there. Most cities with names you can spell are many times bigger. In terms of topography, history and mores about hookers it is highly unusual, to say the least. Yet Amsterdam will be an essential repository of lessons for the built environment professions in the lean times ahead.

Ever since its hay-day in the 1600s, Amsterdam has been on the rivet (that’s bike racer speak for “going flat out with nothing to spare”).  Where the British had agriculture and ran their East India Company for cups of tea, in the Netherlands they had the Dutch East India Company and bugger all else. Their farming was rubbish and their cities were lean operations. There were no ostentatious expressions of wealth, just narrow houses for rich and poor alike, all with super steep stairs.

And things have never really gotten much better. UNESCO heritage listing has the centre just about frozen in time. There weren’t the funds in the 60s to build car parking stations or basements the way cities were doing in the US and elsewhere. They never got a comprehensive subway like New York’s, which meant they never had an opportunity to relieve the ground plane of transportation and let the street be a playground for Hummers. The street had to cope with the lot.

All this makes Amsterdam the world’s crystal ball.

There are 4000 cities around the world with populations over 100K but which are too small and insignificant for you to know which is which on this map:

100000personcitiesnoworld

Most will double in size before the big dots grow by a half. And they will most likely never get metros.

With their ground planes having to cope unassisted with the entire mobility burden, those cities will have, by my count, 5 choices:

  • driverless cars
  • motor scooters
  • public transport/walking
  • bicycles
  • some combination of the above.

Driverless cars will obliterate walking and cycling by turning each block into a traffic island. Most people don’t realise that the driverless car is actually a kind of train carriage. It is designed to be electronically coupled with cars in front and behind it. This will increase the road capacity, yay, but that will induce further demand. You will look at the street and see a train with no end. The only way to cross will be via an underground shopping arcade (Singapore has this condition) or you will be able to pay ten bucks for a driverless taxi to take you 6 meters, via a loop of the block. “You can’t put a price on your kids’ safety” they’ll say, and you’ll say, because you’re a lemming. I whine about driverless cars all the time—I think Lloyd Alter is the only one listening.

other modes

Motor scooters turn cities into Bangkok where only a desperate peasant would choose to raise children. Public transport is good, and necessary, but only requires people to walk a few hundreds meters per day, not enough to raise peoples heart rates as much as they need to be raised on a regular basis to save them from morbid disease. Cycling and vertical rises in buildings are the city’s only elixirs. Cities with the courage to silence self-seekers are going to learn to prioritise cycling, and Amsterdam (the canal district especially) is our best glimpse into that future.

A classic intersection near the canals has no street lights and no indication (that anyone cares about) as to who should give way. The result is a kind of intersection that barely causes bikes to slow down.

If all the streets of Amsterdam were naked like the streets around the canals (and the city would only have to ban heavy vehicles for that to happen tomorrow) then people could ride at the national Dutch average bike speed of 18km/ph from the beginning until the end of each journey.

Between page 29 and 34 or this document you will find average trip distance and time calculations for a similar sized study area to the central (most compact) boroughs of Amsterdam. The average commute would be less that 3km and take less than 10 minutes.

naked intersections

Amsterdam would have that right now, except for the old-school arterial roads bombing through town presenting cyclists with traffic lights that make them wait and bunch up.

Regrettably, when people come to Amsterdam, they’re smitten by the pulse-waves of cyclists and bike traffic funnels. These wouldn’t exist if Amsterdam banned cars. They shouldn’t exist in the cities where the real lessons of Amsterdam need to be going. So visitors photograph cyclists like penguins at the zoo, then move on to Copenhagen where the photo ops are even better. That’s because Copenhagen has nothing but pulse waves.

Bikecultureincopenhagen

I’m not the only one to make this comparison or say the diffusion and viscosity of Amsterdam’s cycling is its most informative aspect. But I am the only one, I am sure, who fantasises about Amsterdam being blown up and rebuilt. (I also like riling up people I know who have homes there).

The timing of the rebuilding was all wrong for Rotterdam. They made theirs into a city for cars. If Amsterdam needed rebuilding, my fantasy is that they would work from the following list and build a true cycling city:

  • chamfer street corners so cyclists can optimise mergers
  • raise crossroads on mounds so cyclists can momentarily slow down without braking but not have to pedal as they ride away.
  • keep motorised vehicles outside of the ring road
  • roof over the streets and give them slick paving
  • cut long blocks in half and build extra bridges across the canals
  • replace the narrow walk up apartments with spiralling apartment buildings that occupy their whole blocks so cyclists can ride from their kitchens straight onto the street without having to use stairs or lifts.

Most people would dismiss those 6 points as crazy conjecture. But if for whatever reason Amsterdam ever did need rebuilding, the designers, Dutch architects, would be entertaining thoughts just as wild. They are after all the most experimental group of architects in the whole world. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it is a country that has had hundreds of housing authorities, not one central authority like most countries, and each has been given great latitude when it comes to design. That is why you find such a variety of circulation methods and unit types in Dutch apartment blocks.

This tendency toward innovation is amplified by a regime of having building designs procured through design competitions that must always be opened to at least one fledgeling firm. Young architects, with fresh ideas coming straight out of uni, have a crack at getting their fresh ideas built. Established firms are experimental themselves, most being spin-offs in some sense from OMA (The Office for Metropolitan Architecture) in Rotterdam, the most innovative firm of our era.

Then there was the Netherlands Architecture Institute that, until being merged a few years back, was the best publicly funded body promoting architecture anywhere in the world. It’s publishing arm, NAi010 Publishers, remains the most forward looking architectural and urban design press. My crazy conjecture is entirely in the spirit of Dutch design culture that I am a part of myself, with a second NAi010 book now on the way. And Amsterdam provides the perfect hypothetical canvas for such conjecture.

Amsterdam is not the only Dutch city where mass cycling and the country’s experimental design culture cross paths. Eindhoven is buzzing. Rotterdam shows how far cycling can go even when there is driving. I’m a huge fan as well of Utrecht university, the place to see some penultimate bike parking solutions for buildings that attract crowds.

But Amsterdam is the place with the most transferable lessons. The one you could just about cut and paste anywhere is the lesson I mentioned above, which is to create free-for-all intersections and let people on bikes control other modes’ speeds. You should remember though that there are some invisible factors: assumed liability and drivers who ride bikes themselves; high density; worse public transport than comparable cities and a severe dearth of car parking. It’s the case too that people like riding to show they are locals, not tourists. It’s the same reason Manhattanites like walking their dogs. I guess it helps them get laid or make friends.

What I am saying is the traffic lights in your city might have to stay a bit longer because naked intersections, on their own, weren’t the only thing than gave the centre of Amsterdam it’s phenomenal 68% bike modal share.

amsterdam mode split

But what really makes Amsterdam a repository of transferable lessons in bicycle transport, are all the things making it as shitty as the city you come from. In Copenhagen it may be the case that cycling is supported by Danish exceptionalism—at least some might say. They could not say there is anything exceptional about Amsterdam. It’s got the same outer borough plebs coming to town on their motors, only in Amsterdam they’re little two-strokes not whopping V8s. They have the same technocrat politicians that your city has, itching to clutter the city centre with anything “smart” and painted lime green. It is contested terrain—that’s humanities-speak for a “shit-fight”.

The problem with Amsterdam in this Instagram age of quick slogans, is its story can’t be sold like Pepsi or Coke. If you just need a photo for your glib powerpoint talk then a half day in Copenhagen should do it. Or just mirror a photo you flog from the web and tell folks at home that you took it yourself.

Bikecultureincopenhagen

Then you can join the throngs of bike advocates, “urbanists”, Jan Gehl imitators and gen-Y bureaucrats all over the world, dreaming of Tokenhagen style bike lanes. Bike lanes are for roads where cars have through-passage, and there’s virtually no need for such roads in our cities, and in any case the efficient lean city of the future won’t have cars at all. Cars are a tool of primary industry. The city connects millions to employment in tertiary industries and is where the tool for the task is the bike. Our keyhole view of that future, and all its attendant conflicts, is in Amsterdam, where there is also a culture of future-city conjecture.

4 Comments

  1. This statement makes a lot of sense and is appropriately thought provoking: “Bike lanes are for roads where cars have through-passage, and there’s virtually no need for such roads in our cities.” I still like Copenhagen, though, and find cycle tracks on streets to be much more of a transferable approach to many, if not most, US locations I know. Perhaps not the biggest places (NYC, Boston, etc.), but it certainly is the approach that makes the most sense for a place like Eugene, Oregon where I am – population 150,000, plenty of road space to play with, and a political environment that is still extremely timid in terms of bicycle transport. That said, I do absolutely love Amsterdam and love all the insights it brings for re-designing cities for people on bikes.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for the comment. Copenhagen and New York are very similar. Huge blocks, avenues funnelling all modes and not a lot of mid-block car parking. So quite a neat match. All I know about Eugene is you have a great school of architecture and I’ve fantasised about living there.

  2. An intensely, and tensely, inspiring read. There is no way of forgetting what Amsterdam feels like to cycle, and everything afterwards is worse, because having used those intersections on a bicycle, and on some days done nothing but ride around central Amsterdam for several hours, I find that I can remember the sensation of passing through an intersection better than anything else about that city – the myriad sensory inputs telling me how many cyclists were behind me, how they are moving, how fast they were going, when they would turn, and simultaneous awareness of everything in front of me, and all the foot or tram or car or bike traffic merging from the sides, and all of it modulated by common sense and the revolutionary idea of assuming that people have working faculties and can take responsibility for their own bodies, in motion, in space.

    Keen for the second book. Salute from Cape Town!

    • Steven says:

      For me, you’ve nailed it with the last comment. Dutch design generally assumed the average person to be basically okay, and I don’t see evidence of the disabled being all that worse for that. Nanny states actually engender disability. Australia is on an apparent mission to stop people ever having to use stairs. Wish I owned an elevator company!

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