It is not purely a matter of coincidence that the Dutch were building cities in the seventeenth-century that would be hard to drive cars in today. City planners back then were still doing something we can see in cities as old as Pompeii: deliberately making streets narrow to limit the flow of carriages into the centre (De Negen Straatjes for instance).
Narrow streets, flatness, and a lack of parking in the UNESCO protected world heritage centre, have given Amsterdam the most bike-centric centre of any global city since Beijing forsook that particular honour.
There is nothing to guarantee things will stay this way though. Housing estates in Amsterdam’s outer boroughs continue to be built with ample car parking, putting ever more pressure on the centre to let outsiders’ cars in. Keen Baby Boomer cyclists of Dutch ancestry are leaving for heaven just as second generation lads of Moroccan and Turkish ancestry are finding the means to buy brommers—if the medieval streets were narrow enough to stop those there would not be any bicycles either. Beyond the flat terrain there aren’t a lot of fundamentals to stop Amsterdam losing its cycling tradition and becoming a city of 2-stroke or electric powered scooters, as safe and attractive as Naples. God help open Europe.
Recognising that every new block of housing with car parking provisions tips the scales toward this becoming a motorised city is the first step toward recognising that the reverse is true too. Every new development that is part of a new vision for Amsterdam—car-free and exploiting the possibilities arising when we start to use bikes within buildings—will tip the scales toward cycling.
Here is one of our Blue Maps that Ben has been working on. The 15km diameter circle centred on Amsterdam Centraal reveals the importance of industrial land in the North West quadrant, and farmland in the North East quadrant, to urban expansion.
With express routes even slow cyclists could reach the centre from any part of these new “bike city limits” in 30 minutes.
As much as Amsterdam would benefit from bike-centric expansion, it could be thousands of other cities, especially in the developing world, that could benefit more. If it embraced a truly bike centric urban growth model Amsterdam could be a contender in dethroning the American car-centric city as the developing world’s inspiration. It has a long way to go with its population, needing to grow by roughly 5 times (from 800K to 4 million), before it could pique the interest of leaders in China, India and South America.
To do that it would need to embrace a ten-fold population density increase; 4,000 people per square kilometre (what they are used to right now) won’t let the city grow without sprawling.
The second biggest hurdle is one Amsterdammers have already crossed. They understand cycling as a real mode of transport. If that’s the second biggest hurdle, what is the biggest? It is having enough faith in bicycle transport to imagine new building types and development patterns that follow the logic of cycling, and only planning for walking and public transport within the new bicycling framework.
Amsterdam has grown in annular rings, each a testimony to planning philosophies of the time. Have a look at this video explaining the earlier growth rings and tell me what you think: can the next ring, North of a line drawn level with Amsterdam Centraal Train Station, reflect a true preoccupation with bicycle transport?