Amsterdam at the crossroads, and still not building for bikes


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.

amsterdam mode split

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.

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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.

amsterdam jpg With express routes even slow cyclists could reach the centre from any part of these new “bike city limits” in 30 minutes. Bike-depth-copy (1)

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?


  1. T.Foxglove says:

    Love the idea of the ramped apartment building but the ramp is a massive waste of space.
    The only reason to build up instead of out is land costs. In your compressed city 15km wide with high population density it would be incredibly expensive to build at least a 4m wide 1:20 ramp of dead unlettable space from ground to penthouse.
    Until now I hadn’t realised you expect people to ride up the ramp to reach their apartments, some old folks, families with kids in the cargo bike would find a 5% hill quite a grind and time consuming.
    Scrap the ramp, have large fast service elevators to each floor. Faster, easier & more convenient to build and live in. How many elevators could fit in half the space taken by the ramp? So more space for more apartments or larger ones.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks but you don’t understand apartment types. Typical modern apartment blocks have 1.5m galleries on every level. I’m proposing access galleries on every third level. They can be 4.5m with no efficiency drop. The major drawback with my thinking is I’m assuming internal stairs as needed within over/under interlocking maisonette flats. So some one-solutions are needed to accommodate the elderly, disabled and singles. However, these are a minority who have driven the apartment market in the past 15 years. I want to see the apartment market broadened to woo people back from the suburbs. The rationale for new apartment types is more than can covered in blog posts, but that’s okay, because I’ve got a new book with agents right now, that work through the details and arguments. Sorry for seeming dismissive—without feedback like yours I’d be on some weird planet of my own creation 🙂 So thanks again.
      Oh, and there can be a goods elevator at one end for going up, say with your box bike full of groceries and kids. The point is that the building can exist without that if it were built in the third world. It actually does matter what the first world does. Our lives are for display purposes only.

      • T.Foxglove says:

        It’s too early in the morning (for me) & still too close to New Year to be thinking conceptually in 3D, so I apologise for coming back especially when you’ve said it “is more than can covered in blog posts” let alone the comments under one but…
        “I’m proposing access galleries on every third level. They can be 4.5m with no efficiency drop … with over/under interlocking maisonette flats.”
        Ok got it, so on the levels above & below the ramp the maisonettes on the opposite sides of the building extend to meet each other back to back. Most apartments have the kitchen & bathroom at the back & the habitable rooms next to the windows. if you do that the services will have to dogleg around the ramp; if you put them say 2.25m from the back so services can run vertically through the building then some part of the habitable rooms will be behind them & relatively far & potentially obscured from natural light.
        “some one-solutions are needed to accommodate the elderly, disabled and singles”
        Groundfloor & top floor could be single level apartments without compromising the access gallery every 3rd level but you probably already know that.
        “there can be a goods elevator at one end for going up … The point is that the building can exist without that if it were built in the third world.”
        They do have elevators in the 3rd world as well 😉 so scrapping the ramp and having fast elevators is still an option. That also improves the efficiency of each apartment having their own stairs, allows the elderly & disabled to choose which floor to live on.
        Looking forward to reading the book.

        • Steven says:

          I do like having to explain myself, so here goes. As you are stepping out of your apartment in a regular elevator building it’s easier to not have your bike with you, at least not until you’re downstairs, where you get a few a few choices: bike, car, walk, train, bus etc.. If stepping out of your apartment means stepping onto a gallery that spirals to the ground then even if there is a lift somewhere along the corridor that you could walk to, you’re still better off with a bike. Them when you get to the bottom, your mode choice has been made for you. A city of buildings like that would spill every able bodied citizen onto the ground with a bike. Sounds good to me!

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