Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle-friendly large cities in the world and is a centre of bicycle culture with good facilities for cyclists such as bike paths and bike racks, and several guarded bike storage garages, fietsenstalling, which can be used for a nominal fee. In 2006, there were about 465,000 bicycles in Amsterdam. However, theft is widespread – in 2005, about 54,000 bicycles were stolen in Amsterdam, that’s over 11.5%. Bicycles are used by all socio-economic groups because of their convenience, Amsterdam’s small size, the 400 kilometres of bike paths, the flat terrain, and the arguable inconvenience of driving an automobile. Also traffic in Amsterdam during peak periods is congested and the high cost of petrol Euro1.89 per litre is expensive.
Biking in Amsterdam is a quintessentially Dutch experience and by far the most popular and most efficient form of getting around. But Amsterdam’s frenzied flow of traffic and confusing streets can intimidate visitors on two wheels. Before you hop on your bike, read these tips for keeping you and your bike safe.
1) Know Where to Ride – Amsterdam’s 400 kilometres of bike lanes and paths, fietspaden, make city cycling safe. Use them. They usually run along the right sides of streets although some two-way lanes are on one side only and typically feature white lines and bike symbols painted on the road or there are reddish-coloured paths. Amsterdam traffic uses the right side of the road – this also includes bikes. Some streets (many in the historic centre and along canals) don’t have bike lanes at all. Here, just ride with the traffic, or stay to the right to let motorists pass. Large cars and trucks will usually follow behind you.
2) See the Signs – Amsterdam has many signs and signals designed especially for cyclists. Some important ones include:
Bike Traffic Lights: These lights shine red, yellow and green in the shape of a bicycle at most major intersections. Obey them. Trams and other traffic have their own lights that don’t always correspond. When a bike light doesn’t exist, use the traffic lights meant for cars.
Designated Bike Path/Route: A round sign with a blue background and white bicycle indicates a bike lane or route.
Bikes/Scooters Excepted: A sign with the word uitgezonderd, (except), and bike/scooter symbols means that bikers are the exception to the otherwise posted traffic rule. For example, a round, red sign with a white dash means no entry. Bikers are allowed entry if the white, rectangular uitgezonderd sign is also present.
The rule for all other vehicles and bikes: give right of way to traffic approaching from the right. So, traffic coming from your left should give you the right of way. Taxis and buses often push the limits on this rule, so err on the side of caution when they approach.
4) Forget the ‘When in Rome…’ Adage – Local Amsterdam bikers tend to ignore red lights, tote friends on the backs of their bikes, ride on the sidewalks, zip past fellow bikers without warning, don’t use lights at night, which is required by law and they chat on phones while weaving through crowds. They’re not to be mimicked!
5) Use Your Hands – Use hand signals when changing course. Just point in the direction you want to go. Doing this will let motorists and other bikers know to yield or not to pass you on that side. When in doubt at intersections, dismount. There’s nothing wrong with getting off the bike and walking it through busy areas (see tip no. 9).
6) Don’t Get Stuck in a Rut – Steer clear of tram tracks, which are just the right size to swallow bike tires. If you must cross the tracks (and you will have to at some point), do so at a sharp angle. Try using suggested bike routes (see tip no. 10), many of which are tram-free.
7) Be a Defensive Biker – You may know the road rules, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. The most abundant obstacles you’ll encounter on a bike are pedestrian tourists. They unknowingly walk in bike lanes and cross streets without looking. Watch for them and use your bell to get their attention.
Much to the dismay of many, scooters are always in and out of the bike lanes. They speed by, scaring the you-know-what out of cyclists. When you hear them coming with their piercingly loud exhaust systems, stay to the right and let them by.
8) Lock it When You Leave It – Never leave a bike unlocked, not even for a minute. Bike theft in Amsterdam is a problem, but it can be avoided. Lock your bike to a permanent structure, i.e. a bike rack, pole or bridge with a heavy chain or U-lock. Always put the lock through the frame and the front wheel. Also lock the brilliant little device that immobilizes the back wheel, most rental shops provide both. Look for signs that say Hier geen fietsen plaatsen, (Do not place bicycles here), if you ignore them, your bike could be confiscated.
Never come to a complete stop in the bike lane or on the street. When walking with your bike, do so on sidewalks or pedestrian areas.
10) Use a Map – Not all Amsterdam streets are meant for cyclists, so “winging it” without a route plan can be inefficient and dangerous. Use a map. Most rental shops have basic city maps/routes, but these are a bit limited. Highly recommended is the €4 Amsterdam op de fiets, (Amsterdam on the bike, map), available at Amsterdam Tourist Offices. It shows suggested bike routes, areas closed to cyclists, bike repair shops (important for flats), tram lines and even museums and popular attractions. It covers all of Amsterdam, from the northern islands to the southern suburbs.
Amsterdam has created a bicycle friendly city that promotes a healthier, more active lifestyle for its residents. With people meeting face-to-face instead of bumper-to-bumper, the city challenges us to rethink our car centred-lives in the developed world.