4 Jan 2014

The Cars, Bicycles And Roads Of Amsterdam

I spent some time over the holiday break in Amsterdam.  It was certainly an eye-opener in more way than one.  Here are my observations on how the Amsterdamese get around.

The traffic itself in Amsterdam is dominated by bicycles.  They tend to be old and of traditional design. Cyclists don't wear special clothing or helmets.  Cars tend to be a similar mix of manufacturers and styles to what we would see in most UK cities outside London, with more hatchbacks than anything else, and perhaps more Audis A3s than anything else I saw.  They're in good condition too, unlike the bashed about motors of Rome.

Taxis (almost entirely private hire) can be anything.  Scooters are everywhere.  Riders don't wear protective gear, or helmets, and often ride two up.  There aren't too many HGVs but there are lots of tiny delivery vehicles - two stroke or electric pickups or vans.  You'll also see cycle powered rickshaws.

The roads of Amsterdam can be roughly divided into two categories:  Canalside and everywhere else.

Canalside roads are single lane, one way, with buildings on one side and the canal on the other.  There is an arbitrary pavement adjacent to the buildings (which you can't walk in because it's full of parked bicycles) and parking canal side.

Cyclists do not slow down for anyone or anything.  They just ring their bell to warn pedestrians, which is why you don't see locals wearing headphones as you do in London.

Cars have to crawl past pedestrians and cycles and when they come to park the spaces are usually very narrow, with no edge protection to the canal below.  See the photo of the Porsche 911 above for illustration.  As the roads are one way, and there are no turning spaces, if you have to park driver side facing the canal you have to squeeze out and hope not to fall in or clamber through the passenger side.

We saw one car with a wheel overhanging the canal.  On average 35 cars and 100 people a year fall into Amsterdam's canals.  It's a wonder it isn't more.

Roads that aren't canal side are a whole other level of madness.  Add in to the mix of bikes, cars, scooters, delivery vehicles, taxis and rickshaws the terror that are trams and you seriously have to be on your guard at all times.

Amsterdams trams do about 20mph through the middle of crowded streets.  If you are walking on tram lines, which is easy to do, then be aware that they swoosh along quite quietly and with deadly force if you happen to be in the way.

The roads are criss-crossed with white lines denoting road ways, two way cycle lanes and pedestrian areas.  It does seem that most of these are largely ignored.  The only certainty is that if you come to a pelican crossing, press the button and the green man indicates you can cross then the traffic absolutely does stop.  But then bear in mind that cycle lanes are separate to other roads and they have their own pelican crossings.

If you cross a main road you often have to navigate tram lines, the road and separate cycle lanes - all with their own separate zebra or pelican crossings.

It's a befuddling system for an outsider but after a while you learn how things are in Amsterdam and go with the flow.  It's just unlike most other cities where pavements are safe for pedestrians, because most pavements are full of cyclists.

Whilst in Amsterdam I spotted a few unusual cars such as this Volvo Amazon Estate and the Tesla in the photo below.  It's the first Tesla I've ever seen.  I didn't get a decent photo because a man with a high-pressure hosepipe was washing the pavement down - with complete disregard for the pedestrians (including me) who were on it at the time!

By Matt Hubbard