If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, you know the Dutch love their bikes.  They ride them everywhere – to work, to the store, to the pub, back to their beds after a good, long night full of tasty bitterballen and Heinekens.  So just how did the land-loving bicycle take such a foothold in a city better known for clogs and canals, among other things?

To an outsider, Amsterdam might not be the first place that comes to mind when the words “cycling mecca” get tossed about.  The city’s weather is characterized by a damp climate with protracted drizzle likely year-round and frosty days prevalent in winter months.  (As an aside, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer in Amsterdam in 1714.)

Still, Amsterdam vies with another northern European locale, Copenhagen, Denmark, and a few other forward-thinking places as one of Europe’s and the world’s most bike-friendly cities.  Far from a convenient accident, it turns out that Amsterdam’s identity as a bike-loving city can largely be traced to a combination of favorable geographic conditions and thoughtful urban planning.

Big in World History, Compact in Physical Stature

Amsterdam is a pretty small place in comparison to the city’s large part in world history.  Headquartered in Amsterdam for nearly two centuries, the Dutch East India Company founded the world’s oldest stock exchange in Amsterdam in 1602, colonized Indonesia, and monopolized trade with Japan before eventually succumbing to bankruptcy in 1798.

All of this managed to originate from a city with a total area of about 220 square kilometers or 85 square miles.  That’s roughly the size of San Francisco, California (counting the water) or about half the area of Venice, Italy.  Unlike hilly San Francisco, Amsterdam is not only compact it’s also nearly flat, making it relatively easy to get around by bike and on foot.  Along with Amsterdam’s compact size, the development of numerous mixed-use neighborhoods makes for a dense, yet very lively and livable mix of shops, residences, restaurants, cultural institutions, and other tourist attractions.  According to Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, professors of urban planning in the U.S., “Amsterdam’s topography and spatial development patterns are ideal for cycling.”

Centuries of Urban Planning

Amsterdam’s bike-friendly urban environment wasn’t just created over night.  The city was founded around 1270 when a dam was built in the Amstel river (hence the name, “Amstel dam”).  Some 350 odd years later during the Dutch Golden Age of 1568-1648 and the rise of the Dutch East India Company, city planners developed a comprehensive urban layout centered around four concentric half-circles of canals.  Over time, more than 1,500 bridges were constructed to help with maneuvering around the city’s more than 100 kilometers of canals and 90 islands.  Amsterdam’s 17th-century canals were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in July, 2010.

(On another side note, the city of Amsterdam has been curiously labeled an “inverted forest.”  In other words, the city’s terrain is so soggy that each house has to be secured by a solid foundation of poles (subterranean pine trees) that are driven deep into the ground.)

Long-time Bike Fans

Amsterdam’s favorable geography and urban planning helped give birth to the city’s long tradition of bike riding.  In 1955, bicycling accounted for up to 75 percent of all trips in Amsterdam.

Enter the Car: Population Growth, Urban Sprawl, Technology, and Convenience

Despite Amsterdam’s long history of biking and urban planning, the city was not immune to the impacts of population growth and urban sprawl or the temptations of technology and convenience.  Like many other residents of advanced, industrialized economies, the inhabitants of the Dutch capital became increasingly enamored with covering distances rapidly and comfortably by car.  By the 1970’s, the automobile had become Amsterdam’s preferred means of transportation.  From 1955 to 1970, the bicycle’s share of all trips taken by Amsterdam residents fell from as high as 75 percent all the way to a low of 25 percent.  Even after paving over many of the city’s canals, road congestion and traffic jams continued to get worse.

Taking Back Amsterdam’s Roads

The issue eventually came down to a public vote over the fate of Amsterdam’s chosen mode of transportation.  In a win for the environment, the city’s voters favored reclaiming the streets for Amsterdam’s bikes.  (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Since the 1970’s, Amsterdam’s urban planners have gradually gone about making the city increasingly friendly to bikes and more difficult and costly to navigate by car.  From 2006 to 2010, the city planned to invest more than $160 million in bicycle paths, parking, and safety.  Over time, streets that were once meant for cars have been converted to dedicated bike paths, and bikes have access to many places that cars do not.  Bike paths connect conveniently to public transportation, including metro and bus stations.  As bikes move through the city largely unimpeded, cars are forced to navigate a maze of one-way streets often carrying speed limits of less than 20 miles per hour.  Parking can cost $7-8 per hour or more.

Cycling now accounts for around half of all trips in Amsterdam and greater than 55 percent of journeys to jobs that are less than 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) from home, shares that are far higher than even most other European cities of comparable size.  A trip across Amsterdam that would consume an hour by car takes about half the time by bike.  Across the country, sixty percent of Dutch people ride their bikes at least three times per week.

Global Phenomenon

While forward-thinking places like Amsterdam play a key role in the popularity of bicycles, the growth in biking turns out to be a much broader global trend.  The Earth Institute tracks world bicycle production as one indicator of the state of the “eco-economy.”  From 1970 to 2007, bicycle output nearly quadrupled, while car production roughly doubled.  Interestingly, electric bicycles, or “e-bikes,” have accounted for a large portion of recent growth with production doubling from 2004 to 21 million units in 2007.  Although, this trend may also partly have to do with cycles of economic development where bicycles become accessible to a much larger portion of the population in developing countries long before cars do.  (For more on the progress in global development, see the related post Analyzing Global Progress: Interpreting the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report and Index.)  The chart below shows world bicycle and automobile production over the period 1950-2007.  (Click on the image below to view a larger version.)

Like Amsterdam, many world cities have been promoting biking as a way to help alleviate troublesome traffic congestion, air pollution, and other environmental ills that accompany increasing urbanization.  In Copenhagen, Denmark, where 36 percent of commuters biked to work by 2006, the city planned to invest $200 million in bike facilities between 2006 and 2024.  In Australia, the state of Victoria, which is home to Melbourne, the country’s second largest city, amended planning laws to require all new large buildings to provide bike parking and other facilities such as lockers and showers.   In Freiburg, Germany, 70 percent of local trips are made by bike or public transit or on foot thanks to regular, annual investments in bicycling infrastructure dating back to 1976.

As of 2008, the 50 largest U.S. cities had plans in place to double their bicycle and pedestrian routes.  A Complete Streets movement comprising a broad coalition of citizen and environment groups has called for safer, pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly roads.  In October, 2007, the Illinois General Assembly voted to require all new state transportation construction projects in and around urban areas to include bicycle and pedestrian ways.

Amsterdam Bike Fascinations

A quick internet search reveals that the subject of biking in Amsterdam has attracted the attention of more-than-a-few curious tourists and other observers of urban life.  Some of them have even been inspired enough to create web pages dedicated to the topic.  In one interesting example (Amsterdam Bicycles), the author recounts being moved to take 82 pictures of bicycles over a 73-minute period during a stop in Amsterdam on a European motorcycle trip in 2006.  In addition to the extensive photo journal, the author compiled an interesting list of notable differences between bicyclists in Amsterdam and his hometown of San Francisco (1. Formally dressed bicyclists; 2. Multiple riders on one bike; 3. No helmets ever; 4. Dogs on bikes; 5. Human-powered generator (dynamo) bicycle light); and 6. Spectacular gigantic unbreakable security chains).

Here’s a small sample of interesting pictures from the site.  (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Biking in Amsterdam: Not Just for the Rich

Professors Buehler and Pucher observed two other interesting aspects of Amsterdam residents’ cycling habits.  For one, likely counter to expectations, affluent residents actually cycle more than poor residents do.  Amsterdam’s bike planners posit that less well-off residents prefer to be seen in cars, which are important status symbols, than on bikes that are available to nearly anyone and everyone.  On the other hand, wealthy residents see less need to publicly project their affluence by traveling in cars rather than by bike.

Immigrants account for another segment of low-indexing bike riders in multicultural Amsterdam.  Apparently, recent immigrants and their children often come from cultural backgrounds and places where bike riding is less familiar or just not a part of most peoples’ everyday lives.  Amsterdam’s city council has tried to promote more bike use among immigrants and their children by designing special programs for them.

Lessons for Urban Planning and Development

Most cities can’t exactly transform into biking havens by turning themselves into another Amsterdam.  The Dutch capital clearly has unique geographic and topographical characteristics that would be difficult to copy and that set it apart from most other places.  On the other hand, Amsterdam does provide several valuable lessons for developing cities that are friendlier to bike travel and the environment.  Thoughtful urban planning with an eye toward safety and the environment clearly makes a difference in encouraging more bike trips.  Designing environments that are relatively more conducive to getting around by bike than car seems to be a necessary component of a successful plan that is safe and green.  Even if other cities can’t take on Amsterdam’s natural spatial advantages, they can also think about ways to create versions of mini-Amsterdams (with or without the scenic canals) within their own geographic boundaries and urban structures.

Related articles and content:

Amsterdam Quiz!

How Green are the World’s Cities?

World Bike Market, Eco Indicators and Development

Visit the Global Sherpa home page.


Buehler, Ralph and John Pucher.  Cycling to Sustainability in Amsterdam.  Sustain.  Fall/Winter 2009/2010.

L.G.  Top 20 Urban Planning Successes of All Time.  Public Servant Blog.  August 9, 2010.

Placemaking Spurs Low-Cost, High Impact Improvements to a Diverse Public Square in Amsterdam.  Project for Public Spaces.  November 23, 2010.

Poelstra, Hugo.  Cycle Traffic in Amsterdam Urban Planning.  City Planning Department.  Amsterdam.

Rass, Michael.  Amsterdam: The World’s Most Bike-Friendly City? PRI’s The World.  July 23, 2009.

Spatial Planning and Urban Renewal in Amsterdam.  Research and Library Services Division.  Legislative Council Secretariat.  November 20, 2007.