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Amsterdam: Cycling to sustainability

You know the cliche about "when in Rome…"

When in Amsterdam, that means riding a bike. Everybody does it. Sometimes two at a time!


I rode a bike around Amsterdam for three days last week.  How easy was it? When I walked into the convention center to register for the 2010 meeting of the Global Reporting Initiative, the first person to greet me was a young woman from a company called MacBike offering free bike rental for the remainder of my visit to the city. Fifteen minutes later, I was on my way to explore the city center.

Amsterdam, I'm told, has  550,000 bicycles and 800,000 people.  It has 400 km of bike lanes. And about 37% of all commuter trips are made by bike, according to Amsterdam Cycling to Sustainability website. (You'll have to trust me; it's in Dutch.) Clearly, the Dutch love their bikes. More important–this city, its businesses and its people have found a way to make bicycling easy, convenient, fun and (mostly) safe for people of all ages. If American cities could become more bike-friendly, we'd do the planet and ourselves a favor.

So what is Amsterdam doing right?

First, dedicated bike lanes are everywhere—not just on the major streets, but on side streets, through city parks and, of course, along the canals.

Parking your bike? No problem. Not only does the city provide bike racks everywhere, but there are a parking garages for bikes like this one at the central train station. Private garages provide underground parking, too–in part because theft's a big problem.Amsterdam_17


Where there aren't racks or garages, people improvise. This is what you see outside most bus and tram stations.


The bike lanes themselves are crowded, too.. You need to signal your turns, watch out for crossing traffic, be wary of cars and pedestrians.

In this regard, the Dutch are not very good role models. Here's an excerpt from a brochure that MacBike gives out:

Do not behave like many people hurrying through Amsterdam, by not giving right of way, charging through red lights or cycling through pedestrian areas. Stop for red (cycle) traffic lights.

Strangely, most people don't wear helmets. And bike theft is a big problem, with about 20% of bikes being stolen each year. My rental came with chain lock as well as a separate key that locks the wheel when the bike is parked. So this city isn't quite a biker's paradise.

I did come across two ideas that could be imported to the U.S.:

A Zipcar for bikes. A company called OV-fiets (also in Dutch, "fiets" means bikes) make 3,000 bikes and electric scooters available at about 185 locations in the Netherlands. An annual membership in OV-fiets costs 9.5 euros (about $11.75) and bike rentals cost just 2.85 euros ($3.53) for 20 hours. Danielle de Man, a customer service rep, told me that the company is part of the Dutch railway system, and that it's designed to extend the rail system and keep people out of cars.

"Most of our customers are business people," she said. "We generating about 600,000 rides a year, which is quite good."

Electric bikes: These are not motorcycles or scooters, but regular bicycles with a battery and motor attached that provides a boost of extra power while you pedal. The battery gets charged when you plug the bike into a publicly-funded charging station–as best as I can tell, these are used for electric cars as well–or from regenerative braking, like the battery in the Toyota Prius. Again, the relevant websites are in Dutch but I've asked my friends at Google to translate them for you; here's one from a company called Electric Bikes that leases bikes and another from Chopperdome.

Dennis Gerrits of MacBike told me the electric bikes are popular with older people who don't want to give up their bicycle habit but find it tiring to travel longer distances. They're also useful for climbing hills–not an issue in Amsterdam–but a key selling point for E-bikes, as they're called, in the U.S.  My friend Charlie Richman rides an electric bike to work, he has an article about electric bikes in Momentum ("the magazine for self-propelled people") and he has started a blog and website called . Here's a video from a website called Digital Trends explaining how a high-end electric bike from a respected German manufacturer called Kalkhoff works:

It's hard to overstate the benefits of using bikes for transportation, as well as for recreation. They're good for the environment. You save money on gas and parking. They're good exercise. And you get to spend time outdoors.

One day in Amsterdam, I rode my bike to and from the GRI conference, pedaled over to the Van Gogh Museum, met some friends for dinner and finally biked back to my hotel after midnight. So much better (and cheaper) than taxis. And a lot more fun.

As MacBike's Dennis Gerrits put it: "Amsterdam is one of the most free cities in the world. To increase that feeling of freedom, step on a bike."

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