Last year, we wrote about cycling in Amsterdam, the world’s most bicycle-friendly city according to the Copenhagenize Index of 2013. Whilst we don’t need to repeat how the city’s urban form is very conducive to cycling, or how the city’s high cycling rates are a result of decades of careful planning, it is worth noting that our earlier report also warned of the drawbacks of massive cycling, namely the steep increase in cycling related injuries. Crowded and narrow bicycle paths can reduce the attractiveness of cycling in the city. And the scooters, which strangely enough are allowed to ride on the bike paths, make dangerous situations arise easily given their substantial difference in mass and speed compared to cyclists. We also noted how the Cyclist Union supported widening Amsterdam’s bike lanes.
So where do things in Amsterdam stand today? Recent plans and progressive policies put in place in other European cities suggest that Amsterdam has some work to do, if it doesn’t want to lose its title as the world’s most bicycle-friendly city. Let’s take another look at cycling and cycling policies in the city, from a comparative perspective.
Increased cycling saved the City of Amsterdam € 40 million in 18 years
The City of Amsterdam’s Multi-Year Cycling Plan for 2012-2016 reveals that cycling in this city has increased by 44% between 1990 and 2008, the most recent year for which the data is available. Cycling is especially prevalent in the city center. There are now approximately 490,000 bike trips made to, from and within the city center each day, up from around 340,000 in 1990. The City’s Department of Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation estimates that the large shift from cars to bikes for trips to, from and within the city center has saved the City €20 million annually on road infrastructure expenses.
As cycling increased, the number of transit riders in the inner city also dropped by 15% over the past 20 years. This has saved the City of Amsterdam a further €20 million on expenses on transit service. The shift from transit to cycling was especially apparent in trips to commuter rail stations, 90% of which were made by transit in 1990, where 60% of them is made by bike now. This shift alone has led to about 26,000 additional bike trips in the central city each day. (Source: City of Amsterdam Mobility Strategy).
And so, Amsterdam has the enviable situation that a total of 150,000 additional daily bike trips since 1990 havesaved the City €40 million in expenses in road infrastructure and transit service. Writing for Dutch daily De Volkskrant, Michael Persson [Add the link to article if available] calculated that, if we assume that these 150,000 trips are made by 75,000 cyclists, each new cyclist has yielded the City €500 in savings, annually. I believe it’s not as simple as a 2:1 ratio; determining how many cyclists have contributed to the new trips is far more complex. Especially since Amsterdam gets many visitors, who also bike. Nonetheless, it shows that each new cyclist leads to the City saving money.
Cycling in the world’s most bicycle-friendly city: Where do things stand today?
Despite these developments, massive cycling sometimes is seen as a problem. Between the congestion near intersections and junctions, the acute shortage in bicycle parking facilities near commuter rail stations and in higher-density neighborhoods, and the overcrowding on the bike lanes, one begins to see why someone might think that way.
Bike parking, a competitive event in central Amsterdam, is perhaps the most easily identifiable problem in this regard. The volume of abandoned and parked bikes near many major destinations mean that quite often it will be impossible to park near your destination. Parking space for an additional 38,000 bikes will be needed by 2020 to match parking supply with demand around the major destinations. (An additional 80,000 are esteemed to be needed in the city’s residential areas after 2020). Another issue is that the many parked bikes clutter the sidewalk, which impedes walkability.
The number of serious traffic injuries in Amsterdam is rising too, from 785 in 2006 to 950 in 2009 (Note that the actual number might well be higher as not all accidents are reported). A traffic safety factsheet published by the City reveals that cyclists are more often involved in traffic accidents than others, being involved in 56% of all accidents. They are also more often involved in serious accidents than other traffic participants. In 62% of all serious accidents involving cyclists, drivers were the other party. And a third of all accidents that left cyclist seriously injured, occurred on the city’s busiest bike paths, demonstrating an acute need for wider and safer paths. This need is particularly high in the inner city, where a lack of space to accommodate multiple modes of transportation has resulted in busy bike routes consisting of bike lanes on main roads, leaving cyclists biking next to traffic buzzing by at 50 km/hr. Whilst the “safety in numbers” theory which says that greater numbers of cyclists lead to safer cycling conditions almost always turns out to be correct as cities start seeing increased numbers of cyclists, the situation in Amsterdam might make one doubt this theory. A certain saturation point has been reached in Amsterdam, one in which cycling itself is starting to suffer from the large numbers of cyclists.
Investments in cycling infrastructure are lagging behind the growth of cycling
Both the acute parking shortage and the increase in accidents show that the cycling facilities in the city haven’t kept up with the increase in cyclists. To upgrade the infrastructure, the City of Amsterdam plans to invest a total of €120 million until 2020. The investment strategy focuses largely on adding parking capacity at critical locations around the inner city, and on the improvement and expansion of the city’s bicycle network, as necessary. If safety conditions don’t improve, some people could stop cycling altogether. Such sentiments appeared in letters readers submitted to the local Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool after the seven year old daughter of a recent immigrant from Israel unfortunately died after she was struck by a garbage truck whilst cycling.
Despite the patches that will be applied here and there, ambitious improvements to the city’s cycle network are lacking. For the longer term, the main connectors in the network have been identified as the Bicycle Plus Net (Plusnet Fiets in Dutch), a network of the primary cycling connections in the city which are to be prioritized as the city upgrades cycle infrastructure. The Bicycle Plus Net also includes connections that haven’t been realized yet. Within the city center, there are 950 kilometers of cycle routes that are a part of the Bicycle Plus Net, many have not yet been adapted to recent standards for sustainable safety. Of course the entire Bicycle Plus Net will take decades to complete, though the city only plans to upgrade 15 kilometers of cycle routes in the inner city that are part of the Bicycle Plus Net over the next few years. And the Multi-Year Cycling Plan remains unclear on what sort of upgrades are envisioned for the Net.
Becoming (and staying) a bicycle-friendly city requires bold policy decisions
Perhaps Amsterdam might want to look to Copenhagen for some inspiration. Copenhagen’s Bicycle Strategy is the most ambitious bicycle plan in the world. That city also has a network of prioritized cycle routes, simply called Plus Net. The network, consisting of Green Routes, Bicycle Superhighways, and the city’s most congested bicycle routes, will consist of at least three lanes in each direction on 80% of the network by 2025. Where there are bidirectional routes, there will be total of at least four lanes. Amsterdam’s Bicycle Plus Net lacks such quantified objectives. And with that much space, a parent can comfortably bike side-by-side with their kids at a leisurely pace, whilst cyclists in a rush can still pass them safely. This standard already is in place on a large part of the network.
At some places, space for cars will have to disappear in order to adapt the cycle routes to the new standard. It’s a vision that only becomes possible because some sharp, difficult choices were made to prioritize cycling over other modes. The City of Copenhagen explicitly aims to increase cycling’s modal share to 50%, up from 35% in 2011. Amsterdam is much more conservative in this regard—aspiring instead to keep the city center accessible to all modes of transportation. Its Multi-Year Cycling Plan lacks a clear and quantified ambition to increase the modal share of cycling in the city. In a certain way, the city is even encouraging people to drive—as long as they are driving electric vehicles: a subsidy of up to €5000 is offered for the purchase of electric vehicles. They are also exempt from notorious waiting lists for parking permits for residents. And charging stations are popping up all over the city. Where the city’s planners have worked hard to make the city center more accommodating to cyclists by limiting car access in the past, they are now inviting the car back into the city center through the back door.
At the same time as Copenhagen is planning to grow cycling’s modal share, the German city of Hamburg is planning to realize a region-wide green network that connects 27 square miles of existing and new open spaces. The green network will also contain footpaths and bike routes, creating a citywide network of walking and biking infrastructure that will make Hamburg a car-optional city in twenty years. As a spokesman for the City’s department of urban planning put it:
“Other cities, including London, have green rings, but the green network will be unique in covering an area from the outskirts to the city center. In 15 to 20 years you’ll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot.”
Currently, thirty staff members of the City’s department of urban planning are occupied with developing the network, which will also create ecological corridors that connect the city’s animal habitats, allowing the city’s critters to cross the city without the risk of being run over by cars. Though the network is still in its early stages, it speaks to Hamburg’s embrace of the bicycle as the city’s main mode of transportation. To kick start the network’s realization, Hamburg is planning to cap a 3.5 kilometer (2.2 miles) section of the A7 highway with a green roof, complete with parklands, allotment gardens and pathways for pedestrians and cyclists.
The cycling capital of the 21st Century: the verdict is still out
If Amsterdam wants to keep reaping the rewards from having a cycling population, its infrastructure must catch up to the raised levels of cycling the city has witnessed. Instead of its piecemeal approach of upgrading its cycling infrastructure to accommodate current levels of cycling, it should embrace a bold approach of prioritizing cycling over other modes and aspire to entice even more people to bike by making their cycling infrastructure safer and more inviting. Otherwise, Hamburg or Copenhagen might soon take over Amsterdam’s title as the world’s most bicycle-friendly city.