We recently spent 48 hours in Amsterdam and Delft, in the Netherlands, to experience their famous bicycle culture and infrastructure in our efforts to better understand and document what makes a 'Playable' City.
We must admit that despite being urban designers, our knowledge and understanding of the cycling networks and approach to connectivity within the city of Amsterdam was limited. This unfamiliarity led to a pre-conceived idea of how pedestrians and particularly cyclists circulated throughout the city.
Prior to travelling to Amsterdam, we were asked "Why are you travelling to Amsterdam when we have cycle lanes here? - you don't even ride a bike" Well, why is it not common to ride a bike? - Just one of the things we hoped to learn.
What makes the Netherlands different from the UK? And, what does it mean for the city's children?
What struck us upon arrival was the vast quantity of cyclists and parked bikes there were. An overwhelming 60% of journeys through the city are by bicycle, and here, all characteristics of the stereotypical ‘cyclist’ were all but non existant. It is so popular that those on bikes cannot be considered ‘cyclists’ but instead merely people...cycling. There were no helmets, no luminous yellow jackets, no super tight sports gear and no sweaty… armpits.
So for a start, looking like a... (*subjective content removed*) ...is not a barrier to cycling here. It's not even 'cool', it's just...normal.
The city is built around/ adapted to suit the scale of the cyclist. Increasing accessibility makes the city seem smaller, allowing people to travel further in shorter timescales, creating ‘shortcuts’ through the city’s urban fabric. Combining this with excellent public transport provides viable alternatives to the use of vehicles within the city. It is telling, that it is more difficult to park your bike than it is your car in the city centre. Amsterdam (and beyond) turns the infrastructure hierarchy on its head, putting the cyclist first and the car last. Now we know that it is supposed to be this way at home, but who are we kidding?
Bicyle parking at Amsterdam Centraal
Each public transport hub (train stations etc) allows for parking thousands upon thousands of Bicycles. Delft's underground parking holds 5,000 while Amsterdam has plans to hold 21,500 bicycles in and around the station by 2030 with additional floating storage of 6,500! Everywhere you turn there are bikes.
The city belongs to the cyclist. It is part of a comprehensive grid of safe cycle infrastructure across the country making it accessible, even by children on their own bikes - However the city centre would seem reserved for commuters.
Motor users are expected to give way to cyclists. Some streets and shortcuts are reserved for bicycles, some are shared streets - still regarded as cycle streets- but cars are 'guests'. If not, they have cycle lanes, and where traffic travels at 50km or above there are seperate dedicated cycle lanes.
A unique roundabout in Delft where motorist give way to both cyclists and trams.
The concept of cycle priority is most evident at roundabouts where cars wait patiently for you to pass as they both enter and exit the roundabout. This notion feels so alien that tourists (us) on bikes find it difficult and unnerving to navigate roads and junctions at first. However once used to it, it's quite empowering.
Creating such viable and tangible access routes required careful strategic planning, a long term vision and lots of investment. The Dutch spend £24 per person per year on cycling, while in the UK the figure invested outside London is just £1.39 per person. A total of 27% of journeys are made by bike in the Netherlands, whereas in the UK that figures drops to just 2%. (Sky News, March 2016)
Back In the 1970’s the government began to re-address the city’s cycling infrastructure in response to an inordinate amount of deaths from the sudden influx of vehicles on the roads after WWII. The "Stop de Kindermoord" ("Stop Child Murder") protest movement arose in the 1973 in revolt of a government advancing the ideals of the 'functionalist' city. The protests (sometimes of a violent and extreme nature) highlighted the number of child deaths caused by the high density of cars travelling through the city. The Dutch people successfully fought for the regeneration of a safe cycle, pedestrian and child friendly city.
Aldo Van Eyck Playground outside of an Amsterdam Primary School
Prior to our trip we may have considered cycle and play infrastructure to be exclusive of each other but as our Amsterdam tour guide, urban planner Meredith Glaser said “a truly cycle friendly city is also a child friendly city”. If you can cycle it; you can scoot it; you can skate it; you can run, hop, skip, and jump it.
It is little wonder UNICEF consistently rates Dutch children as having the best well-being of all the world's children. We discovered a great number of playgrounds, sports facilities, playable spaces, artworks and natural settings connected to homes, schools and places of work by this dense network of walk-able, cycle-able routes. ...Wait. Should we move OUR families here???
Beautiful Bicycles parked at a local school/kindergarten, Delft.
The reduced reliance on cars brings a reduced risk to children playing on the street, and traffic calming measures further reduce this to a much more manageable risk to the savvy Dutch child. Children grow up riding on their parents’ bikes, then later cycling beside their parents, developing an awareness of their city and their self - becoming confident cyclists and navigators. In fact, it is not uncommon for kids to cycle 5km to school every day.
Throughout the city we see tribes of people young and old travelling on bicycle, enjoying a sense of freedom and liberation, without fear for their safety. They cycle two astride - here, cycling is also the ‘vehicle’ of social interaction. It is a way of increasing social capital. It is play!
We would like to thank our tour guides Shelley Bontje and Meredith Glaser of Mobycon and Copenhagenize, respectively, for our experiences and informative tours.
Look out for:
- Amsterdam's Wild West | Nature play at Woeste Westen
- Playground Typology | A study of Amsterdam's Play Network