Friday, September 17, 2010

Amsterdam overwhelmed with bicycles

A bicycle can be a thing of beauty, as seen in the above photo from Denmark. And when a society makes bicycling safe and easy, as in Denmark and the Netherlands — countries I recently visited — hordes of folks use bikes.

They are, as more and more Portlanders are discovering, cheap, non-polluting and beneficial to your health.

That’s all to the good. But in Amsterdam, where the bike rules the right of way, I noticed what Amsterdam residents no longer apparently see. Bicycles in vast numbers clutter the otherwise gorgeous city. They are locked in tangled rows along the canals. Many seem abandoned. They litter the sidewalks. They seem to propagate over night in a maze of tubing and spokes.

They say that Amsterdam has one bicycle per resident. Don’t believe it. My unofficial count found that it has at least 10 per resident.

No bicyclist wears a helmet. Children ride on fenders and cross bars. And while pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists manage to mingle gingerly and make way for each other, all are on constant alert for mayhem. Among the jumble of bikes are the unrideable, crippled by tell-tale twisted wheels and bent frames.

A pedestrian trying to cross a major thoroughfare in Amsterdam must first negotiate the busy, red-paved bike lane, then scramble across the motor lane, then the trolley tracks.

That gets you half way across the street, where you may or may not find a safety island.

Then it’s back across the trolley right of way, the motorway, and the bike way until you find yourself on the sidewalk, where you often compete for space with a jumble of parked bikes.

I do believe that Amsterdam has reached and perhaps exceeded some kind of critical mass regarding the bike.

Then again, only a foreigner may notice.

It’s a little like our not seeing the blight of overhead utility wires in our own city. Amsterdam, like the other European cities and towns I visited, has buried them all. Likewise, billboards on highways are out of the question. Obviously the culture cares enough about the public space to protect it from blight — except for when it comes to bicycles.

One other cultural observation worth noting but apropos of I’m not sure what: famously free-wheeling Amsterdam also has made prostitution and pot legal.

Despite its chaotic jumble of bikes, the city thrives on its choices and freedoms.

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