The primary way of getting around Amsterdam for Nellie was not her own two feet but our trusty wheelchair bike from StarBikes Rental as discussed in an earlier post. The wheelchair bike was very helpful, but there were two issues we had with it.
The first issue was that the ride was bumpy and uncomfortable for Nellie on the brick paved roads which are ubiquitous in Amsterdam’s old city center. She could feel every little bump and irregularly in the ground as we rolled along and because her foot was already sensitive, the shaking and sudden jerks would hurt her foot. Whenever we hit a bump or dip, she had to be sure to lift her foot in time so as to soften the impact, but it was still unpleasant and tiresome for her. I had to ride very slowly and carefully trying to avoid potential problem areas. The rocky ride could’ve been due in large part to the skinniness of the wheelchair tires. I think they should have used fat tires for the wheels like those seen on Dutch bikes to better absorb shocks. The bumpiness may not be such a big issue for other wheelchair bike users if they don’t have any aches and pains on their body and can tolerate a little shaking.
The second issue was that when it rained, Nellie’s legs and feet got wet. The wheels do not have fenders and it is hard to cover the legs and feet when it rains. Nellie used an umbrella but it didn’t reach her legs and the umbrella kind of blocked my view as I was pedaling. Also, my legs would have gotten wet too if I hadn’t worn rain pants. If you’re going to use a wheelchair bike when there is a good chance of rain, which the Netherlands has plenty of, be sure the wheelchair rider is at least wearing waterproof footwear and waterproof pants. It can get pretty cold once the pants get wet. There is also a waterproof cover for the legs that comes with the wheelchair bike but we didn’t bring it with us. It didn’t look inviting to us to use it for some reason.
Amsterdam’s old city center is not made for people with a disability, particularly people with limited mobility. We stayed in Nieuwmarkt square in the city center which is about 800 years old. When a place is that old, the buildings and its infrastructure are not going to be conducive for people on wheelchairs. Apparently, wheelchairs didn’t exist back then and of course, the Dutch have done a good job in preserving the original historic look of the place. So, the town has narrow sidewalks which often get crowded and force people to walk in the streets (see photo below). Also, shops and stores have very narrow doorways that wheelchairs can’t fit through and often have steps instead of a ramp. The small brick pavement on both the streets and sidewalks makes it harder to roll a wheelchair around.
Not only are the sidewalks too narrow to push a wheelchair on, but you also have bicycles, scooters and even cars parking on them creating a veritable obstacle course. If you take the narrow street which only fits one car’s width, you would have to maneuver to the side whenever cars drive through which happens occasionally. Rolling a wheelchair back onto the sidewalk is difficult because on-ramp curbs are not placed throughout. There are some streets that are level with the sidewalk but they are not that common. I think Amsterdam’s urban planning officials should look into restricting private car access (taxis and delivery vehicles are okay) into these small city center streets using a filtered permeability design like how Strasbourg in France has in their city center. I did see that they restricted car access on some streets at certain times of the day but I don’t think that’s enough. Not only is this better for wheelchair users, but it creates a less chaotic environment for regular bicyclists and pedestrians which crowd the city center. Closing down the old city center to cars is actually a very common thing many European cities do which Amsterdam surprisingly has not done.
In addition, we noticed gas-powered mopeds using the same cycle tracks as bikes. They are fast, loud, and smelly and we didn’t like them one bit. We thought they were quite menacing and have heard that there are many locals who think so too. Many of them seemed to be going faster than the 20 mph (30 km/h) posted speed limit and we’ve heard that many of them have had their speed restrictor removed. Not only do they speed but they also make a loud racket and from their 2 stroke engines, leave a plume of noxious and unpleasant fumes in their wake. Often one would come zooming by suddenly and it would scare the bejesus out of Nellie, she almost got up and started walking. In the States, we have to deal with absurd and narrow bike lanes (or the lack thereof) that bring us in closer proximity to fast moving cars and plentiful opportunities for car-dooring. So I know that as a cyclist, I would definitely get annoyed by them if they were riding on cycle tracks here. According to Bicycle Dutch, there has been an increase by 3 fold in the number of mopeds on cycle tracks in the past five years in Amsterdam and 94% of them speed. I heard from Pete Jordan and Amsterdamize that Amsterdam is working on legislation to ban mopeds from cycle tracks.
So far, it probably sounds like the bike ride in the city center was a lot of trouble especially for Nellie, but there were many positive highlights. One thing which brought a smile to Nellie’s face was enjoying some goodies from the Dutch fast food chain FEBO. We recognized FEBO from Anthony Bourdain’s Layover show, so we decided to give it a try. They make great biking food because of their convenient grab and go vending machines. You simply walk up to the food of your choice displayed inside the vending machine, insert your coins into the slot, and then open the door and grab your food. Despite it being a fast food chain, the quality of their food was actually pretty good and blows McDonald’s away. They have all these hot and tasty croquettes filled with different stuffings like beef and curry, burgers and chicken sandwiches. They were delicious. No cashier to deal with. Just your hungry stomach and the machine. It was one of our most favorite things to eat there.
Another thing we noticed on a positive note was that there was a certain fluidity to the way cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists maneuver around each other at intersections within the city center. See the video below. We observed that there were no stop signs so everyone whether they were in a car, on foot, or on bike would yield to one another and they had to share the road. They did all this without making a fuss. This sort of set up would never happen in the States. If you were to ride on the sidewalk, pedestrians would bark at you. If you were to ride in the car lane, motorists would honk at you to get off the road. But in Amsterdam, I noticed that this system of common sense and courtesy between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists actually seems to work. This civil behavior is probably a result of the understanding they have for one another because they all have experience riding bikes as a means of transport.
Now I want to talk about how wonderful the cycling experience is outside of the town center. Even though it was a challenge biking with the wheelchair bike in the middle of old Amsterdam, biking outside the city center was utopia. In the city center, the streets and buildings are historic and like I mentioned earlier, the streets there are not so conducive for wheelchairs. Not only are they paved with bricks but they are also congested, filled with tourists (lots of tourists because it was just days before Queen’s Day, a huge national holiday and the historic abdication of Queen Beatrix), and the area can get pretty chaotic. But when you go further out, you find that the spaces open up and become more organized. That is where the true quality of the cycling infrastructure in Amsterdam becomes apparent.
How great is the cycling infrastructure in Amsterdam you might ask? Just look at the photos below. I randomly took this photo and to my surprise I caught every gender and age group in one shot at a traffic signal. That is a sign that the cycling there is comfortable for everybody, ages 8 to 80.
Cycling on Amsterdam’s paths are so safe that a mom, dad and child are not wearing helmets and riding together on a single bike. How delightful is that?!
Because the cycle tracks are away from cars, this man can take his time riding his heavy workcycle.
I will end here about our wheelchair-biking experience within Amsterdam and will cover more of our experience when we journeyed outside of Amsterdam city in our next post. Stay tuned!
Answer to the question at the beginning of the post: 13 swans!