In parts 1 and 2 of our series on Amsterdam, we had a wheelchair bike as our vehicle of transport. After pedaling Nellie around on it for a few days, I realized that it wouldn’t be good for very long distance trips since it can get very tiring. So, we also rented an electric-assisted Bakfiets cargo bike thinking that it would be better, but realized that the power still wasn’t enough to go a long distance with an adult sitting inside. Furthermore, as you can see in the image below, the depth of the seating area is too short for an adult to sit on comfortably. I was planning on using it to go 22 miles (35 km) one way to Keukenhof Tulip Park which is about a 2 hours ride (in my case, it’s probably 3 hours), but I chickened out. Either I will become too exhausted or Nellie’s butt would be in flames, so I didn’t want to take that chance. So we had to sell out on our bike experience and rent a car just for that day.
The reason why we entertained the idea of riding all the way out to the Keukenhof Tulip Park in the first place was that we had a positive experience when we we rode out to Zaanse Schans to see some Dutch windmills the other day. It was such a great experience getting out of the busy city center where the wheelchair bike was rolling on bumpy paved roads and transitioning to smooth paved roads in open and modern spaces.
When we left the city center, wow, it was bike utopia! Although we were still within the periphery of Amsterdam city, we were no longer in the old city core. The roads were smooth and separated bike paths went in every direction you would need or want to go. Amsterdam is indeed number one in bike infrastructure along with many other Dutch cities. If you want great infrastructure for cycling, one should look to the Dutch for the model. I have been to a handful of bike-friendly cities, and none of them come close to Amsterdam. The cycle tracks are very wide with wide buffers from the streets, and stretch continuously for miles, and you can get from point A to B and C without feeling unsafe. Traffic signs/signals for bicycles are everywhere and I felt that the priority of bicyclists exceeds that of motorists. Every time I was at a red traffic signal for bicycles and a button was there for me to press, it wasn’t long before the light turned green for me. One thing I noticed about how they did auto traffic calming was that on streets that have two lanes, where they become one lane, the left lane merges into the “slower” right lane. This slows traffic down as opposed to the States where cars in right lanes usually have to merge into the “faster” left lane.
The paths and sidewalks were very wide with larger brick tiles which reduced the bumpiness when rolling over them making it much more comfortable for Nellie on the wheelchair bike. The larger brick tiles alternate with large sections of smooth pavement. The paths are so wide that you can ride at least 2 abreast. This allows for conversational cycling (having a conversation with a companion while riding your bikes side by side) which makes cycling even more enjoyable. Some streets have two cycle tracks that are bi-directional. Pretty crazy, huh? How can any street that has two cycle tracks also have two way traffic? Well, just reduce car usage by increasing bike usage, so you have more room for cycle paths. Voila!
Notice the red pavement in the photo below- that is colored asphalt, not just asphalt that has been painted like what we have in San Francisco. Because it is colored asphalt instead of paint on asphalt, it is less slippery during the wet season unlike the slippery green paint on our SF bikeways.
We saw tiny vehicles such as the Canta LX that are allowed on the cycle tracks and are small enough to legally park on sidewalks (I don’t even think you need a driver’s license to drive one!). They aren’t actually cars but are more like covered scooters. They can go up to 28 mph (45 km/h) and a folded wheelchair can fit in the rear. They are great for the elderly and disabled. We may rent this next time so Nellie can finally take control of the wheels. =) We also saw a handful of mobility assisted scooters on the cycle tracks as well.
With 25% of the Netherlands below sea level, it just makes sense to have bikes on boats too (see photo below)- or the Dutch just really like bikes. Is it a bike tour or boat tour? Hmm…
When we got even further out and left the city altogether, I pedaled Nellie on the wheelchair bike on this beautiful separated bike path for 14 uninterrupted miles (23 km). Well, the journey was almost uninterrupted except at one point where we took a ferry to the other side (the ferry was absolutely free!). The wide separation between the cycle tracks and streets made cycling peaceful and you were away from car exhausts. The paths were lined with trees for much of the way which added to the serene experience. That is how riding a bike should be. It was the best riding experience I ever had in my cycling career even considering I was riding on a wheelchair bike. Nellie even said that she didn’t think about her injured foot for a moment.
On the way to Zaanse Schans, it was breathtaking to see these wind turbines on the sides of the cycle track. One of the main reasons why I ride is because of environmental reasons so those wind turbines really stood out to me and affected me on a personal level. We also saw many performance cyclists in their spandex and gears. It must be awesome to ride fast for hours on these very long, and “open road” bikeways.
On our last full day in Amsterdam, it was Queen’s Day. For most people, as a visitor or even a local, it’s wonderful to experience Queen’s Day. This Queen’s Day was especially important because Queen Beatrix abdicated her throne for her son, now King Willem-Alexander. The local population of Amsterdam is around 820,000 and on the days leading up to Queen’s Day, the population typically doubles with all the celebrators. Most of the population congregates in the city center. The entire city center is generally closed off to traffic on that particular day. So you can imagine that it was very crowded. Nellie decided to stay in for that day knowing that maneuvering for her would be very difficult, but I got out and about to observe some Dutch culture. I didn’t know that the Dutch were such partiers and loved their Queen.
With 800,000 more visitors coming into the city, of course the city is already prepared to accomodate all these bikes. The ample space from the dozens of water canals makes a good place for bike parking. There were three of these boats filled with bikes on this one canal I saw. Bicycles rule in Amsterdam!
To conclude our Amsterdam trip, it was just too difficult to maneuver around in the city center on a wheelchair bike especially during a crowded holiday. I can imagine it would be nice for those on regular bikes though because of all the historic buildings, canals, and scenery. We did enjoy every bit of the experience when we left the city center. Overall, riding a bike in the Netherlands is truly a joyful cycling experience and I could understand if anyone expatriated to the Netherlands solely for bicycling. I know of a couple of people who did.
Thank you to the Netherlands from the bottom of every cyclist’s heart for making it a great bicycling country for all of us to see and try to emulate and showing that a society built around bicycles can be achieved.
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!
Some of the things you will see if you ride a bike in the Netherlands…
Photos were taken in Amsterdam, Zaandam, Zaanse Schans, and the Keukenhof Tulip Park.
We are halfway through our Amsterdam experience (with two wheels and a bad foot) and we already have so much to share with you guys that we have not tweeted about. But in the meantime, if you want to learn more about the history of bike culture in Amsterdam, there is going to be a book reading for “In the City of Bikes” by Pete Jordan on May 2nd in San Francisco. Pete Jordan contacted us about it and we think it is definitely worth checking out! More details below!
This is Pete Jordan, author of the book “In the City of Bikes.” Thanks for giving my book a mention a couple weeks ago on your site. I see you’re in Amsterdam now while, coincidentally, I’m leaving soon for San Francisco (where I was born and raised). I’ll be reading from my book on Thursday, May 2nd at Needles & Pens, 3253 16th St., 7 p.m. If you can give my reading a mention on your site, I’d really appreciate it!
Thanks and take care,
If you won’t be in SF on May 2nd, there are other upcoming dates and locations all around the US and also Netherlands. Check here for more.
Book Description from Amazon.com:
Pete Jordan, author of the wildly popular Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States, is back with a memoir that tells the story of his love affair with Amsterdam, the city of bikes, all the while unfolding an unknown history of the city’s cycling, from the craze of the 1890s, through the Nazi occupation, to the bike-centric culture adored by the world today.
Pete never planned to stay long in Amsterdam, just a semester. But he quickly falls in love with the city and soon his wife, Amy Joy, joins him. Together they explore every inch of their new home on two wheels, their rides a respite from the struggles that come with starting a new life in a new country.
Weaving together personal anecdotes and details of the role that cycling has played throughout Dutch history, Pete Jordan’s In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist is a poignant and entertaining read.
About five months ago, Nellie and I had started planning for a trip to Amsterdam to see and experience the best bicycling city in the world for ourselves. We were planning on bringing our Brompton folding bikes with us and decided to have the courage to gate-check them this time (rather than transporting them in checked luggage) at the airport. But anything could happen in five months and indeed something did happen.
Unfortunately, Nellie injured her left foot about three weeks ago and each day that has passed hasn’t brought much improvement. She hasn’t been able to walk normally and when she does have to, she hobbles along with difficulty or she puts on an orthotic boot and uses crutches.
The days are quickly winding down until the day we are to fly out for Amsterdam so we initially thought about canceling the trip. “Nooooooo!”, was what went through my head. “Our opportunity to have the best cycling experience ever and now this is happening to us?”
Then we thought about how the cycling infrastructure is so wonderful in the Netherlands that people with disabilities are benefiting from them and getting around easily as well. So from that we decided that we could still take this trip.
First, we thought about how we could transport ourselves since Nellie cannot ride a bike or walk very much. “Cargo bike!”, we thought. We were excited at that idea since Nellie can just ride inside the cargo box while I pedal. But if we were to go to a museum or somewhere bikes are not allowed to enter, it would be a problem since Nellie can’t walk a good distance before she needs a rest and walking with crutches can get very tiring. We could request a wheelchair at the museum, but we may not always be able to get one at other places.
Then, I remembered seeing a wheelchair bike in this great video (1:14) by Bicycle Dutch. I could see myself riding it everywhere pedaling while Nellie sits on the wheelchair that is attached to the front. And did I say that the wheelchair is detachable? So that means that we can park the bike and detach the wheelchair to go inside museums and other places. How brilliant is that?! I found a bike rental shop called StarBikes Rental Amsterdam behind the Amsterdam Central train station that rents out wheelchair bikes. I quickly reserved it and we are going full steam ahead. Yes!
While we are hoping for her foot to be better by the time we leave for Amsterdam (she will eventually get better, just not in time for the trip), this experience will be interesting to see how accommodating Amsterdam will be for bicycles and people with limited mobility. From what I have learned from Bicycle Dutch’s blog, I expect that it will be a positive experience. Plus, I will still have a blast pedaling all around Amsterdam and the Netherlands with Nellie right beside me.
So, we are going to take off for Amsterdam soon and plan on sharing what we will learn with you in some future posts. While we are there, we will not post anything to this blog. But we will be actively tweeting about our observations on biking there and how Nellie is able to get around as a disabled person in Amsterdam.
You can follow our live tweets of our bicycling adventure in Amsterdam at our Twitter page here starting on April 24.
Thanks and happy pedaling even if you have a bad foot!
Update: We’re back! Read how things went in our series on Amsterdam:
We were on Valencia St. the other day and noticed a few skateboarders and families riding their bikes on the bike lanes. It is more common to see them in this neighborhood than in other parts of the city.
As you know, Valencia St. is the first in the city to have Green Wave bike lanes. Green Wave bike lanes are those which have traffic lights timed so that cyclists riding at 13 mph (21 km/h) will hit a steady wave of green traffic lights. This makes it easier for cyclists because then there is less stop and go for them. The Green Wave also reduces the speed of auto traffic.
Also, there is a BART public transit station in the area and that enhances bicycle commuting because people can use their bikes to get to the station, bring them onto the trains, and use them when they get off to go the last mile to their final destinations.
Because of this, 15-20% of all trips are made by bicycle in this neighborhood, making it the most bike-friendly in the city (see photos below). Citywide, it is 3.5%.
But much more needs to be improved to get more people to ride. Besides calming streets, a protected and continuous network of cycle tracks needs to be implemented rather than keeping with the wimpy striped lanes and confusing bike sharrows. By having high quality, protected bike ways, the city will better be able to encourage all age groups to ride.
The ADA (Americans with Disability Act) is one group that is not keen on bike improvements in our city. Their constant argument against cycle paths is the elimination of parking spaces because they think riding in a car is the only good way they can get around. I am certain that if they watch the video below, they would change their tune.
A big concern of the disabled and elderly is that they need to rely on others to take care of them and can at times feel a loss of dignity from this. So if an elderly or handicapped person can at least have the flexibility of going out without having to depend on someone to drive him/her to places, they would feel less disabled and more free and independent.
Also, if the very elderly do still drive themselves around, they could be endangering other road users due to their lack of quick reflexes, alertness, and fast reaction time. This is especially the case in a dense and busy city like SF.
The video below is taken from Bicycle Dutch and is a great illustration of how cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands benefits everyone.