What sets Amsterdam off from most other major cities is its glorious tradition as a cycling city.
Some decades have been more glorious than others, however. Bicycle use actually declined in the 1950s, 60s and 70s while the automotive lobbies had the upper hand, but in 1978 a new and more sensible City Council was elected, and since then the city has been working consistently to improve the quality of life, which of course includes measures to reduce motor traffic and encourage cycling.
Egalitarianism in action
Young or old, rich or poor, white or black, fit or flabby, gay or straight, the Amsterdamers all tend to ride the traditional Holland touring bikes with a chain guard, a sturdy luggage rack, no gear shift, often only coaster brakes and a dynamo of the old-fashioned kind that has to be pressed against the front tire to make electricity for the lights.
The reason for this is that bikes are often stolen in Amsterdam (by junkies, evidently, who sell them to get a few Euros for their next fix), and if your bike looked any better than average the chances of its being stolen would rise dramatically.
The bikes you can rent in Amsterdam are all of this type.
Since Amsterdam is totally flat I didn’t mind the lack of gears, but I did once get into a tricky situation because of the brakes. I was making a left turn, in a clearly marked bicycle lane for this purpose, when I was suddenly cut off by some sort of delivery van which I think was making an illegal U-turn. Automatically I grabbed for the hand brakes — which weren’t there! Fortunately I wasn’t going very fast and was able to stop just in time with the coaster brake. But it was a bit disconcerting, nonetheless.
Although the cycling infrastructure is better in Amsterdam than in most cities, if you cycle there you will be involved in city traffic.
If you are not used to this you might prefer to take a bike tour where you will be looked after, rather than cycling on your own.
For an experienced cyclist, however, Amsterdam is an exhilarating place, despite the traffic. There are so many other people on bikes that you aren’t just part of an embattled minority, and even the automobiles don’t seem to stink as much because the exhaust fumes are dispersed by fresh salty breezes from the nearby sea.
The Muntplein is a large amorphous square where three major streets, and a number of minor ones, all come together. It is infested with automobiles, but that doesn’t stop cyclists, trams and pedestrians from using it as equal partners.
Of course wherever tram tracks and cyclists share street space you have to be careful not to get your front wheel caught in one of the tracks. This happened to me once, decades ago, while I was coming down off a bridge on a rainy day in Bern, Switzerland, and I had an embarrassing fall. (Luckily it was only embarrassing, and nothing worse.)
It’s a well-known fact (or if it isn’t well-known let me tell you about it now) that most people look better on a bicycle than off.
It is also a well-known fact that many people, especially young women, look their very best when they are talking on their cellphones, because they are constantly smiling and reacting to the person at the other end.
So it should come as no surprise that some people get the idea to do both of these good-looking things at the same time. In Amsterdam you can see thousands of people phoning as they ride.
But if you aren’t an Amsterdamer and weren’t born on a bike, I suggest you ride first and phone afterwards, or visa-versa. In Frankfurt I once saw a large athletic-looking young man fall to the ground with a resounding splat because he was trying to phone and cycle at the same time.
Here’s proof that even the Amsterdamers will sometimes stop and get off their bikes when they’ve got some serious telephoning to do. (Or maybe they’ve simply reached their destination and weren’t finished talking yet.)
You don’t have to worry about the local pedestrians. They know the system, stay in their assigned areas and look both ways before crossing a bicycle lane. Also they are probably cyclists themselves part of the time, so they know it from both sides.
You do have to watch out for those pesky foreign pedestrians, though. When these folks are engrossed in their tourist maps they are liable to step right in front of a pack of rapidly moving bicycles without even looking. And when this happens their gut reaction (assuming they are not seriously injured in the encounter) is to whip out their smartphones and post yet another Warning or Danger tip in some paranoid travel site about how reckless and ruthless the cyclists in Amsterdam supposedly are.
As a cyclist you have to keep in mind that these folks typically come from morbidly over-motorized countries where they are accustomed to navigating city traffic by ear. In that sort of country nothing moves without a motor, so if you can’t hear it you can assume it is probably standing still and can’t hurt you.
Respect the pedestrian zones
Visitors to Amsterdam often have the impression that there are bicycles everywhere, but that is not true because street space has been carefully divided up between bicycles, pedestrians, trams and motor vehicles. Just as everyone else has to keep off the bicycle lanes, it is important that we cyclists get off our bikes and walk when we get to one of the clearly marked pedestrian zones, or use a parallel street which will probably be reserved for cyclists.
This street, the Reguliersbreestraat between Rembrandtplein and Muntplein, is reserved for pedestrians and trams. No bicycle riding or parking is allowed, and deliveries only from 7 to 11 in the morning.
Here cyclists and pedestrians are separately routed around a construction site on an Amsterdam street. I was highly impressed by this, because in Germany most construction sites have no provision for anybody getting by, except automobiles.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2017.