Amsterdam is the future - if you think that cities devoted to bicycle transportation are the next step in urban evolution.
Over the past two days I've been exploring Amsterdam, a city known for its unconventional transportation network. People get around scooters, motorized bicycles, cars, and even on canal boats, using canals mostly built during the city's great expansion in the 17th century. But most of all, they ride bicycles.
In fact Amsterdam is truly a bicycle city, with every road containing bike lines – and even some with traffic lights aimed only at bicycle riders. Amsterdam has become a bike city for a couple of reasons: First, it's almost entirely flat; and second, many of the brick-paved roads and bridges are so narrow that they seem uniquely suited to bike and scooter traffic (though cars still zoom down most of them too).
Amsterdam bike riders do not fetishize their rides. Bikes are cheap, heavy, and practical, with wide, comfortable seats. Chains are surrounded by metal guards so that you can ride in pants or skirts, and you'll often see people riding one-handed, cigarettes or umbrellas held in their free hands. There are no fixies here, and no ultra-expensive made-to-orders. People hack their bikes together, adding saddlebags to the back or baby chairs and carts to the front. Every intersection rings with the sounds of bells, the bicycle equivalent of honking. And every wall, pole, and bikerack is a crazy jumble of handlebars, wheels, and seats.
Perhaps the most amazing bicycle structure in the city is the free bike parking lot outside the central train station, on the harbor in the old city. This is a touristy area, but most of the bikes belong to local commuters. From a distance, the three-story structure looks almost furry because so many small pieces of metal are sticking out all over it. Though built to hold about 1700 bikes, the place regularly packs in 7000-8000 bikes, according to a bike lot attendant I spoke to.
Outside the bike lot, a white truck with an open bed lies in wait. It belongs to a group that enforces bike parking laws, cutting chains and confiscating bikes parked in illegal spots (chained to signs, for example) and putting warning stickers on bikes that have been parked for more than a few days in the parking lot. Impounded bikes are taken to an area at the edge of the city, and are released to their owners for 10 euros.
For many of us, a bicycle parking lot like this is an unprecedented sight. We're used to multi-layer car parking lots which cost a tremendous amount per day. But a free parking lot packed with bikes? For people who dream of a bicycle-dominated future, this is like a glimpse of the future, or an alternate world.