Posts Tagged ‘Amsterdam’

Total freedom… ‘Dam, this would never work in London

October 29, 2015
There's no limits.

There’s no limit.

A couple of weeks ago, to take a break from riding my bike, I travelled with Jen to a city that is synonymous with cycling. As first-time visitors to Amsterdam, we soon learned to walk in single file whenever a cyclist came towards us on one of the narrow paths by the canals. Here, the bike is king: cyclists aren’t bound by red lights, and every day we were doing the Tourist Safety Dance, stepping off the kerb and back on it again to avoid clusters of cyclists barrelling along the road, then repeating the steps a few times until there was a gap in the two-wheeled traffic big enough for us to reach the other side. We didn’t mind playing Frogger and it looked like no one else does either. Humans, unlike arcade amphibians, are natural adaptors. That’s why they’ve been around so long.

But bike culture, like any other type of culture, isn’t an exportable product that can be bundled on a plane and flown back to London. Almost every Amsterdammer rides shopping bikes, which means everyone travels at roughly the same speed, making it relatively simple for pedestrians to dodge them (even though they’re going somewhat faster than you might expect a clunky sit-up-and-beg to move). I think the speeds of London’s cyclists are simply too varied for this Amsterdanarchy to work.

Indeed, the Dutch capital is a million miles from the world of Britain’s serious recreational cyclist. I could count the number of drop handlebars we saw on the fingers of one hand, and a large newsagent we stumbled upon which stocked a considerable selection of magazines from every consumer sector you can think of – home and garden, music, video games, children’s titles, you name it – had only a tiny selection of titles covering cycle sport.

Riding a bike in London is an act of rejecting the limits placed on your movement by motor traffic and, to a lesser extent, public transport. It is expressive, individualistic, maybe even (in the most antisocial cases) transgressive. In Amsterdam, where I saw a beaming little girl perched on the front of her dad’s bike as we walked to the Hermitage museum, cycling is a shared culture. To get to that point, London cyclists would need to compromise the way they ride, which would be a change more significant than any road-building, law-changing or investment in infrastructure. Would we ever be prepared to make that leap?