Amsterdam cycling

Posted on March, 01 2012

Becoming the world's most bike-friendly city 

Becoming the world's most bike-friendly city

In 2007 Amsterdam became the first large western city where the bicycle overtook the car as the most popular means of private transport. It didn’t happen by accident – Amsterdam’s status as the world’s most bike-friendly city is the result of cycling inclusive planning, and has led to dramatic improvement in the city's air quality. An NGO, Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-ce), is now spreading Dutch bicycle culture to the rest of the globe.


Keywords: cycling, mobility, transport, air quality, governance, participation

Efforts by cities to decrease their motorised traffic are one reason the bicycle’s popularity has increased in the last decade. China still has the most bicycles in total (430 million), but the Netherlands is on top per capita with more than 1 per person. Denmark and Germany follow close behind. All these countries have created bicycle-friendly transport systems. As a result, the share of all trips by bike is high: 27% in the Netherlands, 18% in Denmark and 10% in Germany (see also Copenhagen and Münster). In the US and Great Britain, bikes are used for less than 2% of all trips.

The reliable bike
In Amsterdam the bicycle overtook the car as a means of transport sometime between 2005 and 2007, according to a survey carried out by Fietsberaad, the Dutch Bicycle Council, a state-financed centre of expertise. Residents used bicycles 0.87 times per day on average, and cars 0.84 times. The total number of car trips decreased by 14% between 1990 and 2006, while downtown bike trips increased by 36%. Previous statistics showed that bicycles account for 55% of all journeys to work (shorter than 7.5 km), and 60% of all journeys within the city. In 2009 a survey by the Institute for Mobility Policy showed that Dutch people liked both their cars and their bicycles, but while they associated the car with independence, the bicycle represented reliability, requiring less maintenance and getting you there on time. Despite increases in bike-use, bike fatality rates have remained among the lowest in the world.

The key is planning
What explains this is planning, and not just the Dutch long-held love affair with bicycles, says a study undertaken by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler at Rutgers University. Pucher and Buehler analysed the reasons for the wide differences in bike cultures between countries. They found that bicycle-friendly countries have taken measures over 30 years to make cycling more attractive, safe, and practical, and to restrict car driving – thereby making it more stressful, impractical, and unattractive. In Amsterdam, an extensive system of bike lanes, integrated with public transport, allows cyclists to pass through traffic signals and take short cuts through residential neighbourhoods, where the maximum speed for cars is 30 km per hour. Cyclists often have right of way at crossroads and traffic signals. There are parking spaces for cycles all over the city, while car parking downtown is highly restricted (see also Paris). Bicycling is encouraged by way of traffic instruction programs, while car driving is discouraged through high taxes and restrictions. According to Rutgers' Buehler in an interview with Worldwatch Institute, people who would usually have driven a car know that it will cost them €5 to park and 10 minutes more by car than if they took a bike.

Bicycle Masterplan
The Dutch government has created a Bicycle Masterplan and integrated bicycling in all traffic planning. Between 2007 and 2010, it spent €70m on cycle projects in Amsterdam alone. Immediate results include a significant improvement in the city’s air conditions in the 2000s, credited mainly to the transformation of the traffic system, according to the EU publication, European Green Capital Best Practice 2010-2011. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of days where the EU air quality norms were exceeded dropped from 42 days to 3 days for PM10 (large particles), from 20 days to 2 days for ozone, and from 36.5 days to 30.5 days for nitrogen dioxide.

Progress in bicycle culture in the Netherlands is also the result of a coordination among many stakeholders. In Amsterdam, one NGO leads in spreading cycling culture: Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-ce). I-ce began in 1996 and is a hub for organisations, campaigns, research, and international cooperation on cycling and sustainability. Its vision is that "The bicycle has high potential to contribute to the solution of urban mobility problems at low cost and to protection of the environment and a better quality of life. However, to be fully efficient and reach these goals, cycling has to be integrated in overall urban, traffic and transport planning (cycling inclusive planning)." I-ce is sharing its experiences – in Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Kenya, Peru, South Africa and Uganda, for example – through a Bicycle Partnership Program.

Cycling Embassy
In September 2011, the Netherlands followed Denmark's lead and established the Dutch Cycling Embassy. This is another step in the cooperation among stakeholders, as it is formed by all parts of the Dutch cycling world: consultants, engineers, scientists, industrialists, politicians and NGOs – Fietsberaad and I-ce among others.

Amsterdam has been named the most bike-friendly city in the world in several studies. In the new Copenhagenize Index (2011) that measures cities' bike-friendliness, Amsterdam narrowly beat Copenhagen for the top spot. The index is made by Copenhagenize Consulting, an international consultancy specialised in bicycle planning, marketing, and communications.

Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute, 2009, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, First edition, W. W. Norton & Company,

Ben Block, “In Amsterdam, the Bicycle Still Rules”, Worldwatch Institute, 2009,

A.K. Streeter, “Amsterdam Edging Ahead of Copenhagen as Most Bike-Loving Euro-Capital?”, Treehugger, 2009,

Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-ce),

Fietsberaad, the Dutch Bicycle Council,

Dutch Cycling Embassy,

Copenhagenize Index of Bicycle-friendly Cities 2011,

European Green Capital Best Practice Catalogue 2010-2011,

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision,

Text by: Martin Jacobson

© Karl Fjellstrom,
Map Amsterdam 1