Lifestyle

Trouble in cyclists’ paradise: Amsterdam accused of favouring pedestrians

Its reputation is that of an idyll for cyclists, a city freed from the torment of cars. But while Amsterdam remains a model to most of the world, there are signs of trouble in paradise.

A series of developments have led the Amsterdam branch of the Fietsersbond, the Dutch cyclists’ union, to claim the municipality has turned on them, unfairly prioritising pedestrians in the city’s historic centre.

Where once the cyclist was king, free to weave around the small roads of the centrum with abandon, it is claimed there has been a discernible change of attitude. At best cyclists are being treated as “guests” in the heart of the city, at worst as intruders to be expelled to outer lanes, it is suggested.

“Amsterdam is still a cyclists’ paradise but it is getting more and more difficult to move through the centre,” said Jan Pieter Nepveu, a spokesperson for the Amsterdam branch of the cyclists’ union. “It starts with the proclamation of a pedestrian zone and before you know it, cycling is discouraged with kerbs and then fences. The centre becomes the domain of pedestrians. The municipality will have to defend cyclists against an increase in walkers, tourists and the catering industry.”

A number of unfortunate developments are raised as evidence that the humble pedestrian, and their allies in the catering industry, have got the upper hand.

Over 2019 and 2020, a trial was launched by the municipality to see if it could encourage cyclists to take “alternative routes” rather than travel directly on the Damstraatjes and Haarlemmerstraat, two central areas.

The “stress” caused by overcrowding and fast-moving bikes was said to have moved local residents and entrepreneurs to demand action. “The cyclist’s behaviour is the most important point in this issue,” a report on the experiment noted.

Signs for “comfortable cycling” routes were erected to see if the cyclists could be encouraged to go on routes around the centre – but to no avail. They were largely ignored.

Now, however, the cyclists’ union believes a more underhand approach is being taken to squeeze the two-wheeler out in favour of the two-footer. “It is not a policy but it is happening,” said Nepveu.

There are concerns that in seeking to move mopeds out of the city centre by pedestrianising areas, cyclists are being caught up as collateral damage.

But choices are also being made that are clearly designed to constrain the free-wheeling spirit of the past, it is claimed. The most recent flash point has been the redevelopment of the Binnengasthuis site in Amsterdam’s university quarter, a complex of buildings that used to be a hospital.

What was once an important cycle lane running through the site is to be submerged into “a pedestrian area where bicycles are guests”, as a recent council agenda described it. The move drew about 50 protesters a week ago, including Saar Muller, 68, a a retired clinical physicist.

“The university intends to give pedestrians priority and divert the cycling through traffic through an unsafe road – narrow, many cars, loading and unloading,” she said. “This development seems to us to be part of a broader tendency to create ‘pedestrians first’ space, and moreover in more and more minor streets the next step is to block cycle traffic. The quiet corona periods made cyclists rediscover the city and the pleasure it was to cycle through the centre instead of around it.”

In particular, the description of a cyclist as a “guest”, made on signs in a number of parks as well, is being taken as a serious affront to many.

“I hate that,” Nepveu said. “[The signs] are not really new but that they are used a lot is new. A lot of cyclists take their cycling seriously, it is a mode of transport, not playing. It is a lot of stress for pedestrians and cyclists when you have to share your place.”

Nepveu said the union was in talks with the municipality to see if there might be a rethink. “If cyclists cannot drive through the city centre, this has consequences for the attractiveness of cycling because cycle routes around the centre become congested, for example at Centraal station,” he said. “The cycle paths around the centre are mostly along motorways. There is noise and stench from cars, and there are many traffic lights.”

A spokesperson for the municipality denied cyclists were being pushed out. “The sign ‘bicycles as guests’ is used in places where cyclists and pedestrians have to share the limited space available or in places where the city wants to discourage the use of mopeds, for example in parks,” he said. “There are no plans to ban bicycles in these areas. Cycling will still be allowed in the Binnengasthuis area, so that the parking space for bikes remains accessible. However, passing through this area by bike is discouraged, so the limited space available can be safely used by the many pedestrians there.”

The spokesperson added that a bicycle “highway” that forms a ring through the city was near completion.

“Amsterdam is constantly looking for ways to make cycling in the city easier, quicker and safer,” he said. “Also, the number of parking facilities for bikes is big and growing constantly. Next month a parking garage for bikes is being opened at Leidseplein, one of the city’s big squares, that can hold up to 2,000 bikes. A garage for 7,000 bikes is being built at Centraal station.”