There are many blogs, shmogs, tweets and bleeps circling the interweb that discuss the seemingly unbelievable and wonderful life that Amsterdammers lead on their lekker fietsen (bicycles). You’ll come across remarks and observations about the rules, the infrastructure, the politics behind it all, the brilliant atmosphere, how pragmatic it all is, et cetera et cetera. You’ll see beautiful pictures of Mevrouw (Mrs) and Meneer (Mr) pedalling effortlessly through the flat, often damp streets of Amsterdam—directly experiencing the geography of their own city. It is an uncompromisingly picturesque urban scene for those not entirely familiar with it.
But what about the more subtle intricacies of the system, the more nuanced rules or behaviours that aren’t discussed often because they aren’t blatantly obvious to the common eye, or even to the Dutch themselves (it’s all too natural for them)? These behavioural interactions among cyclists and informal regulations help make Amsterdam the cohesive cycling jungle that it is—yet they are also a product of the country’s culture and history. I have therefore created a list, not intending to reveal any sense of Dutch exceptionalism when it comes to cycling, but more to reveal the results and nuances of a cycling dominant urban system.
Internalise these rules and comments with your bicycle in the city, and you may just find yourself whisking through the streets with eloquence, confidence and in a way that Amsterdam expects of you.
1. Awareness of space, wherever you go: you must negotiate the jungle. Always be aware of those travelling around you, weather by foot, bike, tram, bus, skateboard, car, or even wheelchair. The interactions between all of these different modes behave like a cohesive organism that need constant tweaking by all of the individuals involved. You are interacting with each other on a subconscious level.
2. Go about on your fiets as if you were walking; remaining nonchalant and relaxed. Exude confidence, carrying onwards down het fietspad (cycle path) in a stylishly brazen fashion.
3. There are rules and regulations in regard to the cycling infrastructure (lights and signs in particular), but be willing to break them…. at the right time. Vague? Yes. You’ll understand after a few weeks of cycling in the city.
4. Try to keep up the pace with the general speed of those cycling around you.
5. Cycling in heels does not need societal approval.
Amsterdam From Behind
6. Occasionally you will receive a good yelling (and that can be upsetting, especially as a sensitive little American girl like me!) if you make a mistake on the fietspad, but generally people are very forgiving and patient.
7. If you are cycling with a friend it is allowed (and quite normal) to cycle next to them on the fietspad for a little chitchat. However, you must be aware of people who might want to pass from behind you at all times.
8. Don’t worry, you won’t run over the pigeons. Pigeons are undaunted by the bicycles, so much that you feel like you’re about to run over them. I would be much more concerned with running over absent minded / oblivious / unaccustomed tourists (bless their hearts).
9. Trams have no mercy and move incredibly fast. Don’t end up underneath one.
10. Use your fietsbel (bicycle bell) ONLY when absolutely necessary. It is faster and easier just to cycle around something that might be in your way, instead of using the bell and waiting for them to react. That being said, don’t be afraid to use it either. Another rule left to ambiguity and personal discretion.
11. Learn the holding-hands-with-your-partner-on-your-bicycle phenomenon.
12. Having your first bicycle stolen is almost like losing your first love. Keep your head up; there are plenty more fish in the sea.
13. It should take you no longer than a minute to hop from your bicycle, find somewhere to park it, and lock it. Very little discussion about what to do or where to put your bicycle is needed. (The opposite is what I usually experience with visitors: “so should I like, put my bike here, or like, what do you think? … My usual response: “have you locked your sodding bike yet?”).
14. If you have made a mistake op jouw fiets (on your bicycle) and need to apologise to someone, respond with a simple, high-pitched ‘sorrrrrrry!’ (which is how you say sorry in Dutch) and a sympathetic glance. Speaking in English might make the natives more frustrated with you.
15. Cycling should not become harder after a few drinks.
16. If you have been drinking (or not, as the case may be), do not forget to lock your bike to something. I have heard countless stories of people not paying attention and locking their bicycles to nothing. Much to their aggravation, they return a few hours later and it is gone. With their lock still hanging, which is the Amsterdam bicycle thief’s way of saying: “Sucker”.
17. Find yourself better than Avoid anyone riding a blatantly obvious rental bike (which usually comes in the form of clunky Red, Yellow, or Green) and who travels in clumps of other blatantly obvious out-of-towners.
18. There is hardly anything better than sitting on the back of the fiets with a cigarette in hand whilst your (Dutch) boyfriend (girlfriend?) effortlessly carries you across the city. This may be a bit of a gender specific observation, but anything is possible really.
19. It is not cruel to strap your kid(s) onto your bicycle, and no, they’re not wearing helmets. No need to call child protection services.
20. Carry what you’d like or need: suitcases, plants, wood, furniture, flowers, cases of beer, etc. The fiets balancing act is a wondrous art form.
Autumn In BikeAMS
21. This is a bit of an obvious one, but wearing a helmet will make you look like a momma’s boy. The Netherlands has the highest cycle rates and participation in the world yet also the lowest accident rates, all without wearing helmets? How could this possibly be???
22. Find yourself better than Dislike anyone who drives a scooter. As Marc said to me once, “motor scooters owners are the new car drivers”… Even if they aren’t being rude (which they often are), they exude rudeness anyway just by their existence on the lanes/paths and entitlement. Apparently around 96% of them reach illegal speeds, and I believe they generally damage the tranquillity and synergy of the fietspaden.
Scooter Rider Got Told. When Is Enough Enough?
23. Cycling is not a big deal. It’s not a political statement, not even an environmental statement—it’s utilitarianism at its best, like walking down the street. The Dutch don’t often find their own system very exceptional or astonishing because it is normalised, and this is proof that a legitimate cycling system has been established.
Eliza van der fietser