An Amsterdam Lesson in Transportation

Gradually, Dutch politicians became aware of the many advantages of cycling, and their transport policies shifted – maybe the car wasn’t the mode of transport of the future after all.

Look at all these people on bicycles!

After hearing about the predominance of bicycling in Amsterdam for a few years, I decided it was finally time to go there to see it first-hand.  In July 2017 I made it to Amsterdam and, sure enough, I was mesmerized as I watched all those people going by on bikes, even on my first night there, which was cool and rainy. It looked so effortless and graceful. I was not used to seeing such a continuous stream of cyclists.  

Public transport in Amsterdam.JPG

After a day of observing, I was ready to join the crowds and see the city by bike. Riding along the canal on a lovely summer evening was a magical experience.  Check out a slideshow of some of my street-related Amsterdam photos. Many people I spoke with who live in the Netherlands said that all the biking can be explained this way: bicycling is the best way to get around because it's the fastest and cheapest. This is largely due to policies -- policies which came about because the people advocated for them and government officials pursued them.

As I prepared for my trip, I had consulted Northeastern University Professor Peter Furth about who I should meet with in the Netherlands, given my longstanding appreciation of bicycling and urban planning that fosters healthy communities.  Professor Furth knows both bicycling and the Netherlands well and suggested a few people, and I was pleased to be able to meet them.

Many Ways to Get Around

What was perhaps the most impressive was the ease with which people move around the city, in a variety of modes. The city seemed devoid of the kind of vehicular gridlock and overcrowded trains and buses that is so common in my hometown of Boston and many other cities. There were so many people moving about via foot, bicycle, scooter, tram, metro, bus, train, and ferry. Learn more about the many ways to get around Amsterdam.

Advocating for Better Bicycling

Here I am with Marjolein. Behind us is a queue of people on bikes, waiting for the bridge to go down so they can continue on their way.

Here I am with Marjolein. Behind us is a queue of people on bikes, waiting for the bridge to go down so they can continue on their way.

First, I met Marjolein de Lange at an outdoor cafe on one of the city's busy roads - a road with cycletracks on both sides of the street and a tram down the middle, near one of the city's many bridges. Marjolein is a transportation consultant who specializes in cycling, walking and road safety.  She is also an active advocate for safer streets and bikability. She helped me learn about Fietsersbond, the Cyclists' Union of Amsterdam, a non-governmental organization that protects and promotes the interests of cyclists. How do their members do this? As the website explains, by things like serving on traffic committees set up by local government or by researching highly dangerous intersections. She told me about how residents organized, held die-ins, and advocated for policies and practices to create safer streets for all road users.  (Read about the movement in this piece by The Guardian  - "How Amsterdam became the bicycle capital of the world".)  The substantial progress achieved in Amsterdam over the past forty years gives me hope that other cities will also change their ways, and become more people-centric and less auto-centric.

How Cities can Market Bicycling

Later in the week I met with Meredith Glaser at a beautiful, earthy cafe called Coffee & Coconuts. Meredith, a PhD at the University of Amsterdam, is an urban planner and mobility expert who is originally from the United States and has been living in the Netherlands since 2010. We talked about ways cities can become more bike-friendly. Here is a video in which Meredith provides advice on how cities can market cycling. 

Here I am with Meredith

Here I am with Meredith

Meredith (1).jpg

Much Do Cities Charge Residents to Store Cars on Neighborhood Streets?

Crafting the right policies regarding automobiles is crucial for creating a city that is friendly for biking, walking, and transit. Therefore, much of my conversations with transportation planners and advocates in the Netherlands focused on how cities manage the use and storage of automobiles. See below for the expression on Meredith's face after I told her that there is no charge for resident parking permits in Boston. Her reaction confirmed that it is unusual for a city to give away residential parking permits for free. Have you ever heard of the book The Cost of Free Parking? A 2010 New York Times article about the book notes that "Professor Shoup estimated that the value of the free-parking subsidy to cars was at least $127 billion in 2002, and possibly much more."  Curious, I looked up what other cities charge for resident parking permits. It is likely that some of these policies came into being or were adjusted after the book and/or article were published.  Here are a few examples, from most to least: 

Amsterdam: $35-636 depending on the area*

San Francisco: $128/year

Portland, OR: $60/year

Washington, D.C.: $35/year (low-income and senior discounted rate is $25)

Los Angeles: $34/year

Chicago: $25/year

Miami: $25/year

Cambridge, MA: $25/year

Atlanta: $20/year

Boston: $0.

*Converted from Euros

Copied from the City of Boston website (September 2017)

Copied from the City of Boston website (September 2017)

Some cities, such as Amsterdam, charge more for a second resident parking permit. For instance, in the South area of the city, a second residential parking permit costs 1/3 more than the first one. From my research, I learned that many cities have different parking zones, and have a pricing structure whereby permits to park in the urban core are priced higher. Check out this 2016 City Observatory piece about the link between parking and the high cost of housing, and ways cities can address equity (i.e. reducing minimum parking requirements for developments, providing parking discounts for area residents, enabling biking and transit, encouraging shared parking areas so that off-peak hours can be used by other businesses/residents, etc.)

Where I live, in Boston, the City distributes an unlimited number of parking permits. Compare this practice to a city like Amsterdam. As the City of Amsterdam website notes, "in some districts, for instance in the centre of Amsterdam, the waiting list for a parking permit can be so long that it takes several years before a permit is issued." This is a way to ensure that there are not far more residential permits than there are spaces, thereby helping to reduce the circling the block phenomenon that is so common in cities like Boston. Why does Amsterdam charge for resident parking permits? "Amsterdam limits car traffic to make the city accessible and liveable. That's why you pay for parking. The closer to the center, the higher the parking fee." Although Boston is not yet charging for resident parking permits, the City has recently started to modernize its commercial parking program by piloting dynamic pricing for metered parking in certain neighborhoods. I am hopeful that will be the first of many steps to reform the way the City manages parking.

Boston doesn't charge anything for resident parking permits?!

Boston doesn't charge anything for resident parking permits?!

As I was writing this blog, I discovered that both Marjolein and Meredith are in this must-watch video about bicycling in Amsterdam (brought to you by StreetFilms). 

50% by 2030

Another bicycling advocate I met with in Amsterdam was Inge Janssen, a member of the team at CycleSpace, an organization that works to accelerate the shift from car-centric to human centric cities worldwide. The goal is for 50% of all trips to be by bicycle by 2030. CycleSpace leads the Bicycle Mayor program, as well as hosts conferences, bike film festivals, tours of Amsterdam for international delegations, and more.

A large banner pronounces CycleSpace's goal of 50% of trips by bicycle by 2030.

A large banner pronounces CycleSpace's goal of 50% of trips by bicycle by 2030.

Meeting with Inge of CycleSpace

Meeting with Inge of CycleSpace

Erica Mattison