Greater Greater Washington

Amsterdam proves bikes and streetcars are allies

Cyclists and streetcar tracks don't always get along, but the two should not be enemies. On the contrary, cities with large streetcar networks also tend to be the most bicycle friendly.


Photo by Gerard Stolk PCproblems on Flickr.

This is because streetcars contribute strongly to the development of more dense, urban, less car-dependent citiesthe same characteristics that produce the most friendly urban bicycling environment.

Amsterdam is widely considered to be one of the bicycling capitals of the western world, and rightly so. Its mode share is a whopping 38%. That blows away America's top biking city, Portland, which has a mode share of around 4%. Simply put, Amsterdam is a better city to bike in than any large city in America, by far.

And guess what: Amsterdam also has a huge streetcar network. There are currently 16 operating streetcar lines there, reaching all over the city.


Amsterdam streetcar network map, via Wikipedia

It's also no coincidence that Portland is both America's top cycling city and home to our country's streetcar renaissance. The same city that most agree is the best urban cycling experience in the country is also home to the largest modern streetcar network.

To be sure, integrating bikes and streetcars takes a bit of extra planning. Amsterdam and Portland both have extensive bikeway networks so that mixing is less necessary. That extra planning is important, and is needed to build the sort of sustainable city that Portland, Amsterdam, and Washington aspire to be.

Nevertheless, the point is clear: Streetcars and bikes are not enemies. They work together all over the world, and they can work together here.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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As with most things like this, the devil is truly in the details. They can co-exist for sure, but it requires a comprehensive style of planning and cooperation between agencies rarely seen in DC. Hoping for and believing the best, though!

by Steve D on Nov 7, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

Add Rotterdam and The Hague to that list. And Brussels. And Prague. Plenty of bikes and streetcars there as well.

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2011 4:09 pm • linkreport

Agreed. Cyclists' main enemy here are cars. It's pretty easy to avoid streetcar tracks when the rest of the road isn't clogged with cars.

by John Marzabadi on Nov 7, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport

@ Steve D:it requires a comprehensive style of planning and cooperation between agencies rarely seen in DC.

We're talking about Amsterdam here. Where the new 10 km Noord-Zuidlijn metro was planned to be ready this year for about a billion and a half, but reality caught up and the new ETA is now 2017 at a cost of around three billion euro.

Yes, DC's leadership is horribly corrupt and incompetent. But Amsterdam is trying incompetence as well.

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

Jasper, point taken. I'm really talking about an approach to planning that we don't really do too well in DC, rather than just the incompetence or corruption.

IE, the kind of comprehensive city-wide transportation planning that Arlington has codified, or that our pal Richard Layman is always bemoaning the lack of in DC. We have a comp plan with a slim chapter on transportation, but we don't have a master plan for transportation. It's all pretty piecemeal. Bike plan from 2005 (that's routinely ignored), streetcar plan, traffic plan, etc. And all these plans don't always necessarily act like the other exists. (But I totally get what you're saying.) :)

by Steve D on Nov 7, 2011 6:47 pm • linkreport

BTW: Let me repeat that. It takes Amsterdam from 2003 to 2017 and 3 billion euros to build 10 km of metro, while DC starts in 2005 and will be done in 2016 with 37 km of metro for 7 billion dollar.

Wow. DC does better.

[Ok, the Silver line does not go through the rotting wooden foundation of an old city in a swamp, like the Noord-zuidlijn, but whatever]

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2011 8:48 pm • linkreport

One thing to note is that people are looking for different things out of their biking.

IE: Biking at 8mph vs 18mph. You really cant go over 15mph SAFELY in amsterdam on your bike.

by JJJJJ on Nov 7, 2011 11:09 pm • linkreport

A more practical example for DC and other tram-curious cities to look to is Toronto. This highly bikeable city has the largest streetcar network in the continent, spanning over 75 km (compared with Portland's 6.4 km). Most of the streetcars operate in mixed traffic with cars and bikes on long straight avenues bisecting the dense urban core. Interestingly, little to nothing about the bike-streetcar overlap is done in terms of planning from the City or Toronto Transit Commission; it's essentially a non-issue.

Meanwhile, the busiest streetcar lines are also some of the busiest streets for cyclists (and pedestrians), because they are the social, cultural and economic arteries of the city. People get their wheels stuck which sucks, but Toronto's tens of thousands of daily commuter cyclists manage nonetheless. In fact, only a small segment of one streetcar line even has a painted bike lane (College Street around UofT), all the other streetcar streets are too narrow to accommodate them.

by eozberk on Nov 7, 2011 11:45 pm • linkreport

And guess what, Amsterdam police enforce rules of the road equally for cars and bicycles. In fact, bicycles even have their own system of small red and green lights. Having visited Amsterdam for only 2 short vacations, I have seen several cyclists ticketed for (a) not being in a bike lane, (b) not stopping at a bike "red light" and (c) nearly creaming pedestrians.

If bikes, cars and trams are to co-exist in DC, then the city police needs to do a better job enforcing ALL traffic laws.

In Germany there are separate civil and criminal police forces. Perhaps DC needs to consider this separation so that the civil police could spend more time enforcing things like double-parking violations, bikers who do not stop at intersections, etc. It would put to bed the foolish argument that "police need to focus on more serious crimes" when in fact they spend most of their time sitting around.

by Anonny on Nov 8, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

@ Anonny: And guess what, Amsterdam police enforce rules of the road equally for cars and bicycles. In fact, bicycles even have their own system of small red and green lights. Having visited Amsterdam for only 2 short vacations, I have seen several cyclists ticketed for (a) not being in a bike lane, (b) not stopping at a bike "red light" and (c) nearly creaming pedestrians.

I don't know what you were smoking when you were in Amsterdam, but all I know is that Amsterdam police will laugh a bikers suddenly stopping for red lights if they see a cop car.

You can not see bikers being ticketed for not being in a bike lane. That never happens. Red light tickets happen - I've had one myself - but incredibly rarely. There is no such thing as nearly creaming pedestrians.

In reality, the most frequent tickets bikers get is biking without lights. The police do this mostly to get some sense into kids biking to school without lights. They set up ambushes at unavoidable spots; bridges, tunnels, etc. They combine those with moped checks.

The unwritten contract with bikers in the Netherlands is that bikers can break all the rules, as long as they do not bother others.

by Jasper on Nov 8, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

Interesting stat about street car and bike usage.

I bike because riding the bus sucks. I wonder if folks in Amsterdam bike because riding the streetcar sucks.

by mtp on Nov 8, 2011 4:47 pm • linkreport

@ mtp:I wonder if folks in Amsterdam bike because riding the streetcar sucks.

No. The Dutch bike because biking is an efficient way of getting around. As a kid you bike to school. The Amsterdam streetcars are pretty decent, especially the newer models. Bus service is pretty decent as well.

Also, parking is hell in Amsterdam. There are few spots, and downtown rates are €5/h. Also, the greens are in the city government, calling for bans on SUVs, extra taxes on larger cars, and playing with the idea of car-free zones. Parking permits (if available) are up to €400 per year.

Little note: the city of Amsterdam is about the same size as the District.

by Jasper on Nov 9, 2011 11:32 am • linkreport

Don't forget that Amsterdam is pancake-flat. That makes it quite bike-friendly. Also, since the traditional central business district there is surrounded by what is basically a large medieval/Renaissance city, it's easy to make a case for severe parking restrictions.

Dan, I have real doubts about the 38% mode share being for the entire ~2 million Amsterdam metro, and not just the ~700k residents of the City of Amsterdam proper. The big modern business districts along the ring road (e.g. the one by Zuid Station, near VU University) aren't really bike-friendly areas.

The thing I found most interesting about Amsterdam is that while the trams and buses are squeaky-clean, the metro is filthy.

by Peter on Nov 9, 2011 11:44 am • linkreport

@ Peter:The big modern business districts along the ring road (e.g. the one by Zuid Station, near VU University) aren't really bike-friendly areas.

I would not say that. Most of Holland is extremely bike friendly, especially when compared to the rest of the world. The business districts have some more roads, but note that you defined the neighborhood by the Zuid Station, a multimodel hub with train, metro, tram, buses and a higway on top of separated bike trails.

Get back to me when Tysons has that.


View Larger Map
[Zoom in a bit and note the light line going vertically through the highway and railway station. That is a bike tunnel.]

The thing I found most interesting about Amsterdam is that while the trams and buses are squeaky-clean, the metro is filthy.

As I said. They're trying to be incompetent really hard. Amsterdam does have a serious drug and junk problem. accompanied with the necessary crime needed to all the drug and prostitution industry. Not to speak of the hard-core maffia that keeps liquidating people in broad daylight.

by Jasper on Nov 9, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

"Dan, I have real doubts about the 38% mode share being for the entire ~2 million Amsterdam metro, and not just the ~700k residents of the City of Amsterdam proper. The big modern business districts along the ring road (e.g. the one by Zuid Station, near VU University) aren't really bike-friendly areas."

No, 38% is indeed for the entire city. Which I believe includes northern Amsterdam which is basically just suburban/rural. In the core of the city, I have seen several studies put the rate at 55%.

I believe their goal is to get a city wide rate of 50%, which would be a pretty amazing goal to shoot for.

by Ross on Nov 9, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

Anonny, consider that stop signs are the rule that American bicyclists most frequently disobey -- and that stop signs are vanishingly infrequent in the Netherlands. Instead, they have low speed limits and "sharks tooth" yield lines everywhere. Their rules account for bikes, so bicyclists follow them, unlike in the USA where the rules try to slow down cars and end up thwarting bikes.

I echoed eozberk's point about Toronto in the other thread, although pointing out that plenty of cyclists there crash on the tracks. I find it silly that many people are so quick to point to examples in faraway Europe when there are equally good examples -- which are far more comparable demographically, historically, and culturally -- just 350 miles away.

by Payton on Nov 9, 2011 10:26 pm • linkreport

Just because bicycle and streetcar networks are not inherently incompatible and both modes together can enhance livability does not mean that streetcars are an appropriate transit technology in a particular corridor such as Arlington's Columbia Pike.

Streetcar systems work best with bicycling where 1) a good urban street grid exists, 2) traffic speeds are low, and 3) streetcar tracks are NOT installed in BOTH curb lanes of the only through street.

For Columbia Pike, streetcar tracks would post a triple threat to bicycling, and all the wonderful examples in other cities are totally irrelevant.

by Allen Muchnick on Nov 11, 2011 11:57 pm • linkreport

The unwritten contract with bikers in the Netherlands is that bikers can break all the rules, as long as they do not bother others.
That's more or less the Dutch social contract, isn't it?

"Doe eens normaal" - "Just be normal."

But the flip side is that all kinds of behavior is allowed, so long as that behavior doesn't harm other people.

by David R. on Nov 12, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

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