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Observing Jodenbreestraat, a lively shopping street in Amsterdam

Posted by on June 14th, 2013 at 12:01 pm

My recent trip to the Netherlands was funded in part by Bikes Belong’s Green Lane Project. You can read more stories from the trip here.

Amsterdam riding and city scenes-16

Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam is a shopping street that bustles with activity.

My favorite thing to do while visiting another city is to just observe the locals. This is especially true when I’m in a new city specifically to learn about their bicycling culture. You can learn a lot about how good or bad a city is for cycling simply by watching how people use and interact with their bicycles while going about their daily lives.

Location of Jodenbreestraat.

Last Sunday, I spent a long time just sitting and watching people on Jodenbreestraat (map). This street is fascinating; both for its historic and cultural significance and for the example it sets for what could be the future of a major Portland street.

The street itself is steeped in history. In the 1600s, Rembrandt lived just one block from where I sat on that sunny afternoon watching people and their bicycles. By the 20th century, Jodenbreestraat — which translates to “Jewish Broad Street” — was a bustling Jewish neighborhood. World War II changed on all that. After its residents were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis Jodenbreestraat became deserted and all but forgotten. Then in the 1960s, as the force of car culture began to overwhelm Europe just like it was doing in the U.S., the Amsterdam city government hatched plans to turn Jodenbreestraat into a major highway. The city widened the street and demolished nearly all of its houses.

But just as construction ramped up, the people revolted. We learned from a local bike advocate during a tour that large-scale demonstrations and riots against the highway plans took place on Jodenbreestraat in 1975. The people won. The city government stopped construction and the highway was never built.

Today Jodenbreestraat is an amazing mix of locals, tourists, bicycles, cars, and buses. And, unlike most of Amsterdam’s narrow, winding, canal-lined streets, it could actually be replicated here in the states.

The width of Jodenbreestraat (probably about 60-feet curb-to-curb) is similar to many streets in Portland. Its cross section includes wide sidewalks, cycle tracks, median islands, and two standard auto lanes in the middle. Obviously, since this is central Amsterdam where over 50% of all trips are made by bike, bicycles make up the majority of traffic on the street.

Here’s a closer look at the street design:

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-4


Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-7

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Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-6

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-2

Sunday afternoon on  -3

There are many things I love about this street. The block I spent time on was a major shopping area with department stores, a pharmacy, a food store, cafes, and many other large (for Amsterdam) retailers. But as you can see in the photos, there is zero space to park a car. If I wanted to drive here to do my shopping, I would have to find a space (impossible) and then pay dearly for it. I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that around 60% of the customers at these shops come by bike (many also walk or arrive by bus/subway).

Bikes are everywhere on Jodenbreestraat. The median islands and the large sidewalk space in front of the main stores were filled with parked bikes. Rather than clutter the street with steel bike racks, most of the bike parking was just a painted square with a bike symbol (keep in mind all the bikes in Amsterdam have kickstands).

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-15

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-10

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-1

I sat for a long time and marveled at how scores of people pulled up, did their shopping and other errands, then deftly packed bags and boxes on their bikes and pedaled away…

Amsterdam riding and city scenes-17

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-26

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-27

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-23

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-18

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-16

Sunday afternoon on Jodenbreestraat-11

Of course we don’t have this rate of bicycle use in any Portland neighborhood. But we might someday. And my perspective is — we get what we build for. If we continue to design our commercial streets primarily to maintain current levels of auto traffic and auto parking, that’s exactly what we’ll have in the future. On the other hand, if we allocate more space to people and bicycles (both of which are much easier to accomodate than large automobiles) we’ll create more vibrant commercial areas similar to Jodenbreestraat.

What street in Portland could you imagine this type of cross-section on? Sandy? Foster?

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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Chris I
Chris I

Looks like they need to invest in some longtails over there!

Joseph E

On the map, it looks like the building-to-building street width is 92 feet, and the “roadway” width (including the car lanes, cycletracks and the bike parking between) is about 56 feet, with at least 18 foot sidewalks on each side. Looking at it, I think the street could be successful with even less total width, but it is nice to have all that space for bike parking and street trees and wide sidewalks.

I wonder if there is a bus route on this street. It would be nice to see something like this on Sandy thru Hollywood, but I we might need to include a pair of bus-only lanes in the middle, as well.

How about SE 7th to Se Sanyd? There’s no bus on that street north of Madison, and cars can take MLK/Grand instead. The right-of-way is big enough. Widen the sidewalks, get rid of the center turn lane and turn most of the car parking into bike parking or street trees, and move the bike lanes over to be cycletracks which continue thru each intersection, like in the Amsterdam example, and let the street turn into a new destination.

It would be much easier than trying to make MLK and Grand into pedestrian-friendly streets, and would not affect any Trimet routes.


Dream on if you think there is either the political will or majority public support in Portland for anything close to this on a major arterial like Sandy Blvd. or Foster Rd.


Beyond the infrastructure in the photos is the underlying built form that supports active mobility to function with commerce in a district like this. The more intense residential density in your photos than we have in Portland provides a customer base to support businesses and more importantly for this kind of infrastructure, density within proximity of commercial services to facilitate consumer purchases via active transportation.

Dick Schouten
Dick Schouten

What drives urban, and suburban and village landscapes all over Nederland is a Dutch appreciation for some part of the outdoor, built environment to be: genuinely charming, comfortable, cozy; a place to linger for a coffee or beer; a place for conversation, a bit of business done or gossip exchanged; a place for us to shop, and otherwise go about our lives without a lot of motorized racket, danger, pollution and dust. One Dutch word (there is no English counterpart), “gezellijk” embraces all of the above.

I partly agree with Jonathan Maus, “there’s…public support for this type of thing.” The gezellijk mind set is well established in significant chunks of greater Portland, and this mindset is as well a potentially huge economic driver for our Region.

Jim Moore
Jim Moore

“We get what we build for” is an excellent quote. I was using “build it and they will come” which means the same thing but relies on faith and trust which is a hard sell especially to local businesses whose livelihoods are at stake.

On car parking, I question your assumption that it limited and expensive. David Hembrow shows that this isn’t the case and that it is quite simple to drive to places like this when necessary BUT people choose to cycle because it is more convenient and usually just as quick if not quicker especially when you can park your bike right at the front of the shops you need to go to.

As to how to get from here to there for American and Australian urban areas, it will most likely require adopting a cycling-first policy across the whole city/town (country even) and not try to change one street (or stroad) in isolation and hope that the idea catches on. Of course there are rare exceptions where something like Jodenbreestraat could be achieved on its own and then perhaps this could be used to convince a whole city to go that way. For most places this won’t be the case so we advocates need to sell the many, many benefits of the required paradigm shift to a cycling-first transport and land use policy.

I envy you your trip! Hoping to do one like it myself sooner rather than later.


In downtown, how about the 10th/11th couplet? Could be interesting, and it extends through the Pearl District. Most of the time, there’s no more auto traffic than one through lane would need. Also, 1st, 2nd and 3rd avenues are possibilities; the entire corner of downtown between Burnside and Stark is certainly ripe for this sort of thing. In general, what if we change how we thought about on-street parking downtown, and only allowed it on one side of the street rather than two on certain streets, and removed a lane of through traffic along with it? That would allow plenty of room to be created for both cycle tracks and bicycle parking…

I agree that SE 7th is low hanging fruit on the eastside; or, even Amsterdam-style street treatments for the whole district from 12th down to the river, with some accommodation for freight uses in the area.

But, what this street really reminds me of is the potential for Hawthorne Blvd — which should NOT be an artery, given that it dead-ends at Mt. Tabor. Through traffic belongs on Powell. Hawthorne should have one lane of car traffic in each direction, cycle tracks, wide sidewalks, bike parking and car parking off-street in strategically-located structures… after all, the only businesses on Hawthorne that don’t already have off-street parking are really only wide enough to have one or two car parking spaces in front of them anyways; how do they think all of their customers arrive already? On foot or bike is how..

Other possibilities? Some of the streets in the Lloyd District, like Multnomah; possibly Lombard in central St Johns (where truck traffic already is routed on a parallel street); east 39th avenue from Hollywood to Holgate (would need some very good urban/street designers to pull that off, but it’s do-able if traffic lights are replaced with traffic circles); Belmont would be perfect for this sort of treatment, up to about SE 50th, and then again in Montavilla; and yes, even Burnside.


Guy with sunglasses is an American: flip flops, shorts, 4 bags of groceries, and not a Dutch bicycle.


All this, and the fact that so many bike trips in Amsterdam are just a mile or so, is made possible by the fact that Amsterdam is a dense city where so many people live close to services and other daily destinations, compared to Portland where we are much more spread out with low, fairly suburban densities in most of the city. A city of 4 to 5 story buildings (and not catering to car convenience) are a Portlander’s worst nightmare, as seen in neighbors’ outrage about “towering” 4-story buildings being built along Division, but that sort of scale and density is typical in even side streets in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Bicycle advocates can’t just look at the street infrastructure in bringing lessons to Portland. We also need to recognize the role and benefits of compact urban development (yes, this means density) in making this possible. Portland doesn’t need to have 4-story buildings everywhere, but along our main streets is pretty reasonable. As Amsterdam and even smaller Dutch cities show, density is not all bad and 4-story buildings are not scary.

Dick Schouten
Dick Schouten

All right Ed I confess. I am a semi-literate Dutch speaker (I was 4 1/2 when my parents immigrated) whose language skills slide badly between trips back there. Consequently I am easily fooled by bad spell check programs. Thanks for the spelling correction.

On the substantive issue of density, tours across Dutch urban, suburban, village and rural areas make it clear that great facilities and a certain mind set are far more determinative of great “bike scenes”. Moreover, over 2 million residents living inside the Multanomah, Washington and Clackamas County Urban Growth Boundaries plus Clark County is already comparable (or more) to places in and around Den Bosch, Eindhoven, etc. We already have a lot of people living in a relatively small land area.

I agree “[D]ensity is not all bad” (Pacific Heights in San Francisco, the Pearl, etc.); and there will be more density in this Region. Some of this new density is or will be occuring on relatively blank canvass (South Waterfront, Conway Properties, the commercial parts of central Beaverton, etc.) with perhaps a bit less nimbyism to interfere with great design.


While all of this looks wonderful, all I can imagine is hordes of thieves and street people simply walking away with all of those bikes.


another view..
Amsterdam Journal

The Dutch Prize Their Pedal Power, but a Sea of Bikes Swamps Their Capital