— This post is part of BikePortland Staff Writer Taylor Griggs’ trip through Europe. See previous dispatches here.
People who visit Amsterdam often discuss the dangers people face while attempting to walk on the bike-filled streets. I think this is a bit exaggerated, especially by Americans who are unfazed by masses of cars and not used to seeing so many people biking at once, so I’ll usually play devil’s advocate to that claim and say something about the comparative danger of getting hit by someone riding a bike versus someone driving a car. I also don’t necessarily fault Dutch bicyclists for being a little annoyed when a tourist — especially one who just spent a couple hours smoking in a coffee shop — walks right through their path.
I walked a lot while I was there, and did have a couple of close calls with people on bikes even though I was paying very close attention to the traffic flow (and was fully lucid!). My opinion is generally that whoever is using the larger and more powerful vehicle bears the majority of the responsibility for making sure more vulnerable road users are safe. In these situations, though, I think I probably earned the insults I received when someone on a bike had to swerve to avoid me. (This only happened once, and they spoke Dutch, so I remain blissfully ignorant to what was said.)
However, there’s an art to walking in Amsterdam, and I think the city could probably stand to make it a little more clear to visitors using all modes of transportation how to abide by it. They have made an effort to create spaces where pedestrians have full reign — in most of the public plazas I wrote about earlier, people on bikes are required to dismount and walk — but the signs marking these spaces are 1) not always very conspicuous and 2) in Dutch. And I learned the risks of not heeding these signs the hard way.
How I almost went to jail
Like I said, I did a lot of walking in Amsterdam, but of course I rode a bike as well — and my experience wasn’t without snags. About two minutes after I picked up my rental bike from a shop in Rembrandtplein, a touristy area in the city center, I was apprehended by two police officers who saw me trying to bike through what was evidently a pedestrian-only area. (I say tried, because I was having a hard time with the coaster brake on my bike and almost fell on a tram track.) Since I picked up my bike from a shop in the middle of this street, I missed the sign at the entrance that signaled these rules.
They yelled something in Dutch, and at first I didn’t know who they were talking to or what they were saying, but they caught up to me and told me to step aside and hand over my passport. I asked why, and after some back and forth, they told me they were fining me for riding my bike illegally.
I was a little agitated, but I tried to keep calm. They took down my information, including the address of my hostel, saying if I didn’t give it to them they’d have to take me to jail. Now, I figured this was an exaggeration, but also knew that if I was really sent to Dutch jail for riding a bike in a pedestrian zone at least I wouldn’t have to worry about getting fired from my job at BikePortland. Still, it would be kind of annoying, so I tried to avoid it.
For some reason, the police were skeptical when I told them I didn’t know this was a pedestrian-only area: it seemed like they thought I was purposely trying to hurt people walking in the street. In Portland, I pride myself on being able to navigate conflict with people walking, even when I occasionally have to ride on the sidewalks, so I didn’t like the accusation that I am inconsiderate of pedestrians!
I kept stressing my ignorance and it seemed like they believed me in the end. At least, they didn’t give me a fine — though, come to think of it, maybe I’ll receive a bill from my hostel in a couple weeks.
I was surprised by how seriously the police took my affront, and even a little impressed they took pedestrian safety so seriously. For the rest of the day, I biked very timidly, dismounting whenever I didn’t see another person on a bike going my same direction, or a clear sign that it was okay for me to be in the area. I don’t think this behavior made pedestrians any safer, but it did make it more difficult for me to get around.
I don’t have a problem with areas only for pedestrians, especially in a place like Amsterdam where there are so many cyclists, but there must be a better way to manage the biker/walker relationship beyond jail threats and fines. Here’s my thought: the fewer cars on the streets, the more room there would be for people using all modes of active transportation to coexist. They’re doing a pretty good job of this in Amsterdam, but it could be better.
Finally, I will admit that my English-speaking arrogance is partly to blame: I should’ve learned more Dutch before traveling to The Netherlands. That wouldn’t have hurt, either.