Bicycle-Centric Design that Reinforces Mobility and Safety

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: April 11, 2023

Amsterdam boasts that it’s the bike capital of the world. Smaller North American cities can learn from their best practices.

At first glance, Amsterdam may appear to have been built for cycling, but its mega bike culture started in the 1970s to help reduce growing traffic fatalities. Gentrifying neighborhoods like De Pijp are embracing this bike-centric lifestyle, opting to replace car parking with greenspace.

Policies that enable practice

In the 1990s, the Netherlands shifted from a car-centric city model to prioritizing bicycles as a mobility preference, funded in part by revenue from car parking fees. Several factors supported this shift: the country has a centralized system and government continues to prioritize public mobility and safety, even at the cost of private land use. The country has an extensive rail system, flat topography, and bike culture that started before WWII. And, with the absence of a domestic automobile company, there aren’t strong lobbies pushing to keep the transit system focused on cars.

Importance of Design

Dutch planners proactively think about how commuters will interact with their environment. “If you need a sign, it’s a bad design,” said Meredith Glaser of the University of Amsterdam’s Urban Cycling Institute.

To counteract the innate principle that humans are error-prone, Amsterdam’s streets use standardized colors, paver materials, and shapes to help users navigate the congested, diverse transit network. Gentle physical structures like low curbs help keep bikers from converging with pedestrians in another lane. Cars are treated like guests, relegated to park in underground garages and move slowly, reinforcing drivers to be cautious of bikers.

The Power of Human Infrastructure

In the Netherlands, cycling is a social activity, said Glaser. The system has developed successfully because there is a critical mass of residents whose consistent presence reinforce the city’s bike culture. Bikers usually communicate through body language, which, at times, is forced through deliberately removing traffic lights. At an intersection near Alexanderplein where cars, trucks, trams, and bikes meet, the city found that crash rates fell after they removed the traffic lights: forcing bikers and drivers to pay closer attention to each other made everyone safer.

In a study evaluating Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure through the eyes of expatriates who recently moved to Amsterdam, researchers Samuel Nello-Deakin and Anna Nikolaeva found that a strongly established culture of utilitarian cycling helped encourage newcomers to use cycling as their primary means of transport. Interviewees in the study reported that access to bikes is easy and inexpensive. Further, it’s fun, social, and a central part of Amsterdam’s lifestyle.

Next Steps for Your Community

  1. Slow down. While pedestrian-biker accidents do happen in Amsterdam, bikes travel at a lower velocity than cars, leading to reduced injury. Further, studies show that reduced car traffic can lead to more social interaction and cohesion, improved physical and mental health, and reduced stress. Experimental slow streets programs in US cities became so popular during the Pandemic that many local governments are opting to make the plans permanent.
  1. Connect cycling with existing transit infrastructure. In the Netherlands, 85% of people live within bike distance of more than two train station. While this rail density doesn’t exist in North America, consider leveraging existing transit hub infrastructure and using bikes as last-mile choice.
  1. Partner with local stakeholders. Planners in the Netherlands acknowledge that their bike-centric system can disadvantage lower-income residents who may be travelling from suburbs to the city center for work. Through their research about “slow streets” programs in 30 US cities, Meredith Glaser and Kevin J. Krizek found that the most successful municipalities had proactively allocated time and resources for staff to collaborate with stakeholders.


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