Joss, Jasper, Giona, and our Executive Director, Gerd Leipold, somewhere outside Berg-am-Zee. Not pictured here (and probably speeding ahead) Hans, Ulrich, Lucy, and Emmy: Giona took a nice shot of everyone here.
All of us at the Greenpeace International were on retreat this week on the Wadden Sea island of Texel. Most took the train, but nine of us biked the 80 kilometres or so through chocolate-box villages and undulating dunes from Amsterdam to the northern-most tip of the country. It took us 7 and a half hours, including three breaks and a few wrong turns.
This being the Netherlands, we had bike path all the way. Dedicated bike path, separate from pedestrian and auto routes. In towns and villages, bikes get their own traffic light system.The right of way at every intersection is clearly marked with “sharks teeth” signals on the road: if they point toward you, you’re the one who has to yield.
And cars drivers, for the most part, don’t treat cyclists like second class anomalies that are none of their concern. Driver education in the Netherlands concentrates heavily on bike safety. According to this Study comparing bicycle safety in Paris, Boston, and Amsterdam, driver education, dedicated bike paths, and early bike safety education are all reasons that Amsterdam bicycle injuries and fatalities are absurdly low compared to other cities, despite the fact that there are more bikes than cars and “the only people who wear helmets in the Netherlands are foreigners.”
When I see the state of bicycle transport in other cities, I despair. A few months ago in Rome, I was dumbfounded to see a bike path in the city centre. Unfortunately, it went for about 100 meters and abruptly dead-ended. In New York and London, you take to the road knowing the statistics on how many people die on their bikes: 22 per year in 2000–2003, 17 last year in London.
London is investing heavily in bike lanes, and the congestion tax and subway terrorism have been driving more and more Londoners to take the pedal plunge. I expect subway extortion may be a factor as well. 4 pounds (almost 8 dollars) for a one-hop journey on the Tube is a crime. But will London ever go car free?
It ought to. Consider Venice: if you’ve ever been, you know what an extraordinary pleasure a car-free city can be. Marth and I were there with our pals Steve and Kelly when their daughter, Layla, was about 6. What a joy to cross a street without fearing for a child’s life. What a great thing to breathe air untainted by exhaust fumes. And what a peaceful experience to not have to tune out the constant din and roar of those snarling metal vampires of petroleum.
We ought to have more cities free of cars. Many more of them. And if any city can go car-free, Amsterdam can. It has canals for heavy transport, infrastructure for bikes, and a completely workable public transport system. It’s flat. There was an attempt in the early 90s to declare the city centre car-free. It failed in a referendum, and it seems today the steam has gone out of efforts to ban the car completely. The Platform Binnestad Autovrij, an activist group that has been working to reduce cars in the centre since the days of the referendum, is these days chipping at the edges of the problem, but admits at their website that there simply isn’t enough public support for a car-free Amsterdam to make it happen.
Maybe it’s time to change that. If the planetary emergency that is Global Warming is changing all equations, this is one that ought to shift. If the Netherlands is going to be aggressive in making its Kyoto committments, this is one move that could help.
Check out this “Gee Golly” video from an American point of view about biking in Amsterdam. It’s a very good overview, though the narrator’s credibility takes a hit when he talks about riding off “that great dutch food.” Hmmmm. Careful there, buddy. Advocating for car-free cities is one thing, but let’s not talk crazy talk, eh?