What to Know About Bike Culture in Amsterdam

Amsterdam! A city known for its lax drug policies, beautiful citizens, abundance of french fries, and of course…bicycles. You can’t go anywhere in the Dutch capital without hearing the ding of a bike bell or your eye catching the swift movement of a bicyclist hurdling down the street. The Dutch prove that bikes aren’t just for kids anymore. In fact, there are an estimated 800,000 bikes in Amsterdam, which is incredible, especially when you take into account that there are just 263,000 cars. We went on a four-hour Amsterdam bike tour during our visit and got to know just how seriously the two-wheeled machines are taken, and here’s what we learned:

1. Bell Etiquette

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Our guide pointedly told us during our Amsterdam bicycle excursion, that the Dutch use their bells in three ways. One quick ding symbolizes “Excuse me,” two rapid dings act as a panicked “Uh oh, excuse me!” and repeated dings serve as a “F*ck you get out of the way, motherf*cker” (essentially the New York bell usage). We experienced all three types during our stay and lived to tell the tale, so you’ll be just fine.

2. Lock Etiquette

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There are nearly 270,000 public spaces in which you can park your bike, you’ll find one massive bike garage featured above. If you’re traveling and renting a bike from one of the city’s 40 bike rental companies, it’s better to play it safe than sorry (especially because 50,000-80,000 bikes are stolen every year–roughly 10%) and lock up your wheels. Unlike their Swedish counterparts, the people of Amsterdam never leave their bikes unlocked or unattended.

3. Right of Way

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Bikes don’t produce pollution and help people stay fit (they also help transport Heineken as pictured above…). With such clear benefits, it’s no wonder the Dutch government has embraced speedy bicycles in all their glory. There are more than 250 miles of bike lanes (fietspads) throughout the city for these reasons. That’s great news for cyclists, but can be inconvenient for pedestrians and people in cars. The bike ultimately has the right of way, even if they crash into you while you’re walking. It goes without saying that no matter where you go in Amsterdam that you have to look both ways (a few times) before crossing the street. We had trouble staying out of bike lanes (they’re everywhere!). There will be a small painted bicycle on the ground if you’re in a bike lane, so remember to move it or lose it.

4. Start Young

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Dutch children whiz around on bicycles before they can walk. Of course they don’t pedal yet, they’re toted around by their parents–lucky tikes. “Bakfiets,” wooden or plastic trailers that attach to the front or back of bikes, litter the streets. It was exciting to see the indifferent faces of Dutch kids zipping around town, unaware of the fact that in America, they would be an exception, not the rule. Bakfiets seem particularly helpful for parents because they can hold children as well as groceries, play things, and even dogs.

5. Personalize

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Because of the sheer volume of bikes in Amsterdam, cyclists must make theirs memorable. How else would they find their two-wheeled companion after a night of bar-hopping? Without being garish, the Dutch manage to mark their bikes so they stick out from the crowd. We also had one local tell us that “the older, the better.” It’s not unusual to see love-worn bicycles that have endured years of usage. In Amsterdam, this designates that the bike has been valued and well-used.

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Amsterdam was one of my favorite cities during our last trip to Europe. This was partially due to the city’s rampant bicycle usage, because it seemed that the Dutch had an air of playfulness and resourcefulness about them. Stay safe on your trip to Amsterdam, and don’t forget to look both ways before crossing the road.

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