Friday, 27 May 2011

Being a pedestrian in Amsterdam

There's remarkably little traffic in downtown Amsterdam, but this does not make this city pedestrian friendly. In fact, quite the opposite.

There's a clear pecking order here that took me a while to figure out. It goes like this:

  1. Trams. They bite. They actually stop for pedestrians in marked crosswalks, but only if they have time and are on schedule. Otherwise, they are hurtling masses of steel.
  2. Busses: There's not a lot of them, thank goodness. They stop for no one. They are wider than the trams and push bikes and cars out of the way.
  3. The Dutch on scooters. Scooters are strangely allowed to use all the bike lanes, plus the roads if they feel like it.
  4. The Dutch on bicycles. More on this in a moment.
  5. The Dutch on foot. They storm along warily watching for oncoming trams, busses, and bikes, in that order. They do not change pace or path for anyone. Cars are something to be walked around, whether moving or stationary.
  6. Tourists on bicycles. Always on well marked rental bikes, so they're easy to spot. Ride on the defensive, which they are, because even the Dutch pedestrians will walk right through them.
  7. Tourists on foot. Almost the lowest of the low. Moving targets for the Dutch on their bikes.
  8. The Dutch in their cars. They give the Dutch on bikes a wide berth. And they almost always stop for pedestrians.
This town is almost owned by the Dutch on their notorious "Amsterdam City Bikes", beat up black things that usually squeak and often have flat tires. The Dutch on bikes do not stop for anything they don't have to, nor do they slow for anything. There are no speed limits. A light ring of their bell means "you're about to die because you're in my way." It's far more dangerous for a pedestrian to enter a bike lane without looking than a road, even if there are cars coming. As noted, cars will actually slow and stop for pedestrians.

There are no sidewalks here, per se. Sidewalks have been turned into one of a few things: bike lanes, in which you really shouldn't walk; bike parking lots, in which you can't walk because there are so many bike parked; or outdoor cafes. There are, in fact, a lot of pedestrians, but there's just no sidewalk left for them. It's not just like this in Amsterdam; out in Alkmar, Leiden, Nijmegen and elsewhere, things that look like they were once sidewalks are now designated bike lanes.
Bikes occupying the sidewalk while the bike lane is clear
The clear pedestrian path
Dutch cyclists control the speed of traffic in many places in the city. They ride up and down streets like ours without bike lanes as if they own the place (which they do). Since the streets are narrow, the cars can't pass.
Bicycles owning the road
Dutch cyclists don't wear helmets, and they rarely signal. They pay attention to traffic signals when it involves trams or busses but otherwise do what they want. They have their own crosswalk light buttons and they occasionally use them (if it involves crossing tram tracks).

There can be as many as 5 walk/don't walk lights for pedestrians to cross a 2 lane road, and they are not synchronized. There's one for the first bike lane, one for the first lane of traffic, one for the tram tracks, one for the second lane of traffic and one for the second bike lane. And remember that the bike lanes are only about 4' wide.

A normal day like today saw us have a half dozen close encounters with death by bikes. They're whizzing through stop lights, or in places where the sidewalk was totally blocked by bikes (or construction, or the tables of a cafe, or a store's merchandise, or a display, or flower pots, or any of the other of the myriad of things that people put in the way of pedestrians) and entering the bike lane was necessary. One construction site was such a mess they laid down mats to cover the sand, mats not wide enough for 2 people if one was pushing a bike. Of course, the bike pushers (who are Dutch bike riders who can't ride) have the right of way, and everyone else has to get off the mat for them.

Scooters are bike riders on steroids. Not only do they not yield the right of way to anyone, they will ride on the sidewalks if they feel like it. 50 km/hr on a bike path? Sure. They have horns. Thank goodness it's not Italy and there aren't a lot of them.

Dutch pedestrians are just cyclists without their bikes. They say there's 600,000 people and 700,000 bikes in Amsterdam. It follows logically that every Dutch pedestrian here is simply walking to get their bike. So they walk like they bike, with total disregard for anything else -- except the bikes they know will hit them.

I thought Amsterdam would be a pedestrian friendly city. I felt safer as a pedestrian in Rome. At least there it was obvious I was a target. Here they're sneaky about it.

From time to time, I will come back and add some photos to this post to show you what the sidewalks and bike lanes look like -- if I am brave enough to stand in a bike lane to do it. So check it from time to time over the next few days.

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