Sunday, April 14, 2013

Congestion in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is currently one of the least congested major cities in Europe, but this was not always the case. A series of transportation policies beginning in the 1970’s were responsible for the dramatic decrease in automobile congestion and the rise of cycling as the primary mode of the transportation in the city.

In the 1960’s Amsterdam’s economy prospered, leading to a great deal of new development. Like in many US cities at the same time, the bulk of this development was centered around the automobile. Prior to the 1960‘s, cycling had been the dominant form of transport in the city, accounting for approximately three-quarters of all trips. The rapid suburbanization of Amsterdam led the average daily commute of residents to increase from under four kilometers in 1957 to over 23 kilometers in 1975. The percentage of trips by bicycle also declined significantly to a low point of less than one-quarter of all trips in the 1970’s.

Amsterdam’s historic downtown was ill-equipped to handle the massive influx of auto traffic. Narrow streets and the large number of canals made congestion a major problem in Amsterdam. Traffic safety also became a critical issue with over 3,300 (including 400 children) deaths by motor vehicles in 1971 in the Netherlands, for a rate 20% higher than the comparable figure in the US. The high number of traffic deaths, especially children, led to a series of public protests calling for improvements in traffic safety.

These pressing problems, combined with the oil crisis of 1973, sent Amsterdam on a new path aimed at increasing alternative forms of transit to the automobile. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands introduced a number of policies to decrease auto dependence. This included car free Sundays throughout Amsterdam, banning cars in entire neighborhoods, investing in car sharing programs, and high central city parking fees. At the same time, Amsterdam also began extensively increasing its bicycle infrastructure and public transit systems.  Separated bicycle lanes were built throughout the city, and traffic calming was put in place on many streets that did not have dedicated bicycle lanes.

The transportation policies undertaken in Amsterdam since 1970 have been so successful that congestion from bicycles is now more of an issue than congestion from cars. The government continues to invest in improving its bicycle infrastructure to ensure that cycling remains the most effective and efficient mode of transport in the city. Overall, Amsterdam demonstrates the powerful influence that policy can have on transportation, and provides a model for other cities looking to lessen congestion.


Cycling in Amsterdam:

The Origins of Holland’s “Stop Murdering Children” Street Safety Movement:

How the Dutch got their Cylcle Paths (Video):!


  1. Copenhagen also has invested a lot of money in cycling over the last few decades and a large number of people cycle to get to work (36%). Because of this, Copenhagen is also dealing with bike congestion. However, they still have a big problem with auto congestion as well. I wonder what the differences are between the cities that have led to Amsterdam becoming one of the least congested cities in Europe and Copenhagen still dealing with congestion problems. Does Amsterdam have an even higher bicycle commuting rate than Copenhagen? Maybe it has to do more with land use and how far people are traveling every day. Or maybe it has to do the size of the hinterland of each city.

  2. According to I Amsterdam, 58% of people cycle daily in Amsterdam, with bikes outnumbering people in the city (800,000 people to 881,000 bikes). Amsterdam also has 255 trams where the busiest tram line has 37,000 users per day. Sundays Travel had a write-up nu Jeff Mapes mentioning both Amsterdam and Copenhagen as great bike cities. His focus was on Amsterdam, and he talked about the bike network that follows both the canals and the twisting streets. He mentions that the "rules of the road can be bewildering to newcomers." Apparently there are no stop signs, just yield signs throughout the city.

  3. Interesting to compare with US experience. Peter Norton's Fighting Traffic--a good read--details the early social campaign to protect the streets from cars (children were also front and center). In the US, though, the auto lobby was either stronger or savvier and succeeded in taking over the streets in the name of safety.

    I wonder how much the different outcomes had to do with timing (US motorization began much earlier), auto industry organization, and the existing city designs in the two places. Does anyone know of a good book that compares historic automobility experiences across countries?

  4. An interesting comparison in the U.S. would be the city of Davis, Ca. Although this is a small college town, it still gets large amounts of bike congestion especially between classes since everyone runs on a University schedule. To deal with the bike congestion, the university has created bike arterials that consist of roads as wide as a two lane road, but do not allow car access other than delivery or emergency vehicles. Intersections do not have stop signs but instead function with large roundabouts to keep traffic flowing. Although it would be difficult to recreate this unique circumstance in a larger non-campus urban environment, I think it would be interesting to experiment with almost completely closing down an adjacent street to an automotive arterial and using it mainly for bike traffic, to see if ridership increases due to the added comfort. This could also be experimented with in Copenhagen as a means to deal with bike congestion.


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