The city of bikes (day 350)

Here I am in Amsterdam. I have been here two days and I have not seen a single dope fiend yet. I think perhaps this is because they are nocturnal. But I have not seen them at night either. Maybe they don’t frequent the kind of establishments that I do.

I have seen lots of other stuff though. Most of it you know about already. But what struck me most about this place is how spectacular a place it is for bicycling. And smoking dope. I did a lot of bicycling, but not a lot of smoking dope. None actually. Although as I sit here looking at Amsterdammers coming and going, and thinking about my impending trip to Munich, I can not think of a single good reason why I would cycle but not smoke up. All the people I met seemed to have well functioning short-term memories. They spoke good English too.

There are lots of good reasons to bicycle here, of course. Foremost among them is that this place is dead flat. The only hills I found were on the lead-up to bridges over the canals. And even these are tiny, stunted-at-birth little bumps more than they are hills.

There are heaps of bikes here. Literally and metaphorically. About 550,000, so they tell me. About 200,000 are stolen every year. Giving you a better than 1 in 3 chance that your bike would be stolen in the next 12 months if you lived here. So Amsterdammers don’t have fancy bicycles. They are heavy, mostly black and have only one gear. They do have bells. There is no requirement to wear helmets. They have comfy seats.

And they have locks. The lock on the bike I borrowed weighed almost as much as the bike itself. And an effective lock can cost more than a bike as well.

Cyclists here don’t seem too concerned with road rules. In fact, this fits it really well with the way I have always seen road rules (since I have spent a lot of time on bicycles over my life, and only a very little time in cars). It seems to me that the likelihood of a road rule (or any other type of rule) being obeyed has a fairly direct relationship to the benefit the person obeying the rule can see from following it. Most road rules are designed for cars. So are most of the decorations on roads that show you where to drive (and not drive), park (and not park), pass (and not pass), and stop (you get the pattern by now).

The key problem with car traffic, it seems to me is that it is difficult for car drivers to communicate with each other about what they are going to do. It isn’t such a problem when you are going the same way as another car. You can see how fast they are going (usually about the same speed as you and in the same direction) and indicators can help to communicate your intentions when things are not clear.

But when cars come up to intersections, it is really hard for drivers to explain what they want to do, and the troubles associated with a failure to communicate are quite significant (no one wants to crash). So everyone, the way I see it, signs up to follow some simple rules to make it clear what their intentions are. You can rely on other people stopping at red lights and other people going on green. You can expect that, if someone is coming from your right (remember we drive on the left in God’s own country, as well as in the rest of the right-thinking world), they will keep coming, and that if someone is on your left, they will give way to you. The road rules reduce the complexities associated with driving your car along in the presence of other drivers and make it safer and faster for everyone.

But, and if you have ever driven through a red light in the middle of the night when no one else is around (and you must have done this if you have driven in Christchurch because there are so many traffic lights) you will appreciate this point, sometimes the rules do not make things safer for you or anyone else, and they do not help you or anyone else go faster. And that is when we break the rules. Not always. Because it is easy to convince yourself to do something that you have always been told is right. But sometimes.

On a bicycle, it seems to me, it is much easier to signal your intentions to others, and much easier to stop if something goes wrong with that signalling, and the consequences of a crash are so much less serious than with cars, the road rules are often not helpful. And so, coming back to Amsterdam, this explains to me why road rules seem to be optional for cyclists in the part of the Netherlands that I have seen. And biked in.

You can look at the other cyclists at an intersection. You have time to indicate which way you want to go. A little toss of the head or a point with the eyebrows is enough. And there is plenty of room to squeeze one more on the cycle path if you are all going the same way.

It gets a bit more complicated when you put bikes on the road with cars (and the mopeds that travel quickly in the cycle lanes). Because cyclists and car drivers don’t communicate so well. Amsterdam solves this problem by separating drivers from cyclists with roads and cycle ways. And where they meet there are often so many cyclists that their interpretation of the road rules wins out. I quite like this, being a cyclist who does not indicate and expects all drivers to read my mind. I smile seditiously even now as I think about it.

I have been wondering for a while why pigeons have survived as a species. They don’t appear to do anything particularly useful. No one likes them. I even prefer seagulls. Which is saying a lot. Some cities run active campaigns to exterminate them. Was it Tom Lehrer who sang about poisoning pigeons in the park? And yet they thrive. What is that about? Perhaps if all human food came in tablet form they would die off. Since they seem to mostly feed on bits of food that people drop or throw to them.

There are lots of people waiting here with me and the pigeons. Some of them do not seem to have been taught how to sit still. Maybe they need to go to the toilet. In which case, they should just go. There is no need to ask the teacher for permission. But maybe they were never taught that either.