Together, my wife and I emerge from the Amsterdam Centraal train station. It’s early morning and the low-lying sun strikes our heavy eyes. In the foreground, I see a Dutch version of an “arterial.” The road is akin to its American cousin save for only having four lanes and about as many cars. A few of the cars are go-cart-like in shape and size. None of them are monstrous SUVs.
The background we take in is quintessential 18th-century Dutch architecture. Buildings of five-to-six slender stories festooned with offset windows, pitched roofs, and lovely gables.
Not long after we’ve brushed aside the disorientation of jet lag, do the shimmering canals, dark red brick, and dark bicycles of Amsterdam become one with our conscience.
And that’s just the sights. Among the first sensations one has in Amsterdam is auditory. The muffled, otherworldly sounds of water and people and ringing bike bells.
The American ear knows little of these sounds, trained instead to pick up the persistent rush of motorized traffic. Amsterdam, as Pete Jordan observed, is truly the “City of Bikes.“
Cycling vs. walking in Amsterdam
By all measures, Amsterdam represents a cyclist’s paradise. After all, it’s replete with topographical flatness, canal-laden, narrow streets, excellent way-finding, and—for the most part—grade-separated infrastructure for those traveling by bike.
Amsterdam is perhaps the world’s simplest, most elegant, most exalted city in which to ride a bicycle. But for all the comforts bestowed upon cyclists, the city confers a wildly different experience to lowly pedestrians.
In contrast to the cyclists’ cool gliding, the walkers’ step follows a staccato pattern. Their gait is peppered with exclamations: “oh my!”; “dear lord!”; “look out!”; “look around!”; “excuse me!.” In Amsterdam, the pedestrian is most often in a state of high alert. The fabric of her walking adventure torn by incessant bikes and to a lesser extent, cars.
One begins to wonder about other people’s experiences in this old, worldly city. Given the beauty that surrounds us, my wife and I assume tourists’ roles. Our journey is just as important as our destination. We look 200-year-old buildings up and down. Stop to appreciate the classic frame of the city each bridge-over-canal makes. We also wonder how other visitors from less bike-centric—and probably more car-centric—places perceive walking in Amsterdam.
I will say that we savored our time sauntering around the Park Museumplein, with its “iamsterdam” monument and ready access to the Van Gogh museum. Yet along the sundry, gorgeous canals and shared streets, we mainly felt incidental, forgotten.
Walking and the sensuous
To walk is to imbibe a place. Mind blending with movement blending with landscape. Walking embeds the flâneur in a sensory world of
- smells—skunky marijuana, stir-fried eggplant, roasting chocolate and coffee, cinnamon, garam masala, dampness;
- sights—flashes of red and yellow and purple house trim and flowers; swans; young British men giggling at what most would assume was a prostitute, ostensibly the world’s oldest profession—as though people who work solely for wages aren’t themselves prostitutes;—party boats along the canal; and
- sounds—cars—as we’ve discussed, small ones, not at all like the tanks driven in the U.S., street sweepers, bike bells, bike bells, oh, those dinging bike bells.
For all of its managing of the car, we witnessed more than a few spats between cyclists and pedestrians, especially older pedestrians. Though I speak nary 10 Dutch words, at least twice a day—for 3 whole days, mind you—I sensed the exchange of some strong words between younger cyclists and older walkers.
Wither the flâneur in Amsterdam?
In addition to the experiences of the older, less able-bodied pedestrian, one also wonders about the implications for human creativity in Amsterdam.
For centuries, we’ve heard from inventors, scientists, poets, and artists about the creative benefits of going out for a stroll. More recent science—for we must always “prove the obvious”—backs up the walking-creativity relationship. Compared to sitting around, we humans develop a greater number of high-quality creative thoughts and ideas while walking.
Of course, this kind of thinking begs the question: in Amsterdam, whither the flâneur—those keen observers of modern living and capitalistic alienation? Consider all of the suppressed artist-poets living in Amsterdam and more auto-oriented cities the world over. Without an orientation to quality walking experience, what happens to human creativity?
A different path for Amsterdam and the world
Amsterdam is a city in love with art, human history, beauty, bikes, and sensible, part-time work. However, it is still a part of the modern, consumer culture. Though bikes move at a slower pace than cars, scores of Amsterdammers simply don’t travel at a human’s pace.
I’m hesitant to say this, but in Amsterdam, bikes have become what Illich might call a “radical monopoly.” They dominate most shared spaces. And given the need to park them somewhere and anywhere, they consume much of the urban landscape. By all means, this is superior to the grand imposition of the motor vehicle. It’s just that in quite a few places, bikes serve to degrade people’s experience of the beautiful city.
Amsterdammers and the Dutch have so much to teach us. They remain lightyears ahead of us in terms of making safe, livable places. Even though our cultural differences are vast, I hope we can both step toward designing spaces for the least able and least instrumented among us. I trust we can get on a path toward dignity, humanity, and harmony for all.Follow SethLaJ307