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Amsterdamizing The World 8

Marc - Amsterdamize

Photo by Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize

You have probably visited his website, and you’ve likely seen many of his photos. You may even subscribe to his RSS feed.

He photographs ordinary people on ordinary bicycles, riding along anything but ordinary infrastructure in a country with an extraordinary bicycle culture.

In his neck of the woods, it is political suicide to campaign against improving bicycle infrastructure – and school buses are nonexistent because virtually all children ride their bicycles to school.

Marc runs the popular website Amsterdamize.com. He originally hails from Utrecht, Netherlands, and he migrated to Amsterdam some 20 years ago.

The Urban Country interviewed Amsterdam’s unofficial international bicycle ambassador to find what makes him tick, and to find out what it was like growing up in the Netherlands.

It says on your website that Amsterdamize is inspired by Mikael’s Colville-Andersen’s blogs. Do you see Amsterdamize more aligned with Copenhagen Cycle Chic? Or with Copenhagenize? Or a bit of both?

It started out as a Cycle Chic project, merely capturing what’s out there, on the Amsterdam/Dutch streets. First with a focus on video (http://video.amsterdamize.com), but (due to time constraints) I relied increasingly on my photography. As I did more and more (international) research on the subject of urban mobility & design, and the specifically Dutch characteristics, I gradually moved towards the ‘Copenhagenize’ concept, with which Amsterdamize became indeed more of a mixture. I’ve discovered that I can be quite an ‘advocate’, but I’ve also learned that I can only take so much of it.

As my blog is very much an international exercise, at various points I just have to excuse myself, to keep my sanity, so to speak. I’m someone who’s eager to explain things or exchange ideas, but a large proportion of the popular discourse is just too detached from my reality to have any kind of meaningful impact, so I stick to what I know best; showing the urban fabric on two wheels, the visual context. People can then take what they want from it, draw their own conclusions. Call it an education in pictures-tell-more-stories-than-white-papers-and-diagrams-ever-will :).

Are most readers on your website coming from outside the Netherlands? Is that the audience you are targeting?

Yes, 60% is from the US, about 20% from Europe, 10% from Canada & the rest is divided over Asia & Australia. Although I think almost all the Australian clicks are generated by Sue Abbott :).

Amsterdamize was set up for an international audience and that’s not likely to change.

While growing up in Utrecht, did your whole family ride bicycles? Did your parents own a car? If yes, did they use it often?

Yes, like most Dutch families, we’d all ride bikes. Funny thing, I grew up in a car-crazy family, with a love for classic cars. However, to answer you last question, this anecdote should be telling enough: when I got my first car at 18 years old I was still living with my parents. Whenever they’d see me step out (and use my car) they’d say; “Why don’t you take your bike? It’s only a short trip, would be a waste of gas.” I think that says enough ;).

Marc - Amsterdamize

Photo of Marc growing up by Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize

Marc - Amsterdamize

Marc as a child growing up in the 70’s – Photo by Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize

Marc - Amsterdamize

Marc and his brother being raised to ride tandem at an early age – Photo by Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize 

How old were you when you realized that the rest of the world didn’t use bicycles in the same way as the Netherlands? Or did you always realize that Holland was unique with its bicycle culture?

Having traveled all my life and I’m very familiar with North-America, I’ve always known that everyday cycling (i.e. for everyone, all social classes) is generally a European phenomenon and very much so a Dutch one. Having said that, I remember well, when I was a kid, that it bugged me that I couldn’t cycle as comfortably and freely abroad (aka without parental supervision) as I did at home. Italy & France stood out in this regard. Later on, when I touched base in NYC at 21, for instance, I felt it was a real pity that people looked at me funny when I hopped on a bike on a daily basis. I loved the subway, but to me nothing could beat going around on two wheels. It won’t come as a surprise to you that I LOVE how that changed in the last three years. [http://amsterdamize.com/2009/11/17/a-dutchman-in-new-york/]

When I started Amsterdamize it really, really hit home how big the gap is and how much the Dutch take cycling for granted. I don’t blame them, it’s basically the end-game of a successful bicycle culture, when nobody gives it a second thought & expects their government/representatives to protect and improve cycling conditions.

PS: it’s a political suicide to campaign against cycling provisions in the Netherlands. In this day and age bicycle advocacy in the Netherlands is more about funding and the type of improvements, not about any ‘rights’ or accommodating just a certain group. The central theme has always been ‘cycling is for everyone’.

Marc's Dad - Amsterdamize

Marc’s Dad with hiked up shorts :) Photo courtesy of Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize 

How do most North Americans react when they visit the Netherlands for their first time?

The last few years most of the North-American visitors would either have become acquainted by it through my blog & still be amazed by the sheer number of people on bikes & how effortless they make it look, or they just weep tears when they haven’t. Ok, that last bit is a bit dramatic. True though, there’s always some astonishment. I think it also has to do with how Dutch cities are designed. Compact, on a human scale, diverse & attractive…as James Howard Kunstler would say; a city with public spaces where people actually want to go to, want to be, gather. Also something I got to appreciate more through my Amsterdamize endeavours.

Are you in the minority with your bicycle advocacy? I get the impression that most of the Dutch don’t boast much about their superior bicycling infrastructure and culture.

I am very much a minority. There’s David Hembrow, there’s Marco of Brömmelstroet of Muenchenierung (AMS based blog about cycling in Muenchen, Germany), since a short while there’s a Cycle Chic representative for the Netherlands in The Hague, Marleen, but that’s about it. Yes, advocacy by the Fietsersbond and others is very practical, pragmatic and efficient, but what they’re accomplishing internationally is quite obscure, to speak in marketing terms. I recently attended the founders meeting of the Netherlands Cycling Embassy and one cycling advocate/professional commented that we shouldn’t boast (after I had just stated the opposite in my presentation). It is very much a Calvinistic trait, ‘act normal, then you act crazy enough’, as the saying goes. I have to say, I don’t think a big portion of Dutch local advocates and representatives truly realize how much value Dutch cycling policies have and what their reach are in the world. I’d like to change that perspective.

Marc - Amsterdamize

Photo by Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize

What are your biggest pet peeves when you ride a bicycle in a North American city? (or England, or Australia, or similar)

I tried London 2 years ago, got pretty annoyed by traffic & the lack of real provisions for people on bikes. I survived of course, it helps to be Dutch, up-right & 6″3 tall, but I thought it was just criminal how much space  a dense city like London allowed for cars and how marginalized it is for people on bikes (and blue paint has shown to be just paint, no matter the spin). I rode in Bilbao, Spain. Very car-centric & only one bike path leading to the Guggenheim Museum. Far better than London, because drivers were more mellow. How could I tell? They waved several times at that strange fellow on a bicycle. I think the fact that me and my friend were the only ones in normal clothes & sans helmet contributed to that ;). [http://amsterdamize.com/2009/05/27/bilbao-on-four-wheels-part-1/‘]

My biggest pet peeve riding in North-America used(!) to be the sheer lack of cycling provisions (including regulations) & the outright (criminal) rage by car drivers. Now that we see the bicycle re-emerge in the cities and being provided for, more or less, I think there’s still a big elephant in the room; people injecting ‘fear’ / ‘danger’ into virtually every conversation related to cycling & the subsequent social pressure that rears its ugly head when you don’t abide by ‘the rules’, putting the burden of (perceived) safety that on people on two wheels. Of course I speak mainly of the helmet issue, specifically helmet laws. I’ve experienced it myself & I can quote a zillion stories on the subject. It’s mind-boggling. I understand it, but I continue to be baffled by the unsubstantiated social indignation/condemnation even when it’s not mandatory. You’d expect people to celebrate choice & adulthood, making up their own minds. Most North-American advocacy toes that same line, it is not politically correct to even support that choice. I realize this will remain a hot topic, which requires a conversation that is not based on anecdotes and emotions. For now, that seems to be an almost unachievable goal. Meanwhile, I just keep showing pretty, lycra and helmet-free pictures ;).

Do you ever participate in advocacy to make things even better in Amsterdam? Or is it unnecessary because the culture is so well developed?

I didn’t before, but have now. My first participation was joining the campaign to get scooters off the bike path, organized by the Fietsersbond (Cyclists Union). A very successful campaign, as legislation is now on the way and meanwhile the city of Amsterdam is moving ahead before that comes into effect.

Generally, there’s a misconception about our bike culture. I can say that advocacy never stops, providing for people on bicycles never stops, not even here. All parties in NL understand that, that’s why we continue to see it well-funded, at an average of 30 euros per capita per year, with additional funding for special projects.

Marc - Amsterdamize

Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen / Copenhagenize

How does the bicycling culture in Copenhagen compare to the Netherlands?

I visited Mikael in the fall of 2008 and we had some good fun together [http://amsterdamize.com/2009/04/01/slow-bicycle-race-copenhagenize-vs-amsterdamize/], since then I hosted him a few times in Amsterdam in return. Copenhagen bicycle culture is pretty similar. Mikael would call it A2Bism, ‘similar to talking about vacuum cleaners’, but beautiful in its simplicity and straightforwardness. People get on a bike because it’s convenient & the fastest way around town. Enjoyable too. Because it’s safe.

The differences: less crime in CPH/DK, hence you don’t need a heavy chain lock like you do in Amsterdam. Also, there’s more car traffic in Copenhagen. It’s a different grid, wider. In CPH you’ll have a few main arterial roads leading into the city, with heavy bike traffic. Amsterdam’s grid is more spaghetti-like, denser, so apart from a few popular routes, bike traffic is more spread out, aka, it’s everywhere. It’s no wonder that there are more daily trips by bike than by car in Amsterdam. I like cycling in Copenhagen, it’s a non-event, so you can focus on more important stuff than traffic, soaking up your surroundings, actually enjoy the ride.

What are your feelings about the growing bicycle culture in France?

Parisiens have long loved the bicycle, but they also suffered from car-centric policies over the decades. The Velib bike share program kicked them back into gear in no time, which is truly a revolution. There’s still some time to go to see cycling integrated as much as over here, but they sure are a prime example of what can be done. Heck, it felt so right, I just circled Place Charles de Gaulle to celebrate. [http://vimeo.com/1517212]

Do you own a car? If no, do you sometimes need to rent cars to leave the city?

No, I don’t and I haven’t for over 10 years now. My last was a company car, but I hated having to use it, as it has its implications in Amsterdam: finding a parking spot near your house, dropping to much money in the parking meter (there’s generally a very long waiting list for -affordable- parking permits) & the absolutely dreadful gridlock. The only times I really need a car or something similar is when I move house. I then borrow one from my family. Then again, my last move was in part by bakfiets, I owed that to my readers :). [http://www.flickr.com/photos/mindcaster-ezzolicious/sets/72157624858189380/]

In the massive snowstorms that you experienced last year, how often were you unable to use your bicycle to get around?

Never. The only thing is that since winter 2009/2010 (after years of no real snow) the city of Amsterdam (and other Dutch cities) suffered from a salt shortage and promised to do better on the shovelling. They didn’t keep that promise, but basically relied on snow/ice to melt, figuring it wouldn’t possibly lead to another crazy winter…they guessed wrong. We haven’t had strong & snowy winters like this in decades. I do remember my winter rides to school, winters that where white by default. Not a biggie, we also learned the hard way to just go and deal with it. Call it a no-nonsense approach.

Thanks Marc for sharing your story. Keep up the great work and don’t stop shooting your wonderful photos!

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://cecily.myopenid.com/ cecily

    The thing I appreciate most about Marc’s approach (and I’ve said this to him before) is that he takes great care to show all sorts of people on bikes: all ages, races, shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life. I realize that may be because there’s simply more diversity in Amsterdam than in Copenhagen, but for me, his approach seems more accessible to someone like me.

    Thanks for the lengthy interview, and Marc, thanks for your advocacy and great photos!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15589492356827998591 Ryan

    Great interview!

    I got a chuckle out of the picture of Marc’s Dad. Memories of those shorts…What’s sad is I think somewhere hidden away I still have a pair, after all fashion is always changing ;)

    What struck me was when Marc mentioned how (political) parties handle bicycles.
    “political suicide to campaign against cycling provisions”

    I don’t foresee bicycles bridging across all political parties any time soon.
    Look at how the Conservatives play on the “war on cars”.
    However, we also have to worry about more pro-bike parties such as the NDP, who seem to implement all age helmet laws.

    Saying I’m envious of those living in Amsterdam (or Copenhagen) isn’t a powerful enough word…I just wonder if Marc will give me some pointers on good places to live if I win this Friday’s $50 million lottery! ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16828401001732920598 Paul Martin

    Great interview, James. Thanks Marc for all your work to help open our eyes to what a bicycle culture should look like.

    Warm regards,

  • http://amsterdamized.com/ Marc

    James, thx for the interview, I was very happy to answer the questions, they got me to some thinking & digging and you’re also the first to do so :).
    Cecily: thank you for your kind words, I do embrace all & you’re right, Amsterdam is more diverse, 177 nationalities and counting :).
    Ryan: let me know how the lottery goes this evening and I’ll DEFINITELY tell you all about living here..heck, I’ll be your best $50m friend :)
    Thank you, Paul, it is my pleasure, let’s keep this good thing rollin’!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00793880692099538955 ‘Xander

    great post, it really is amazing that Marc is able to span the globe by doing his thing in Amsterdam… we really have global bike lanes via the internet.. great interview..

  • http://www.tyrebaydirect.com/ unite tyre changer

    The time has come where you are in the market for a bike for your child. This can be a real balancing act. You child will most likely drag you towards the latest and greatest bells and whistles offered on a child’s bike.

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