A World of Bicyclists
In The City of Bikes, the Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
by Pete Jordan
HarperCollins. pp 438, April 2013
Review by Lee Batdorff
What would it be like if bicycles were the main mode of transportation? It is the duty of all serious American bicyclists to find out! In The City of Bikes, the Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan, is a well-documented account of a place where the bicycle rules.
Mr. Jordon, an American, who also authored Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States, embraces this newer memoir with deeply researched, entertaining stories documenting bicycling in Amsterdam from the 1890s till now.
Jordon, originally from San Francisco Calif., his wife Amy Joy and son Ferris (born in the Netherlands well into the book), are émigrés from the U.S. Their memoir fits right in with the tales of bicycling Dutch royalty, bicycle fishermen, bicycle anarchists, the legions of Amsterdam bicycle denizens over generations, and the many bicycle nemesis portrayed in this book.
This is truly a bicycle rider’s book, (it includes 388 footnotes on 43 pages), researched by a thoroughgoing bike nut. I didn’t know that a bicycle frame could be embraced in so many ways! Jordon describes a bakfiets bicycle, which provides a child’s seat facing forward in front of the peddler so toddler and parent can discuss what is being seen. This is instead of towing the child by trailer alone and in distant earshot, as mostly done in the U.S.
I noted only one stretch of this volume bogging down in minutia of primary research of counting thousands of bicyclists in various dispositions passing certain city locations.
Bicycling in Amsterdam hit a nadir from the 1960s until the early 1980s, while the automobile was in ascendancy in the Netherlands. To counter act this, in 1965, Provo, an anarchist group, introduced the at-first, ill-fated white bike sharing campaign. Remarkably the White Bike Movement of Amsterdam was deemed a success in media outlets around the world—presaging numerous imitations that eventually evolved into today’s bike-sharing systems in big cities, some that are successful.
Through the 1970s, seven mass anti-auto guerrilla-style demonstrations were staged in Amsterdam by thousands of bicyclists. These events have since been emulated in many other nations in Critical Mass bicycle rides. Eventually a majority of pro-bicycle members were voted onto Amsterdam city council. In 1978 the council adopted a “Traffic Circulation Plan” that gave the bicycle primacy.
I am cheered that since then the bicyclists of Amsterdam have had the political power to influence the design of much transportation infrastructure in that city and that the 100-year-old tradition of bicyclists riding on a path through the gorgeous Rijksmuseum, (the Museum of the Netherlands), continues after many attempts to stop it.
What is the essence of living in a world ruled by bicycles? To be safe and secure riding a bicycle in Amsterdam: wear no helmet and lock your bike with two locks.
Not all bicycle-ruled locales are alike. Jordon said that on a visit to Copenhagen Denmark, another world bicycle capital, he deemed the Danes uncomfortably naïve about bicycle security compared to the churn and chaos that the many stolen and wayward bicycles go through in Amsterdam.
I rode a rented bicycle during a visit in Amsterdam in 1973 and encountered bicycle infrastructure unknown in the U.S. in those days, and many other riders, even amidst the city’s bicycle nadir. Since I missed out on my first visit, now I want to return and ride through the Rijksmuseum.