In The City of Bikes

Amsterdam’s love affair with bicycles goes back to practically the invention of the pneumatic tire. Pete Jordan explains In The City of Bikesthat the city embraced two-wheeled transport nearly a century ago. Shortly after World War I, the Dutch were able to import German bikes at a steep discount which led to a boom in cycling.

Jordan’s weaves together his personal experience as a American transplant to the Netherlands with the city’s cycling history. The author’s passion for bicycles leads him to count cyclists at intersections throughout Amsterdam while classifying each rider. He recounts his observations of the ways people ride bikes as passengers (aka dinking), the types of rain gear bicyclists use, and a catalog of large objects transported by bike.

The book shines in its detailed recollection of Amsterdam – especially the chapters on the Nazi occupation years. Jordan vividly describes the horrors that the Dutch faced during World War II while keeping the focus of his book on the unique role of the bicycle.

The author calls special attention to places where conflicts over cycling became heated – in particular he recounts the various efforts to close the bike passageway under the Rijksmuseum and the protest parades in Dam Square. I find it interesting that these spaces were flash points in the city’s transportation debates for decades.  However, Jordan’s detailed history of the multiple failed attempts to launch bike sharing in Amsterdam were perhaps the most fascinating to me.

Amsterdam’s White Bicycles

Appropriately, Amsterdam inspired the first bike sharing programs. Proposals to distribute free White Bicycles throughout the city began appearing in 1965. The “Provo’s Bicycle Plan” emphasized the virtue and importance of free transportation. This provocation of capitalism was intended to disrupt the balance of power in the city. Despite substantial efforts, the White Bicycles never materialized – a fact I only learned because of this book.

Yet the White Bikes provided inspiration for countless bike sharing systems around the world. From China to Chile to the Czech Republic, bike sharing programs have been taking hold in urban areas over the last decade.

Bike Sharing Today

Paris’ Vélib system set the standard for global bike sharing in 2007. This “third generation” bike share system was a model that cities replicated for a decade. Early US systems such as Minneapolis’ Nice Ride or Washington’s Capital Bikeshare are two prominent examples of the spread of this popular concept that aligned the interests of bike riders, local governments, and sponsors.

Bike share systems in North America have changed dramatically in less than a decade. Efforts that would have required substantial public subsidy are now being funded by fully private investments. The conventional station based bike share model is now competing with dock-less systems. Some bike share operators are competing for turf within metro areas. And perhaps most significantly, shared electric-bikes and scooters are now entering the mix in substantial numbers.

In April Uber announced its purchase of Jump – a dock-less electric bike service once known as Social Bicycles. And last month Lyft bought Motivate – a company that supplies bike share equipment and operates bike share systems throughout the US.

Seeing this rapid change, I wonder whether these are signs of bike share’s maturation or instability. Huge infusions of cash into bike sharing may mean more bikes in more places for now. While some tech investors genuinely want to provide clean transportation options, many are motivated by less altruistic visions. One has to look no further than Camden, New Jersey to see an example of a private bike share operation that ended with little warning.

Historically transportation systems have required some form of subsidy to operate. I wonder how city leaders will react when private bike share operators start asking for funding.

Zwijntjesjagers

According to Pete Jordan the Dutch derogatory term for a bicycle thief is “piggy hunter” or Zwijntjesjager. The author seemed to be simultaneously annoyed and entertained by the city’s rampant bicycle theft. On this topic his personal experience losing a bicycle fits nicely with the embarrassing prevalence of bicycle theft in Amsterdam over the last hundred years.

After reading In the City of BikesI was reminded of how bicycles can be both powerfully trans-formative and ephemeral. A bicycle can be a basic tool for self reliance and also seem to utterly disappear into the background. Perhaps no city in the world has embraced the bicycle to the degree that Asmsterdam has, yet, as the “piggy hunters” remind us, the bicycle is at once indispensable and also forgotten.


(Hat tip to Kevin Mulder, whom I worked with at Clean Energy Coalition, for helping me get up to speed on the present state of bike sharing.)