Thoughts on In the City of Bikes, by Peter Jordan

I’m leaving for The Netherlands from Portland, OR tomorrow, and I just finished In the City of Bikesby Peter Jordan, yesterday. The story is part biography and part history, describing both Peter’s journey to Amsterdam and some of the past 10+ years he has spend there, as well as illuminating some of the finer points of Amsterdam’s (and The Netherlands as a whole) history of bicycle transportation. Peter spent time (biking) in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Portland before eventually moving to Amsterdam in 2002 for a one semester course in urban planning. As he says “11 years, 8 apartments, and 4 bikes later, I’m still here.”  (from Amsterdam Cycle Chic)

It’s wonderful to read about the experience of someone who spent their formative years in American cities and then later became enmeshed in the cycling culture of Amsterdam. Hearing the Dutch perspective on this is just not as profound, as cycling is such a normal part of their culture. There is no Dutch book on the specific history of cycling culture, as cycling is just one among many elements of their history. Peter’s book is a must read for Americans interested in cycling culture, as it represents the perspective of an observer.

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that bicycles played such a pivotal role in the German occupation of The Netherlands during World War II. Before World War II, there were more cyclists on Amsterdam’s streets than there are today. When the Nazis occupied The Netherlands from 1940 through 1945, the cycling culture in The Netherlands was severely damaged. Thousands of bicycles were seized by the Nazis for troop transport, and thousands more were destroyed by the Dutch resistance, who did not want the means of transport to fall into enemy hands. The nose-diving economy and the strict regulations imposed by the Germans also greatly decreased the bicycle traffic. Tires were extremely difficult to get ahold of, as the rubber being produced was being used for military efforts. Many people rode on wooden tires or naked rims.

When the German occupation ended in 1945, it took years to satisfy the pent up demand for functioning bicycles, and the bicycle traffic was never what it had been. As in America and other parts of the developed world, the automobile was taking over the streets as the post-WWII boom economy got up to speed. Not only was existing road space used for automobiles, so too were parks and buildings dismantled to make room for roads and parking lots. Automobile traffic exploded, as it had here.  In the 1970s, after policy makers finally realized that building more capacity for automobile movement and storage did little to improve congestion conditions, the 1973 oil crisis struck, and protesters castigated the environment polluting machines as child murderers, bicycle transportation began to make a comeback.

It was different, as it had to be in a completely different world. Bicycles could no longer ride safely in the middle of the road, as they were no longer the fastest vehicle in traffic. The Dutch became world renowned innovators in developing separated bicycle infrastructure that served bicycles safely, comfortably, and efficiently, and still allowed motor vehicle traffic to operate safely (though it was more heavily managed than before).

As enlightening as the history of the Dutch bicycle experience was, my favorite parts of the book were about Peter’s personal experience. Peter’s wife had come from America with him, and found a place as a bicycle mechanic, eventually running her own bicycle shop in Amsterdam. They had a son, who had ridden a bicycle before he was even born, in his mother’s womb. I loved hearing about how Peter’s son would ride with him through the city for hours; first in a child seat just in front of him, then in the cargo box of a bakfiets, and finally on his own bicycle. I hope to catch a few snaps of kids riding with their parents while I’m over there, as I think there is no better mark of a safe  and fun place to bicycle than when a parent can ride freely with their child.

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