When you step out of the central train station in Amsterdam and encounter a sea of bicycles–and a three-story parking garage made for bikes instead of cars–it’s easy to imagine that the city has always been bike-obsessed and that a typical North American city could never pull it off.
A new photo series, showing certain intersections in Amsterdam around the turn of the 20th century, then in the 1970s and 1980s, and finally today, was created to prove otherwise.
“The most beautiful places in Amsterdam–the places where all the tourists like to go, and all the Amsterdammers like to go to sit on patios, enjoy markets, relax–all of those places used to be used as parking lots,” says Cornelia Dinca, founder of Sustainable Amsterdam, who started collecting the photos as a master’s student at the University of Amsterdam. “This was really surprising to me.”
It’s true that Amsterdam was an early adopter of the bike, but so were places like Brooklyn, where bike clubs successfully pushed for a bike lane as early as 1895. As post-World War II incomes rose in Amsterdam, people also started to buy more cars, mirroring what was happening in the U.S.
“There was definitely a big displacement of bicycles,” says Dinca. “That had everything to do with the Dutch fully embracing the North American model. It was a lot of American experts who were coming to Amsterdam. It’s really fascinating to see the old plans that were drawn up to tear down old parts of the inner city and put in highways and multilevel parking garages. Some of those were partially implemented.”
The government started to build high-rise apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city. “It was more sprawl-based, much more car-centric,” she says. “The city had decided this was where people were going to live.” At the same time, the city started planning to build up the center for business.
But two groups started to resist. Some young people, who wanted to stay in the inner city, started squatting in buildings so they couldn’t be knocked down. Historical societies also protested. Still, the city didn’t really start to change direction until the growing traffic started to cause record numbers of pedestrian and cyclist deaths–especially those of children. Suddenly there were large-scale protests across the city.
It’s the kind of thing that could have happened in North American cities, but didn’t. “The number of kids riding bikes to school was decreasing in the ’70s and ’80s,” Dinca says. “Why is it that the Dutch responded by saying, ‘We want kids to be able to bike to school safely,’ as opposed to, ‘Okay, we’ll just drive the kids to school now’?”
Similarly, when the oil embargo hit the Netherlands shortly after the U.S., the Netherlands reacted differently. While the U.S. fought to keep gas prices low, cities like Amsterdam started experimenting with car-free Sundays, so people could start to remember what city squares were like before they were parking lots.
Slowly, change began to happen. “None of this happened overnight,” says Dinca. “You can trace a lot of these reforms to the 1970s, but even then, if you look at photos of Amsterdam 10 to 15 years ago, it was still very car-centric compared to what you have today. I would actually argue that really it was only in the late ’90s that the city started reaping the benefits.”
It also wasn’t easy, with people fighting the increase of bikes as it happened. But all of this is proof that Amsterdam doesn’t have magical qualities–yes, it’s flat and densely populated, but it was also filled with traffic not so long ago. If it can make a massive shift away from cars, so can others.
“I think it’s slowly happening,” Dinca says. “I think for me what’s really striking is this idea that Amsterdam has not always been bike friendly–this idea that you can break the path dependency. Different cities have different political contexts, and weather conditions, and interest groups. But if you see what Amsterdam has been able to achieve, it’s just reassuring. It tells you other cities can also do this.”