Is it a good idea to rent a bike in Amsterdam as a tourist? The short answer: no. It’s really not.
To be clear, I adore biking in Amsterdam. The bike infrastructure in the Netherlands is transformative on a societal level. It’s the reason that one of the world’s most densely populated countries doesn’t have roads like parking lots. The Randstad (the urban area of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, and Utrecht) has 1500 people per square kilometer, but the largest roads are three lanes per direction – and most are one!
It’s also a huge unifying cultural element, as Dutch people of all ages and classes default to their bikes as their main form of transportation.
But that’s exactly why you shouldn’t rent a bike as a tourist. Dutch people grow up on a bike seat. Dutch kids have barely started tottering on two feet before they’re dropped onto a trainer bike. By the time they’re preteens, they can bike with a friend sitting sidesaddle on the back rack. If you’re out late, it’s not uncommon to see tipsy teens with one person balancing on the frame, one person pedaling from the seat and one person in the back, draped across the rack.
Dutch people navigate their bikes by pure kinesthetic awareness. They seem to guide their bikes by thought, rather than using the handlebars. It’s truly remarkable the way people of all character types and backgrounds seem to be utterly at home on a bike seat. Few Dutch people I’ve met can even articulate the rules of traffic. They just know instinctively when and where to move. Most importantly, they’re reacting to other bikes instinctively.
This instinctive response can make tourists on bikes both dangerous and endangered. Amsterdammers will bike much closer to other bikes than foreigners would expect. It’s not just that it feels like they might clip your handlebars when they pass. Dutch people also stop quite close together when they’re waiting for a light. They’re not being rude. It’s a safe distance if everyone moves perfectly straight, which is more difficult than you might think. There’s also a complicated understanding of when and how you stop for a crosswalk. Stopping at the wrong one or too soon or too late can get you rear-ended.
When I moved to Amsterdam, I’d already spent six years biking around New York, a city known for its wild traffic. Biking was the one thing in my whole move that I was confident about. I soon found out that the tiny push I gave myself to start when the light turned green might as well have been a perpendicular swerve into the next lane. My bike tire caught on a tram line and spilled me in front of speeding cars and turning bikes. Later, I saw what I could’ve sworn was a turning green – and turned directly into oncoming traffic. I love biking now, but I definitely owe my life to quick-thinking Amsterdammers.
So, why are there so many blogs saying you should? Well, some posts are from companies that do bike tours or rent bikes. There are, however, some reasons totally unrelated to sales. Public transit is great here, but there are some cool places that are a 15-minute walk from the nearest stop. It’s also true that you need to bike in order to truly see life as an Amsterdammer. Everyone at Badass Tours comes from places with not enough bike infrastructure, so we understand why it would be tempting to try to show tourists what they’re missing back at home.
For a peaceful and enjoyable Amsterdam visit, however, you’re better off sticking to public transit.
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