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Journey with us to the vibrant city of Amsterdam, a hub of cycling enthusiasts and forward-thinking urban planning. Discover the rich history of cycling in Amsterdam, the evolution towards sustainable urban mobility, and the complexities of maintaining pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly spaces in a bustling metropolis. In this episode of Better Cities by Design, host Davion Ford sits down with Sietze Faber, Policy Advisor for Road Safety & Cycling at the City of Amsterdam, to explore the intersection of road safety, sustainability, and cycling culture.

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Amsterdam, renowned as the cycling capital of the world, has set a visionary course with "Amsterdam Makes Space," an ambitious plan which strives to achieve zero carbon movement and zero traffic accidents by 2050. Despite challenges like limited space and social inequality, the city pioneers pilot projects to enhance pedestrian and cycling-friendly environments. Active travel, like cycling, yields myriad economic and health benefits for cities and their citizens.

Tune in for an enlightening conversation with Sietze Faber on how he is working to reshape urban mobility, prioritizing road safety, and fostering a more sustainable future for the city. Learn from Amsterdam's progressive approach to urban mobility and discover the transformative power of cycling infrastructure.


The Arcadis global podcast

Better Cities by Design

Arcadis' fortnightly global podcast series, where we talk to change-makers to discuss how they are making our urban environments better places for people to live, work, and play

Episode transcript:

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    Davion Ford

    Welcome to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis, where we talk to change makers who are working to make our cities better places for people to live, work and play. I'm your host, Davion Ford. This week, once again, our journey brings us to Amsterdam, where we'll be speaking with Sietze Faber, policy advisor for bicycle and traffic safety at the Municipality of Amsterdam. The city's vision for the future called “Amsterdam Makes Space” charts a course towards zero carbon movement and zero traffic accidents by 2050, aiming to redefine urban mobility and create a more harmonious environment for all.


    Davion Ford

    Contrary to what some believe, the bicycle was not a Dutch invention. In fact, the first basic models appeared in the 19th century in Germany, France and Britain. The Laufmaschine or running machine was invented in Germany in 1817 by Freiherr Karl von Dreis. It had a simple wooden frame and two wooden wheels with a seat in the middle for the rider who propelled it with their legs, but to look at the vehicle that comes closest to today's bicycle, we have to jump to 1885. That's when an Englishman called John Kemp Starley came up with an entirely new design. Tte safety bicycle, which had a set of pedals that drove the rear wheel via a chain. The safety bicycle was a significant leap forward, making cycling much easier and safer, ultimately leading to a surge in bicycle ownership among the European middle classes. But there's no doubt that when it comes to cycling, the Dutch are known around the world for the prominent role bikes play in society. In the early 20th century bicycles outnumbered cars in Dutch city. Later in the century, though, the burgeoning influx of cars posed a threat to the cyclists in Dutch urban centers. In the post-World War Two era, the Netherlands, like many other nations, underwent a transformation centered around automobile focused urban planning. This shift led to a significant decline in the proportion of trips made by bicycle in Amsterdam, which plummeted from 80% to 20% between the 1950s and the 1970s. Nevertheless, the narrative took a pivotal turn in the mid 1970s as the Dutch residents mobilized, critically rallying against the encroaching dominance of car traffic in their neighborhoods and communities. This movement was not solely about promoting bicycles, but rather advocating for quiet, unpolluted and safe streets that would be accessible to people of all ages. And as a result, the bicycle again became the predominant mode of transportation in many Dutch cities. For more on the significance of cycling for the Dutch, here's Arcadis Senior Consultant Transport and Sustainable Mobility and a Dutchman, Alex van Gent.


    Alex van Gent

    Cycling is deeply ingrained in our culture. What we've discovered here in the Netherlands is that cycling is not just about getting people from A to B. It's a catalyst for transforming our cities into more livable places. Bike is clean, silent and healthy. Bikes also give people more freedom, and they increase equity. Even people who cannot afford a car, or to constantly use public transportation can get around in our cities with their bikes, which here in the Netherlands are relatively inexpensive.


    Davion Ford

    Embracing its status as a cycling capital, nowadays, Amsterdam streets teem with the energy of pedal powered commuters and leisurely riders alike. But still, Amsterdam faces its own set of challenges as it endeavors to foster and maintain pedestrian and cycling friendly spaces. Once again, here's Alex van Gent.


    Alex van Gent

    Like many world cities, Amsterdam's population is growing, but we don't have very much space here, so a big challenge for the city is to make room not only for traditional cyclists and pedestrians, but also for emerging micro mobility options like e-bikes. We're proud of how livable the city is, so as we integrate all these new people and new modes of transportation, we need to do so in ways that keep Amsterdam a lovely place to live in and to visit.


    Davion Ford

    To shed more light on all of this and the broader implications of cycling on urban sustainability, we're pleased to welcome Sietze Faber to the show. Sietze is Policy Advisor for Bicycle and Traffic Safety at the municipality of Amsterdam and works at the forefront of efforts to promote active modes of transportation. And to keep our cities safe and livable.


    Davion Ford

    Hello Sietze. Welcome to Better Cities by Design.


    Sietze Faber

    Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.


    Davion Ford

    So Sietze, let's start by doing some level setting for our listeners. Obviously, Amsterdam is known around the world as a cycling city, but can you bring that to life a bit? How many people are cycling through the city each day, like how many bikes are there and what is it that makes Amsterdam such a bike friendly city?


    Sietze Faber

    Thank you for the question. We are of course very proud of Amsterdam is such a bicycle, cycling city. We have a lot of bikes. If you talk about bikes. We have about 900,000 bicycles in Amsterdam, which equals almost one bicycle per person. And yeah, we are very proud of that. People use the bicycle as a way of life and freedom. That means a lot for the city. In perspective, if you compare it to cars, people own about 200,000 cars in Amsterdam, which is about 0.2 car per resident. That means most cars are visitors from outside, so people who live here actually don't really own a lot of cars for their daily use. If you look at the model share, we have about 37% of bicycle usage every day of all movements in Amsterdam, which is a huge amount and about 20 to 30% of those movements are done by electrical bicycles. We saw a really, really great increase of those electrical bicycles last years. Right now the most of the bicycles are electrical bicycles. It's not only Amsterdam, but it's the whole Netherlands where you see these trends and we also see a recent trend that is increases bike theft, especially for cargo bikes, cargo E bikes and also fat bikes are very popular amongst the bicycle thieves right now. If you look at Amsterdam, how is Amsterdam, a bicycle city? Amsterdam is a bicycle city because of its density I would say first and foremost. The city is very dense and a lot of amenities are here, so a lot of people who live and work together in the small area, which means that the city is very attractive to bicycle cycling and also the relation with the train is important to mention that people come by train as well. And they used their bicycle for the last mile.


    Davion Ford

    So Sietze, what is it that makes Amsterdam such a bike friendly city.


    Sietze Faber

    Amsterdam is a very bike friendly city because it's very walkable and cyclable city. It's a very dense city, a lot of people live and work and recreate in Amsterdam in a very small size, so that makes the opportunity for people to bicycle and walk everywhere very easily.


    Davion Ford

    So for anyone out there that's listening who has not visited Amsterdam, maybe it's good to note that this is not just a cycling city, it's also a very walkable city because the distances are short, the terrain is very flat. I think it's maybe 5 or 6 kilometers or so to walk from one side of the city to the other, and as such Amsterdam is already a world leader in active travel. But Sietze, you and the municipality are not satisfied. So what's your vision for the future of the city when comes to cycling and walking.


    Sietze Faber

    Yeah. So maybe it's good to take a step back first. It took decades to become a cycling city we are now. And it took even centuries to build Amsterdam as city as it is right now. We have an history of the car introduction of course, in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Also in Amsterdam. The rise of the car was huge and the city became more clogged and congested. At that point, the City Council said, and also the resident said, we don't want this future of the city. We don't want to be a car infested city and we don't want all this. We want different set of future of the city. It's way before my time as my parents grew up in the city of Amsterdam. And after that you could say slowly but surely, Amsterdam transformed into a bicycle city again, like before the car was there and the walkable city to note as well. Right now, we are in 2024 and we are working on this new vision for Amsterdam. It's called “Amsterdam Makes Space” and the discussion note launched last year. We are right now in the process of talking with residents, talking with stakeholders, all kinds of people. To talk about this future of answering and let's say 2050, what kind of city would Amsterdam want to be? Should Amsterdam be? What are important steps to take? What are, you know, also the challenges we want to discuss there with people. And we propose already some general guidelines, I would say. And these are that Amsterdam must be climate neutral. So it's very important that we take the necessary steps for zero carbon movement for example, electrical movement. But also we want zero accidents in traffic. So if you talk about the traffic deaths, traffic injuries we have about 4000 people every year who go to the hospital because of a traffic incident. Our goal is to reach zero accidents in 2050, so that's a huge ambition we have. Also we want to look at the division of space and how do we see that in the future of Amsterdam. So if you talk about car usage, one of the biggest challenges is the space to take up. We are already working on that of course for decades. So we have the low car policy here. Which means that we remove cars every year a little bit from the street, put them in garages for example. And now in area development, we say that people are not able to park their car anymore on the street because we think the public space is a very, very resourceful place to have in the city. And we say that it's not fair that cars just can park everywhere and, you know, people also want to use that space. So, those are a little bit the big directions we take in this session.


    Davion Ford

    What would you say are the biggest challenges in creating and maintaining pedestrian and cycling friendly spaces in such a densely populated urban environment? And how does the city encourage residents to choose walking and cycling over other modes of transportation?


    Sietze Faber

    Yeah. One of the biggest challenges is of course, the limited space we have. We are very narrow, dense like you mentioned, which means we need to make choices who is able to go where, who is able to park where, who is able to be where and this also includes the movement through the city. So if you look at traffic as a way of water, for example, and traffic engineers always explained. This traffic is kind of a system of water or sewage. We need to fix it like that and we need to design it like that. But you can also oppose that view of the city and say the city should be for people, like Jan Gehl or other great urban designers proposed. We should design a city from that perspective, which means we need to radically view different on our public spaces, our streets. We need to rethink who has what right to go where. We need to maybe also slower traffic. If you think about speeds, a car in the Netherlands is able to go 50 kilometers per hour in urban areas. You could also question that why is that the norm? Why did we allow cars to go so fast? And if you look at our children, we're not able to cope with that in the safe way, or elderly people or even everyone, I would say. So in Amsterdam, for example, we lowered the speed limits to 30 kilometers an hour last year. Which is really a big necessary step for the city transformation. Another aspect, I would say, which goes with this, yeah, again, war on space or crowdedness in the city. So we see the amounts of visitors growing every year. We have about 20 million tourists in Amsterdam, which is amazing and huge, but also a big challenge for our public space, so. How do we cope with that crowdedness and the feeling of unsafety as well? Another aspect I would say is the social equality. So it's about who lives where and who is able to go where. So if you live on the outskirts of the city, maybe you're more car dependent because you are living in an area where there isn't so much public transport or the jobs you are working for are really far, maybe further than the bicycle distance. So those are also challenges we work on right now.


    Davion Ford

    So Sietze, I've been living here in Amsterdam for nearly 20 years, and I know that the municipality is constantly collecting data and running pilot projects and also conducting experiments that are aimed at making the city more walkable, sort of easier to get around, safer for cyclists, or just generally more livable. Can you share a bit about these efforts and their results.


    Sietze Faber

    So yeah, I hope you have seen some progress as a resident living here for 20 years in Amsterdam.


    Davion Ford

    I definitely have.


    Sietze Faber

    Yeah. So we recently made, aside from this vision I just talked about, we also made a new implementation plan. So the measures we take in 2024. We did it together with some colleagues from Arcadis as well. All our measures are listed here. So it's different measures for improving the cycling facilities. So for example, widening the bicycle paths, lowering speeds and also restructuring the streets for 30 kilometers. Low car measures. So that means removing car spaces. All these kinds of hands-on measures we are taking every year and in this plan, we write those together in an integral way. And also we do experiments like you mentioned. So for example, the Weesperstraat pilot, you probably have heard of, maybe not everyone listening to this podcast, but it's a very big arterial road in the city from north to south and last summer we closed it for almost six weeks. And we wanted to see what are the effects of closing such a huge main car arterial road. If you just close it down, what happens? You know, does the urban fabric go back to life? Do people enjoy it more? Do they feel safer? What happens with the flow of traffic also in the city? Yeah. And we learned a lot about this pilot and. It is a way of experimenting in the city also with these big challenges we have, we need to do something and this experiment was a huge, interesting project for us. I must honestly say not everything went well, so we also learned a lot from mistakes we made and that's the way of improving, of course. Like if you never try something, you never learn. So I would say that that's an interesting pilot, another pilot we are doing is not on the car focus but is on the e-bike focus. So I mentioned earlier in this talk, that we see a huge rise of the e-bike. Right now, we have about 30% E bikes, which also comes with speed differences. So if you cycle around, you will probably notice that we have a lot of different e-bikes as well, cargo bikes, but also fat bikes with these big fat tires. They go really fast. People feel unsafe. So we did some questionnaires and about 70% of Amsterdammers they feel unsafe on the cycling path, so that's also for us, where I think we want to do experiments with. So we did. We started an experiment last April where we made 30/20 the limit. So if you want to go on a bicycle path, you should cycle 20 kilometers per hour. If you want to go faster, you can do that, but you should go in the road. You should mix with cars. So in this way we make it a choice for people like what do you want. And to make it safer for the other on the bicycle path.


    Davion Ford

    Yeah, I can certainly say as a, let's say normal cyclist here in Amsterdam, I do not have an e-bike that it can be quite scary. Those near misses when somebody on an e-bike whizzes by you and you think I was just about to maybe try to pass someone. And then it's a good thing that I didn't because I would have been taken out by an E bike. So very familiar with this. I want to ask you another question about active travel and which is that? I think it's very easy to think about the benefits of active travel, really only in the context of things like, you know, air pollution and the emissions from the vehicles. And what that does, but obviously also active travel has a benefit for public health as well. What's your view on this?


    Sietze Faber

    So yeah, that's true. Public health is very important in this modern society. You see that people will exercise less, you see more diseases, like diabetes or heart diseases. And cycling, of course, but also walking, prevents that. That's a very important prevention way of life, you could even say. If you cycle every day, then we would live 3 to 14 months longer on a life span, so there's actually research which concludes this as well. So I would say it's very important. And then we have of course the discussion about the e-bikes usage or fat bike usage. Is that a good thing or bad thing? You could say like yes, it's a it's a good thing because people still cycle and you could also argue that it's a bad thing because they move less, of course, because they have to use less muscles. But here also the question is what would they otherwise do? Why would they use a car? Or would they use a moped for example, and not exercise at all? We also found research that people will bicycle further with e-bikes. So they use it for more kilometers in total, which actually means that yeah if you look at it from a benefit cost perspective, it's still a good thing. That's a recent trend. We are looking at. We don't know the exact results right now, but it's not only your own health, you also have to look at the health of the other. If you're using a e- bike, what does it do with the other on the bicycle paths? We see a rise in collisions and we are also concerned that the e-bikes cause more accidents. Not only with other people, but also with obstacles like poles or, you know, we have narrow bicycle paths sometimes. So it's causes a bigger risk.


    Davion Ford

    I recently also heard some information when it comes to e-bikes in terms of unintended consequences. That there are, you know, concerns as well to about the lifespan of some of those bikes, whereas a traditional bike like what I ride or what I think you know, still the majority of people use in Amsterdam, those things can go for decades as long as you service them properly. But it seems like the lifespan of these many of these E bikes is no more than several years and then that's it. You have to throw it away.


    Sietze Faber

    Yeah, exactly. You see a high, very competitive markets. You see a lot of Chinese brands, for example, in this fat bike segment. And you can question that is, is it a good thing that these bikes, they don't last even a couple of years. I heard some stories that bicycle repair shops, they don't wanna repair those bikes anymore or they don't get insurance anymore because they get stolen so often. So yeah, that's also a way of looking at this, this modality.


    Davion Ford

    OK, let's switch gears a bit and I'd like to talk about the economics of all of this. And so I reckon that building and maintaining, for instance, all of the cycling infrastructure in Amsterdam is a really significant investment. But I'm curious in what ways do these types of investments in active travel or facilitating active travel, does it enhance the city's economy?


    Sietze Faber

    Yeah, maintaining the city's roads and cycling paths is very significant amount of money like you say. And in Amsterdam we also have a lot of canals and quays and bridges which take even more money to take care of. So we are doing that in a very thorough way, we also try to be more circular with our maintenance. So we try to reuse materials. If you look at, for example, the sidewalk materials, our basis is reusage, now. Yeah, I would say based off there's research done in different cities recently that people will cycle or walk. Invest in total more money than people who go by car. So it's a recent study done by bureau. They invest 25% more money when they go through shopping centers than using car. So literally it pays off to invest more in these modes. And also it's also about what kind of shopping street or what kind of city center do you want to have? Do you want people to be there, do you want to have just more pragmatic places to buy something, like use, you know, these big, very big, huge supermarkets you see in France or in the United States. Those are not places you want to be and our shopping centers are places we want people to go actually. Like a destination.


    Davion Ford

    Yeah, that's a that's a really good point. And you know, as an American who's lived in Amsterdam for for 20 years, I can definitely attest to that. Average shopping mall, at least where I'm from, you are there just for that. Although I guess some people do hang out in at the mall. That was a thing when I was growing up. But no, you're absolutely right. It's not the same sense of place making that you have here that you were in a place that it's just maybe pleasant to be there even if you don't necessarily feel like shopping. OK, Sietze, here's my final question. And that is what thoughts or sort of final thoughts or advice would you offer to other cities who are looking to improve their walking and cycling infrastructure and also to motivate more residents to choose active travel?


    Sietze Faber

    So it's a very good question. We of course get a lot of delegations from different countries and cities and and it's always one of the most asked questions, of course. How do we become Amsterdam? How do we become such a bike capital and I always say like, yeah, it is too much. If you just look at the city right now and compare it to your own city or place just so I would generally say take a step by step approach, propose a radical vision and then carry it out step by step. So and also I would say don't look away from taking unpopular measures, for example, increasing the parking rates, is always unpopular with drivers. But it will always pay off later. People will say later “Yeah, we should have done this earlier. We should have done this decades earlier.” It is an amazing thing. You can actually do for the city and the people who go there. Secondly, I would also say talk to your residents, talk to people who live there. What do they really want, what they need for their city? It's important to think about it as well, like, to participation. And don't just do it a top down way, like we want this and that. That's the vision we propose. The third thing is also invest in alternatives like public transport is very important and also invest in dense urban development, because livable urban developments and the mixed-use as is, is also really important in order to be a good bicycle city.


    Davion Ford

    OK. Sietze, so thank you so much for your time and for joining the show.


    Sietze Faber

    Thank you! It’s a pleasure.


    Davion Ford

    That's all for this episode of the show. A big thank you to Sietze Faber for joining us. For all of you out there. Please stay tuned for our future episodes as we continue to bring changemakers to the table who are driving progress in urban development. And if you haven't done so already, please subscribe and check out our other episodes. I'm Davion Ford and you've been listening to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis, the world's leading company delivering sustainable design, engineering and consultancy solutions for natural and built assets. You can learn more by visiting our website or by following Arcadis on LinkedIn or Facebook. Stay curious, get inspired and remember, the future belongs to those who dare to make a difference in the cities we call home.

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