New to biking? Old to biking but need a refresher on biking rules? Stephanie Kernwein Thrane, shares invaluable tips about biking around the city, with a personal story about why following the rules is mandatory for your own safety, the safety of others and the sanctity of your wallet.

If you are new to Amsterdam, you are likely shocked at the sheer volume of bikes everywhere. In fact, there are approximately 23 million bikes in the Netherlands which equates to an average of 1.3 bikes per person!

Although biking is the preferred method of transportation in Amsterdam, some newly arrived expats can be hesitant to get on a two-wheeler. I get it! Even as a Dane (I was basically born on a bike) who hadn’t biked for many years after moving to Amsterdam from London, it took me a fair amount of courage and a little practice to get back on the bike-lane. Now, there is not a single day that I don’t bike and I absolutely love it! For those who drive a car, it’s the same feeling of complete independence and ability to get on your own without relying on others.

I hope this short article will help newcomers to Amsterdam with a few practical tips on how to bike in a safe way and what to look out for.

Traffic hierarchy:

The hierarchy is as follows – Trams, bikes, pedestrians, moving vehicles (cars, buses). While cars will stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, bikes often don’t. Legally they should, but in practice they often don’t. There is a pragmatic reason for this in the sense that the sheer volume of bikes would mean a constant stop to the flow of traffic. As a pedestrian you can easily stop walking, but if bikes have to stop at all crossings it would clog up the bike lanes and make it unsafe at times. As a cyclist you need to pay attention to zebra-crossings, try to signal or make eye contact with pedestrians in order to “agree” on who goes first. Personally, I always stop for elderly people, children and often tourists if easily identifiable (the ones who walk leisurely  in the bike lanes and cross any street only looking at the pretty surroundings… you know who I am talking about).

Helmet or no helmet?

It is shocking for many non-Dutch expats to see so many bikes, but no helmets, me included. In Denmark most cyclists wear a helmet, especially children and so for this reason I did too when I arrived in Amsterdam…but it didn’t last long. Biking is generally not considered dangerous here and therefore helmets are not mandatory or even encouraged. However it is a personal choice and if you want to wear a helmet to feel more comfortable, you should not hesitate doing it. With the rise in electric bikes I would not be surprised if we start seeing more cyclists in Amsterdam with helmets on.

How many people can you fit on a bike?

“A lot”, is the answer and there are no rules on how you carry them! I often wonder if I am at the circus or on my way to work when I see people standing at the back or front of someone else’s bike. It is quite an acrobatic skill to commute this way, but it is not illegal. However, children under the age of 8 must have a designated seat on a bike so please keep this in mind. Parents in Amsterdam often bike their children around in a bakfiets (cargo bike). Two-wheelers are preferred over three-wheelers as they take up less space on the bike lane. There are many places where you can test-bike bakfiets before buying one. Juizz Amsterdam is a good place to start.

Where is a good place to start?

If you are not yet ready for the bike-lanes of the city, but still want to practice, going to less busy areas or parks is a good way to start. Although tempting, avoid Vondelpark on a sunny weekend afternoon. It is complete carnage with runners, bikers, walkers, tourists, bike tours and all sorts of other people. Rembrandt park is lovely and more quiet. You can also go early in the morning (before 9am) to the 9 streets or the Jordaan or any of the inner canals. Take in the sights with minimal pedestrians or other cyclists.

Texting while biking: A personal story

Completely illegal! In fact, any distractions on your phone while biking is a traffic violation. Let me tell you a personal story to warn you of the dangers of distracted biking. A few weeks ago I was biking through Vondelpark on my bakfiets with one of my kids. I took my phone out of my pocket as I felt it vibrate. The moment I looked at my screen, two uniformed police officers appeared out of nowhere and signalled me to pull over. They asked for my ID and how long I had been living in the Netherlands. Naïve as I was, I thought maybe they were doing a random police survey, but when the police officer informed me that texting while biking was made illegal in the Netherlands two years ago, I realized I was in trouble and not taking part in a survey….

Of course I understand that it is common sense not to text while biking, I genuinely didn’t know that it was ILLEGAL. After all, it feels as though the general biking rules in the Netherlands are quite lax… am I right?!

Without any hesitation, the police officer asked for my address and said that a fine would be sent to me. I asked if a warning was not sufficient as this was my first ever traffic violation, but my efforts were in vain.

Alas, I did the crime and will accept the punishment. I asked the police officer how much the fine would be (thinking it would be around 40 EUR in line with a small speeding ticket). Oh boy, was I wrong. The fine was 169 EUR and arrived promptly the next day in my mailbox with a convenient link to pay via IDEAL.

Safe to say, my phone is now safely stored away in my backpack whenever I get on my bike. For clarification I should add that any phone activity while biking is illegal so whether you are looking at directions or changing a song on Spotify, just don’t do it. Get a phone holder instead which will keep you both safe and financially stable.

Biking is a fun, healthy, sustainable and a very inexpensive form of transport. It is a great way to discover Amsterdam at your own pace and an even better way to integrate into the true Dutch lifestyle. Take it easy in the beginning, and before you know it, you will be parading around Amsterdam without even touching your steering wheel! Good luck and happy fietsen!

Stephanie Kernwein

Stephanie is a native Dane, but relocated to Amsterdam in the summer of 2022 after spending 12 years in London. Her partner is from the US and together they have two little tri-lingual children. Like many other expat families, she is navigating a new culture, language, career etc. Amsterdam Mamas was a tremendous help when moving to Amsterdam and still is! In the spirit of giving back, Stephanie wants to share the helpful tips provided to her and hope they can benefit new families to Amsterdam.