Can you really survive without a car? In Amsterdam, car-free living isn't just a statement, it's a way of life.
If you are the owner of a driving licence, you probably have a clear recollection of the joy you felt the day you passed your test, and first took to the wheel unaccompanied.
I do; I remember where I went, what I was wearing and the giddy apprehension I felt. I also remember my first collision; how quickly it tempered this excitement, and how I hugged the other driver, apologising repeatedly for my incompetence.
I remember the first time I drove through my capital city on the way to a job interview, my knuckles white, my leg quivering over the brake as I crawled through London’s business district. I got that job and moved to the big city permanently. Eventually, I tamed the beast and drove around like a local, with only the occasional flush of fear. However, a string of parking tickets, a couple of car break-ins, and a move to a flat in the centre of town, made it very easy for me to renounce this so-called symbol of freedom.
A string of parking tickets, a couple of car break-ins, and a move to a flat in the centre of town, made it very easy for me to renounce this so-called symbol of freedom.
Now a citizen of Amsterdam, liberation from car ownership is a joy. I regard life on two wheels as the best thing about our city, and the thing that I would miss most if we ever repatriate. The infrastructure caters to cyclists, allowing them to travel efficiently and in relative safety. 38% of all trips made in the city are done by bike. In fact, the traffic safety record here is the best in Europe and three times better than that of our American cousins. Pedal power also enjoys superior legal protection, with liability laws favouring cyclists over drivers, who had better keep out of their way. As a visiting tourist in the 90s, I soon realised that bikes were king of the road here, and if you were on their territory (and valued your life), you had better relocate to the pavement with haste.
During my time in London, one of the most tedious journeys in my car was my weekly trip to the gym. I now acknowledge the irony - and expense - of that madness. Here in Amsterdam, the recommended daily half hour of exercise is neatly accomplished in two short workouts, also known as ‘the school run’. Furthermore, the only air pollution I am creating is my panting and puffing as I attack steep canal bridges in my heavily-laden bakfiets.
Unlike the car, the affordability of a bike makes it a great leveler. Bicycles here are not generally regarded as status symbols, and it is not uncommon to spend more on your lock than on your bike. Thus the cyclist becomes an everyman - or everywoman. An equal on the road and in the law, with hair flapping blithely in the wind. Not to mention the absolute soaking you get when the heavens open or passing motorists spray you with mud. Luckily, another good thing about Amsterdam is that the public transport, compared with London at least, sort of works. No car: no problem, I’ll OV my way across town.
Bicycles here are not generally regarded as status symbols, and it is not uncommon to spend more on your lock than on your bike.
Also, I must say, I do like to have a bit of money in my pocket. The NiBud, in association with the ANWB, estimate the cost of running a family car to be between €400 and €700 a month – ouch! It’s priceless, also, dispensing with all the usual car hassle: no more queuing at the Post Office for my tax disc (OK, it’s probably done online these days), no more dealing with Dodgy Dave the car mechanic, wondering if he’s ripping me off. No more nail-biting MOT tests. No need for a garage, or a parking permit: I have a lock, chain and a handy drain pipe outside my house.
So, as my driving licence gathers dust, I have no regrets. We are immensely privileged to live in a capital that we can travel through so effortlessly, so cheaply and with the satisfaction that the only engine we need is our bodies. H.G.Wells wrote that ‘cycle tracks will abound in Utopia’. I have to agree.
Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British national who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. A former French and English teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor while raising her two children. See her website to find out more about her work.