It’s been more than a few years since I’d been on a bike. So when I began my semester in Amsterdam, it was beyond intimidating to have to swing my leg over a bike, hop on, and somehow navigate my way through this city. But I’ve done it, I’ve succeeded in winding through the crevasses and canals of the Amsterdam streets, and you can too. Even if you’re someone who’s more comfortable purchasing a monthly tram pass, I want to encourage you to get on a bike at least once.
For one, it’s free and oftentimes faster than taking public transport. From my house to the city center, it’s less than a 15-minute bike ride.
Secondly, you’re helping the environment, which will hopefully counteract the negative environmental impact (or karma, if you’re into that) you’ve had by taking the airplane to get here in the first place.
Thirdly, it’s part of cultural integration. Amsterdam was made to be biked through, Dutch people utilize this, and soon you will too.
Lastly, it’s fun and you get exercise. It’s the perfect combo. Plus you oftentimes see dogs while out and about, which is an added bonus.
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of the benefits of bike riding, here’s all you’ll need to know before you go.
First, I had to get a bike. If you choose to live in the single student apartments, you are provided with a bike for free, plus the optional cost of insurance (which is essential in my opinion, as a missing bike leaves you with a debt of 350 euro). If you live in shared apartments, swapfiets and rent-a-bike are cheap options, with prices ranging from 15 to 35 euros a month.
Next step is to learn how to lock your bike. This may seem pointless, but on average your bike will be stolen about once a year (according to my Dutch classmates). Since study abroad only lasts a few months, you'll most likely be fine. But to ensure this, you need precautions. Aquire two locks: one small circular one for locking the back wheel to the frame, and another long chain locking the front tire to the frame and to an exterior surface, such as a bike rack or a friend’s bike. You can purchase these at a variety of bike stores throughout the city. Even if your rental bike comes with one lock, it’s recommended to get two locks and ensure both wheels are locked to the frame. Remember to always lock your bike! Seriously!
Dressing for the weather is also important. Firstly, you need gloves. I’ve had more than enough times in which my hands were left raw and red after merely a few minutes of biking in freezing temperatures. Secondly, a rain jacket and waterproof pants are your best friends. Amsterdam tends to fluctuate between rain and sunlight in a matter of minutes. Being on your way to class in the middle of an unexpected rain storm isn’t the way anyone wants to spend their day.
Before you even attempt to mount your bike, know your basic traffic laws. You ride in the same directions as cars (right side of the road) in bike lanes. Sometimes you ride in specific red tar colored bike lanes, running parallel to the road. Other times you ride with the cars, separated by a white line designating your part of the street as the bike lane. In both instances, a white bike symbol is typically painted in your lane, so if you see this symbol you’re good to go. If you can’t cross the road at the moment and you need to go in the opposite direction than the traffic on your side, proceed at your own risk and stay to the far-right side of the lane. Other bikers aren’t usually a fan of this type of biking etiquette, so get to the correct side of the street as soon as possible.
Always signal before you turn. For example if you’re going right, make sure you point to the right so bikers behind you know you’re turning. There are also bike traffic lights which you have to obey, located near most crosswalks. Road signs are important as well. Although bikes are allowed in most roads, keep an eye out for any notification of one-way streets, yield signs, and do not enter signs.
Navigating can be tricky, and I highly recommend buying a phone holder for your bike, which you can buy cheaply at the store Action. This will enable hands free navigating, but always remember to look up and pay attention! There have been more times than I can count that I’ve watched fellow bikers almost careen into a car or a street pole because their gaze is fixed on their phone.
One of the most important tactics I’ve adapted is to be aware of local bikers. Oftentimes they take traffic laws as a suggestion, carry an oddity of items of their bike (including their children), and are overall much more experienced. Stay out of their way! As both a fellow biker and a pedestrian, know that local bikers can be ruthless, but if you keep your head up, keep pace with the crowd, and fake a sense of confidence, you’ll fit right in.
Along with being aware of cars, pedestrians, and other bikers, keep an eye on the trams, and the tram tracks specifically. Trams run in the center of the street, and their paths are easily mapped out with the tracks, so you should have no trouble avoiding them. You can cross these tram tracks when crossing the street, but beware to not go with the tram tracks, thus getting your tire stuck in the track.
Mopeds and small cars are allowed in the bike lane—watch out for them. While it can be annoying to watch a moped cruise easily up an incline while you struggle to breathe, there’s literally nothing you can do about their presence. Keep your ears open for the rumble of any electric vehicle, and try to stay out of the way. I recommended to not have any sort of headphone in your ear while biking in general, but sometimes you’re dying to continue listening to your podcast. I get you. I am you. One earphone will suffice in both your daily fulfillment of podcasts, and your ability to listen to your surroundings.
Lastly, I know you may think you can bike while inebriated, but you can't. Don’t bike while under the influence. You put yourself and others at risk. And it’s hard enough to bike in broad daylight, let alone during a drizzly 4am venture back from the clubs.
Now if you’ve read all of this, and are still unsure about your biking skills, have no fear. There are multiple parks and less occupied streets in Amsterdam where you can go by yourself or with a friend, without having to worry about keeping up with other bikers or avoiding crashing into cars. Practice, practice, practice.
Follow these guidelines, and before you know it you’ll be blending in with the locals, gaining confidence, and helping mother nature out. Did I mention you’re also saving money?!? Free. Biking is free.
Good luck and happy biking!
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<p>I’m studying psychology and gender studies at the University of Rochester. I just came back from studying in Quito, Ecuador for a semester and this spring semester I will be studying in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I feel most at home when I’m backpacking and climbing mountains, I’m a lover of pancakes and language, and I’m skilled at sleeping on all forms of public transport.</p>