Greetings from Amsterdam. As some of you may know, I’ve recently moved here from Brisbane to begin a PhD in Economics. Fun times.

In this post I want to briefly touch on some reasons why Amsterdam is such a “bad ass” city and possibly glean some information that may be relevant to Auckland. As discussed in this TED talk which Matt linked to recently, Amsterdam’s city flag is relatively “bad ass” insofar as it follows principles of good flag design, as illustrated below.


Before we begin please ponder a question: What do you think of when you hear the word “Amsterdam”?

In my experience, for many New Zealanders the word Amsterdam evokes images of a psychedelic mash-up of bicycles, tulips, joints, and red lights. As is often the case, however, impressions formed from afar tend to reveal more about the place from which the observation is made than the place that is being observed.

As any one of the many kiwis I have met here will attest, Amsterdam’s “spirit” is not found in the red light district nor in its liberal approach to managing psychedelic substances. Nor even cycling. Why are foreigners so fascinated by bicycles? Indeed, for the locals, the usefulness of a bicycle is a given. It simply is the best way to get around, and the most efficient form of urban transport. Hands down.

These things are simply consequences of much more profound socio-economic factors.

In my view, the spirit of Amsterdam is encapsulated in an attitude of “practical and engaged tolerance”. It’s an attitude which says “I don’t mind what you do, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact me.” And if something you’re doing does negatively impact me, then I’ll simply let you know and we’ll sit down and have a rational and informed conversation about what to do about it. Or I’ll find a way to avoid the problem.

Like cycling. Many people are of the view that the Netherlands has always been a cycling nirvana. That perception is incorrect. From a policy perspective, the Dutch only really started to consciously embrace cycling from the 1960s onwards. This was a deliberate policy decision made in response to two main factors:

  1. Peaceful but widespread protests by residents in response to the growing number of cyclists who were being killed by private vehicles; and
  2. The oil shocks of the 1970s, which the Netherland’s government decided was a good reason to develop a more sustainable transport system.

Both factors are discussed in this fantastic video, which is titled “How the Dutch got their cycle paths“.

Basically, it was felt that there was 1) a moral need for safe cycling facilities and 2) an economic rational for doing so. The result? Elected representatives and policy-makers put their heads together and made sustained investment in cycle facilities over many years. Has Amsterdam failed as a consequence of what was, at the time, a rather significant shift in transport policy?

No, if anything it has prospered. PwC’s recently released Global Cities Study scored Amsterdam as follows:


By this measure, Amsterdam was ranked fourth in the world and second in Europe. Amsterdam scores first on both “health, safety, and security” and “sustainability and natural environment”. In short, Amsterdam is a socio-economic powerhouse. This is the view that I try and give to people when they ask me “what is Amsterdam like?”. Yes, Amsterdam is business time.

Sure, as well as having great jobs it’s also a great place to live. Why? Well, residents tend to identify strongly with and celebrate being in Amsterdam. For example, a few weeks ago Amsterdam celebrated “Sail”, which is an event held every five years that brings together tall sailing ships from around the world. I understand the event is the largest of its kind in the world and requires the Port of Amsterdam (which is a major sponsor) to be shut for several days.

It’s big bikkies and the time lapse video below gives you a feel for the scale of the celebrations.

There’s many other similarly amazing events. “Museumnacht”, for example, is an annual event where the museums are turned into nightclubs with top DJs from around Europe. People buy a ticket to the whole event which gains entry to all museums and dance their way around top artworks.

So I hope that gives you a feel for Amsterdam.

But how is Amsterdam doing on the land use and transport front in more modern times? Well, I’ve only been here 4 weeks so I need to do more research. However, I can briefly outline two reasons I’ve already found for why Amsterdam is doing fairly well in a few areas where Auckland might still be able to learn a few tricks.

The first thing is that minimum parking requirements simply don’t exist. That’s right: Developers can choose how much parking to provide to meet the needs of their customers. While parking management policies (e.g. parking prices and/or travel demand management measures) may be something the developer will discuss with the municipality during processing of their application, there does not seem to be any stipulated requirement to provide a certain amount of parking with certain types of developments. Instead, there is simply an expectation that the developer will “think about it”. How bizarre. And effective.

The second thing is that Amsterdam has, for more than 5 years, focused on one public transport project: The North-South metro line. While Amsterdam scored relatively well in the aforementioned PwC survey, one area where it did not score so highly was in the “transportation and infrastructure” category. On the surface this seems strange. I mean, Amsterdam achieves ~35% cycle mode share while another 20% use public transport. The City also benefits from an extensive national heavy rail network which carries 1.1 million passengers per day across the Netherlands. As an Aucklander it’s sometimes hard to think how the transport system could get any “better”.

However, when it comes to transport there are two things to remember about Amsterdam.

The first thing is that because Amsterdam is successful, Amsterdam is congested. There’s a lot of things going on pretty much all the time. Special events such as Sail are a regular feature of the calendar. Hence, if you are not cycling, then the roads and public transport are quite congested. No shame there, but I think it’s interesting that policy-makers in New Zealand still don’t understand that a successful city will likely be congested. In other words, places that aren’t congested aren’t successful. It’s important to note that this is not equivalent to saying “we shouldn’t worry about congestion”, but simply noting that no congestion is not the end goal. Instead, the end goal is a city where many people can avoid congestion altogether, when and where it eventuates, by using alternatives.

The second thing to note is that public transport in Amsterdam’s is not that great by European standards. The LRT has good coverage but is relatively slow and somewhat infrequent while the metro has limited coverage and is relatively indirect for many journeys. As you can see from the network map below (NB: The northern terminus of the Green metro line looks strange until you realise that it connects with a frequent heavy rail connection that exists between Slöterdijk and Centraal).


So how do policy-makers in Amsterdam propose to “fix” their transport problems? Well, the “North-South” metro line includes six new stations and an extension to the north shore, as illustrated in blue below. Boom. It’s as if Auckland looked to combine the CRL and a metro rail to the North Shore into one project.


The contrast between the North-South metro line and what NZTA are planning for the next harbour crossing in Auckland could not be more stark. Whereas NZTA is planning to spend billions to achieve a relatively marginal increase in capacity within an existing highway corridor that by world standards is only moderately congested, Amsterdam is already spending similar amounts of money on a project that massively expands the coverage and directness of their rapid public transport network.

In a nutshell: There seems to be widespread acceptance among policy makers in Amsterdam that if peak urban travel demand is the problem, then investment in road capacity is not the solution. Instead, the preferred solution here is to invest in strengthening the rapid transit network first, and then investing in frequent local PT that connects to this RTN network. While Auckland gets the latter part of this equation, it has not yet realised that this investment needs to happen *instead of* investment in highways.

There’s many other reasons why Amsterdam is a great place to live, and I’ll no doubt explore some of them in future posts, assuming that I manage to survive my courses. In the meantime, rest assured that notwithstanding the weather and the pain of having to study graduate microeconomics, life “ist goed.” Tot ziens!

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  1. Currently living (until tomorrow, anyway) 2 minute walk from the future noorderpark station – it will be a big deal for Noord as at the moment it’s the crazy busy ferries or the busses through Ijtunnel just to get to Central station where you need a transfer. Zuid is shaping up to be a massive transit hub in future.

    The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that change and improvement is constant – about a month ago there were still cars driving along the water’s edge along centraal station, but now they are all in a tunnel underneath with the whole area about to become a shared space (a ‘crazy’ idea in amsterdam where bikes and people don’t get along too well. I have reservations). The whole bus interchange is brand new too.

    Transit is slow though, as you mention, – unless the weather is really bad you’ll just bike everywhere – my commute is ~14km by bike – about an hour (allegedly…) – but I just take the metro because (take note!) employers here cover your transit costs – I get a monthly pass which means ‘free’ travel not related to work also.

    For interests sake, GVB (the main, but not only) transit provider has a nice tool to show you bus, train, tram and metro lines geographically – – just click a number.

    Fun fact – the 51 Metro shares a track with the 5 Tram south of station Zuid – when stopped there, you can hear/feel the wheels changing tracks – pretty neat (when it works….)

  2. I think there’s a flawed logical relationship between success and congestion…

    1. Successful cities will have loads of people
    2. Successful cities will have loads of activity
    3. Activity requires movement
    …. (here’s the gap)
    4. Movement creates congestion

    It’s entirely possible to posit an incredibly successful city without congestion. Imagine if tomorrow, by Magic Wand, the CRL was built, the NW Busway was built, there were 24hr clearways/buslanes on all major arterials… would Auckland be less successful? Would it be congested?

    The ideal is NOT Hong Kong. The ideal is a civilised place where people have the space to be civilised while still attaining agglomeration benefits.

    1. Clearly will never be Hong Kong, but it can become so much more successful than it is now by being more city-like than it currently is and that certainly means becoming less auto-dependent.

      Cities are, quite simply, the reduction of physical space between people. There is a contradiction in your claim that we can have more space yet somehow enjoy agglomeration economies. ‘Space’ simply means dis-agglomeration. Have you been reading NZTA’s Economic Evaluation Manual? I know they want to bank agglomeration benefits by building dispersive infrastructure but that is simply sophistry.

      ‘Imagine if tomorrow, by Magic Wand, the CRL was built, the NW Busway was built, there were 24hr clearways/buslanes on all major arterials… would Auckland be less successful?’

      Er No. It would clearly be able to be much more successful. The level of access and resilience, and quality of life, and range of choice would all clearly be greater. Most of the population would be able to completely avoid traffic congestion; it would be entirely optional, however this success would attract more business and more people, and ‘congestion’ would no doubt be real; on city streets, at major stations, at big attractions. And yes, on the roads; to a point. But as Stu says above this is the congestion you want; this is urban success.

      1. You could fit the people currently in Auckland, within Auckland’s footprint, and still give them a higher median m2 per person, through more efficient allocation of space.

        Thus – more space, same success

        1. Or we could take your extreme example; if everyone now in Auckland lived at the density of HongKong then we would only need the area of Waiheke for habitation and the whole of the rest on city, every little bit of the mainland, could be National Park, or farmland, or golf courses!

          Or course there’s a trade-off between amount of private land used for living and moving and efficiency.

        2. To support Stu’s thesis higher traffic congestion actually correlates with higher economic performance:

          ‘Overall, however, the study concluded that the value of increased proximity is roughly 10 times as important in improving accessibility as its cost in reduced speed. Put another way, it’s 10 times more efficient, in economic terms, to shorten the distance separating home from work (or home from supermarket) than to increase the speed at which it’s possible to travel from one to the other.’

          ‘There’s no reason to believe that mobility drives prosperity. On the contrary, throughout the developed world, higher mobility is correlated with a lower gross domestic product, while “inefficient” roads, in terms of vehicle speed, tend to serve economically productive areas.

          Another study, this one from Texas A&M, found that for every 10% increase in traffic delays, per-capita GDP increased 3.4 %. This doesn’t mean that lower mobility directly enhances economic productivity, but it does suggest that places with a lot of congestion are more economically vibrant than those without.’

    2. Here is an example of improved efficiency in a dense city with good transport compared to a more spread out one:

      Tokyo’s density allows for 2–3x the number of meetings per day.

      In Tokyo, you can have a string of 1-hour meetings with 30min. between each. Start with a power-breakfast at 8AM, your next meeting at 9:30AM, then 11:00AM, 12:30PM, 2PM, 3:30PM, 5PM, 6:30PM, 8PM (dinner meeting). That’s 9 meetings. Yes it’s possible — I’ve done it before. I don’t recommend repeating this daily, but if you’re fundraising or hustling in sales, at least it’s possible. In the Bay Area there’s a lot of driving, even when many of the VCs are on Sandhill Road. When we were fundraising our seed round back in 2010, we maxed out at 4 meetings / day. You could probably do 5–6 meetings in San Francisco city proper, but you’ll likely be frazzled and sweating towards the end. More recently thanks to Uber you don’t have the stress of finding parking every time, but the traffic can still suck and be unpredictable. Tokyo’s impeccably reliable by-the-minute public transportation means you can pack-in a string of in-person meetings like no other. And nothing replaces f2f meetings when large sums of money are involved.

    1. yes I am renting. Unfortunately I’m not yet informed enough to understand how the rent control policies work, or don’t work. I have noticed that rents are high by European standards, but there are a lot of factors at play and a lot of subsidies for housing that may distort this playing field.

      Feel free to point me in the right direction (e.g. link me to resources) and I’d be happy digest the evidence and make some enquiries.

      The main thing I’ve noticed about the housing market is that many landlords openly discriminate against students and/or shared flats. I can understand why they’d have a preference for renting to an individual and/or family, but (as a landlord myself) I don’t understand why they would rule out other tenant typologies. Indeed if it was me and I was worried about damage then I’d just ask for a larger deposit.

    2. There is a nationwide system that protects renters against extreme rent prices. It includes a very elaborate points system on which your rent will be calculated. If you think you are paying too much rent (even after you’ve signed a lease) you can appeal your rent price at a board that will review the rent and can force the landlord to lower it. This generally keeps rents slightly in check. Renting is still quite expensive in Amsterdam, especially compared to buying a house.

      There is also an elaborate system of rent-controlled housing, for which you can apply if you make less than the average wage. For Amsterdam however, there is a long waiting list for these.

      1. There is technically such a system in NZ under the Residential Tenancies Act whereby the landlord cannot charge a rent that is unreasonably higher than the market rent charged for your area, based on the bonds that the Building and Housing Unit of MBIE receive. Tenants or prospective tenants can challenge an unreasonably high rent to the Tenancy Tribunal. However, I don’t know how many appeals are actually made or whether the Tribunal is effective at dealing with such an issue.

    3. It doesn’t appear to work well. If you weren’t born here and been on a waiting list for 12+ years you’re not getting rent control. In the Private market you need ~1200 a month for a 1 bedroom flat, at a minimum.

  3. Overall good post and it goes to show what can be done.
    However whilst I support rail to the North Shore (and am neutral about an additional vehicle crossing) I did notice this part of your post:
    “The contrast between the North-South metro line and what NZTA are planning for the next harbour crossing in Auckland could not be more stark. Whereas NZTA is planning to spend billions to achieve a relatively marginal increase in capacity within an existing highway corridor that by world standards is only moderately congested, Amsterdam is already spending similar amounts of money on a project that massively expands the coverage and directness of their rapid public transport network.”
    That is all well and good to say that but looking at that above map it appears that there are at least SIX harbour crossings in Amsterdam…compared to our TWO.

    1. Actually Amsterdam has 1753 bridges, so Auckland had better get cracking!
      Although how you can compare a river to a harbour is perplexing.

      1. But also when we do build a third crossing doesn’t their low number mean there is even more pressure to get it right? Our argument isn’t that we won’t need another another crossing; in fact we think it is important to increase the ways we are able to cross the harbour. SkyPath is the next additional route. Then the obvious missing means to get across is high capacity congestion free Rapid Transit. But NZTA are not even examining that. In fact they are not looking at need at all, but simply asking where can we ram the next urban state highway.

        Very very poor policy, and surely one that will get altered as the consequences become more apparent.

      2. Perplexing until you look at the Manukau estuary and imagine a dyke across from Cornwallis to Orua Bay

        Amsterdam is a marvel of civil engineering, a city built entirely in paved over a wetland.

  4. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. I have just finished it and I had so many …‘o so that’s why they do that’ moments.

    Also.. ranked 1 in sustainability – yes but natural environment? Really? They have that? Haha. I am looking forward to future commentary on my favourite city :-)

  5. That thinking stuff is so difficult. Lets just get a new flag and leave it at that. Maybe Auckland needs a flag. It will solve all our problems….

  6. Stu, what didn’t impress me when I had a few hours in Utrecht recently whilst waiting for my night train down to Germany was the total lack of bicycles for rent for tourists. The cycling was all well and good if you had your own (and there were hundreds of bikes near the Utrecht Centraal Station) but if you wanted to rent something for a few hours, forget it. Very frustrating and irritating when I wanted to have a quick look around the city. And talking costs, I had originally planned to stay at the Amsterdam Train Lodge but when the owner cancelled my reservation a couple of weeks before I was due to stay because they weren’t quite ready to open, the accommodation costs of staying in Amsterdam were so expensive that it was cheaper for me to book an overnight train down to Germany and have one more day there instead. Even when I had looked at accommodation four months ahead of traveling I was surprised at how expensive one night in Amsterdam could be!

    By the way, a bit off-topic, but like in Germany, and Austria it seems the Netherlands might also be in the 1970s when it comes to payment methods. The pub I went to in Utrecht, like many places in Austria and Germany, including cafes at big stations like Frankfurt and Vienna Hbf, only took cash and with fewer ATMs than found in NZ cities it caused me some frustration. Let’s just say that when it came to payment, and also incredibly wifi, Iceland, Romania and even Ukraine were more tourist friendly.

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