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:
- Peaceful but widespread protests by residents in response to the growing number of cyclists who were being killed by private vehicles; and
- 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!