The Netherlands is unique in many ways, largely because how its very existence is defined by the ocean. Nearly a third of the country is below sea level, which has forced the Netherlands to create innovative ways to co-exist with nature rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission as so many other nations do. Recently, we reported on an innovative dairy farm that floats on the surface of the harbor at Rotterdam. That’s pretty creative, but last week Amsterdam opened a new parking facility for bicycles near its Centraal Station — the city’s main transportation hub. It cost $65 million and took four years to build, but that’s not the story here.
An Underwater Garage For Bicycles
This new facility is underwater. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The garage itself is not inundated with seawater, forcing patrons to swim in an out, dragging their bikes by the handlebars. The garage is built below sea level using techniques perfected by Dutch engineers over many generations. It even has escalators that transport bicycles and riders back and forth between the garage and street level. Here’s an interesting time lapse video showing the garage under construction.
The Verge contributor Thomas Ricker visited the new underwater parking garage recently. He reports that the “project has everything — and nothing — to do with the automobile.” In a country where bicycles easily outnumber citizens, data compiled by the Global Cities Bicycle Index consistently shows about 35% of the citizens of Amsterdam use their bicycles everyday. In Utrecht, that rises to nearly half of all residents.
Amsterdam’s metamorphosis from an automobile-centric city into a wonderland of multimodal transport began in the 1970s, Ricker reports. With the help of locals and enlightened politicians working cooperatively for a more livable city, private ownership of automobiles was discouraged in favor of clean and reliable car sharing services that receive preferential treatment. Electric cars are not seen as salvation in the city, where space to park any automobile is virtually nonexistent. Building an underwater bicycle garage is just business as usual for Dutch cities, which are methodically transforming personal automobiles into relics of a misguided past when cities were built around the needs of cars, not people.
100,000 Bicycles A Day
About 200,000 travelers a day arrive at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station by rail, ferry, tram, bus, and subway — half of them riding a bicycle. Abandoned bikes were a major problem before, but the new parking garage will keep track of everyone who enters and exits, which should reduce the orphan bike problem considerably. Ricker says the new facility is immaculate and has a distinct “2001: A Space Odyssey” vibe.
Parking in the garage is free for the first 24 hours, then €1.35 for each additional day. That’s both convenient for daily commuters and an excellent motivator for people to remove their bikes quickly. To enter, you swipe your OV-chipkaart — a Dutch transport card linked to your bank account — or have a Fietstag (“bicycle tag”) fitted to your bicycle. The chipped tag is free for subscribers and takes just a few minutes to obtain once inside the garage.
A street level bike path leads directly to the above ground entrance, which is marked by a large blue sign displaying a bicycle logo. The sign shows the number of parking places still available so riders can seek an alternative if the lot is full. From the entrance, a pair of rolling beltways transport bikes and owners underground. Red and green lights on the vertical columns inside the garage make it easy to see which rows of bicycle racks have open spaces available. Once a bike is parked, an escalator at the far end of the garage provides direct access to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station.
Open Heart Surgery For Amsterdam
Pieter Visser, the bicycle project manager for the City of Amsterdam, is especially proud of the architecture and lighting of the new development as well as artwork showing the history of the city “It was a technical, very difficult bike park to build because it’s underwater, so that took a long time planning and it took a long time to realize. Some say it is like open heart surgery for the Amsterdam Central Station area. It’s quite an achievement.”
A spokesperson for the city told Cities Today, “Bike parking is now only allowed in the parking garages and not on the street, so the racks will be removed.” Previously, the above ground bicycle racks were an eyesore for a city that prides itself on its clean, modern look. Once those racks are removed, which should happen in the next several weeks, pedestrians will have much more space to walk around near the busy Centraal Station area.
In February, a second underwater station for 4,000 bicycles, costing €25 million, will open on the IJboulevard behind the station. In a statement, the city says, “The opening of the new [garages] marks the beginning of a new era in which Amsterdam Centraal Station becomes a bit like around 1900: accessible and enjoyable, without cars and bicycles parked everywhere and nowhere.” The new bicycle parking garages are part of a wider renovation of the area, which includes maintenance work on jetties and bridges, the creation of wider footpaths and cycling paths, and the replacement of tracks and cables.
A Few Quibbles
Thomas Rickers writes that the parking garage is not perfect. “There is no designated parking for cargo bikes, which are very common in Amsterdam for families with small children. There also aren’t any charging points for e-bikes, which is a real oversight in a country where more than half of all new bicycles sold are electric.” He also says the Fietstag is not permanently mounted to each bicycle, which means “It can easily be stolen and used by anyone to surreptitiously check in or out of the garage, with all bills automatically charged to my account.” he says.
“Nevertheless, these are such minor nitpicks I’m almost ashamed to mention them. But modern cities like Amsterdam only arrived at this point though decades of continuous improvement. The project around Centraal Station might have started in 2019, but its foundation was laid long ago.”
“Granted, not every city can be like Amsterdam,” Ricker says. “But even new bicycle cities like Paris have proven that if you build the lanes, the bicyclists will come.” Like the changeover to electric cars, you have to start somewhere. Just as EV charging infrastructure is needed to move the EV revolution forward, convenient, safe parking for bicycles is needed to convince more people to ride one into the city instead of driving a car. Amsterdam has created a symbol of urban mobility that will inspire other world cities to follow suit.
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