Walking in Amsterdam for Tourists
My wife and I made our first trip to The Netherlands recently, and spent a few days walking in Amsterdam. I had preconceived notions about getting around. It is a well-known fact that Dutchies in cities have a love affair with bicycles because driving is difficult, and parking sucks. Much is written about biking rules. My biggest surprise however, was from walking in Amsterdam.
How tough can walking be? In USA, use sidewalks, wait for walk light, and go. Amsterdam however seems to be the King of traffic terror in The Netherlands, for all transportation modes. So now as an “EXNewbie” I have a fairly comprehensive list of tips for first time hoofers. Walking in Amsterdam isn’t difficult to master through experience, but this should help you to avoid some traffic skirmishes.
According to SWOV.nl, 27 percent of pedestrian accidents in Netherlands are with bikes, mopeds and delivery vans, and over 85 percent of those are in cities. An informational head start never hurts, as it is easy to get distracted by the sights and sounds when walking in Amsterdam.
Lanes of Travel
There are pedestrian sidewalks, often narrow next to a building. Most are next to a separate (usually red) bike lane, which allows light mopeds and may allow scooters and cars as well. Signs will be posted. Bike and walking lanes don’t always have a curb between them, and may have a very subtle color difference. Don’t wander into a lane in front of a bike. If you value your health, never walk in a red bike lane.
Crossing Lanes on Foot
Crossing traffic can get crazy. I asked a friend about traveling in Amsterdam. He said “There’s one simple rule. Don’t hit anything”. Amsterdam natives are skilled bikers, but when newbies get distracted with canals, coffee shops and short skirts, they are bound to step out in front of a cluster of bikes. I did it several times by following someone without first looking myself. I froze in the middle of the bike lane, bikes whizzing by both sides, bells dinging.
There is a right-of-way scheme, but for pedestrians I would just say cross traffic hurts if it hits you. Be bold but smart. Don’t hesitate once you commit. Look several steps in advance.
Bikes move faster than pedestrians (unless they are sprinting out of danger), and there’s little time to cross busy bike lanes. As mentioned, you may not recognize it as a bike lane if distracted. Before you cross any lane, pull your rain hoodie back, look left, right and front or you may step into a problem. I occasionally waited for a dozen bikes to cross. Walkers nearby may zip through a tight opening, but don’t blindly follow. Look before you leap!
The Bike Bell
Walkers tend to walk side by side, possibly blocking a path. For lanes that allow pedestrians and bikers, a biker may ring a bell when approaching. They want to get through, or just signal they are approaching. Don’t blindly make sudden moves. Look back, see if you need to move aside and move quickly. Don’t inadvertently step into the way.
Scooters and Mopeds
This is a popular and fast way to get around (did I mention fast?). They zip through crowds, over bridges and around pedestrians at high speed. Give extra distance before crossing in front of one. They will be on top of you quite quickly. Bike lanes allow light Mopeds so always pay attention.
Delivery Bikes and Scooters
Businesses use bikes and scooters for delivery. These riders must be paid by the delivery, because they can be maniacs on wheels. They are skilled, but have a job to do and expect you will get the hell out of the way. If one turns down your way, beware!
Tourists on Bikes
People on solid colored bikes (i.e. red or yellow) are most likely a “tourist trap”, AKA newbies on rental bikes. Beware! Don’t expect the same maneuvering skill from them as you might from of a pedaling Amsterdammer.
Distracted Bike Riding
I saw locals ride while doing business on a cell phone, talking or texting. Some ride side by side chatting, appearing to have a sixth sense about what’s in front of them. Maybe they do. Biking in Amsterdam is a close encounter experience. Bikers ride by pedestrians and other bikes a few centimeters apart. No one blinks. This is normal for them, but tough on newbies.
Bikers break rules by riding on sidewalks, running red lights, or not using hand signals. They may zoom from behind closely. The lesson here is “defensive walking”.
Rough Walking Surfaces
Worthy of mention, according to SWOV.nl, four times as many pedestrians are injured by falls and tripping on a poor walking surface than with vehicles. Keep an eye on your walking surface!
Speeding Cars and Scooters
Some cars speed up and roar down narrow streets. Whether intentional to be heard and seen, or they just see a clear street and floor it, it gets your attention as a pedestrian. As crazy as it seems, this may actually work. I heard it, saw it, and got out of the way.
Cars, Scooters and Delivery Trucks
Small roads and lots of people make for excellent local drivers. If I needed a getaway driver for a heist somewhere, I would hire one from Amsterdam. Just stay alert, you will be fine.
Give trams a wide berth. They are bigger than you.
Jaywalking is accepted, but it’s on you to survive. Zebra crossings give pedestrians right of way over cars and bikes, but watch for rogue bikes running through.
I really didn’t see anyone get angry. Locals are experts at transportation. Just don’t do anything crazy. If you do? Run!
If you have any other suggestions for newbie tourist pedestrians feel free to leave a comment.