Amsterdam is an urbanist’s paradise. Its architecture – from 16th-century to Deco to distinctly Dutch modern – has always been designed to put people first. Public and private life coexist seamlessly. Residents are regularly found on their front steps, enjoying a drink as the world cycles by. And, thanks to the country’s penchant for openness in all forms, those walking down the street can catch the entire broadcast of the nightly news as they pass one un-shuttered window to another. It’s safe, it’s progressive and it’s a good place to live.
“Amsterdam’s biggest challenge, however,” says the city’s Deputy Mayor Pieter Litjens, who is responsible for traffic, transport and mobility, “is how do we keep up with the mobility needs of each individual, while maintaining quality of life for residents and visitors alike.” Unlike most cities, where central districts suffer from a significant ebb and flow of people, Amsterdam experiences the opposite. It’s busy, day and night. “People don’t come to Amsterdam to visit Bos en Lommer or De Bijlmer,” says Litjens of two neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts. “They come for the center – the canals, the museums, the Red Light District. But how do we accommodate these 21st-century needs in what is largely a 16th-century city?”
The center of Amsterdam was never built for cars or buses or trams, or even bikes and pedestrians for that matter. It was built for boats, intended to accommodate the city’s once booming merchant naval trade. Today, it is one of the city’s most densely populated areas and the root of a number of its mobility issues.
As the city’s population has steadily increased, thanks to its renewed financial prosperity and enduringly high quality of life, so has the number of traffic jams and accidents – even among cyclists. Parking is infringing on the limited public space, pushing pedestrians into already overcrowded areas. “We did a study to determine who was traveling through the city center using automatic license plate recognition,” says Litjens. “Most of the cars were taxis picking passengers up or dropping them off, but a lot of drivers still cross the center to go from A to B, even though their destination is on the other side of the city. It’s a habit, which I even catch myself doing until I pull out my phone and it suggests a different route.”
“We’re having to deal with the flip side of success,” says Eric Van der Kooij, who has worked in the Municipality of Amsterdam’s planning department for the past 18 years. “Cities breathe,” he says. “They have a rhythm as people move throughout them. It’s about balance. We don’t want to become the next Venice or Barcelona, so we’re having to think differently about how the city behaves and is managed.”
Tourist destination: Amsterdam is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. According to MasterCard’s Global Destinations Cities Index, the city hosted 7.44 million overnight visitors in 2015, most of whom came to see the sights within the city’s 8.04 sq km, 16th-century center.
Amsterdam has long been acclaimed for thinking differently. The electric Tesla taxis, for example, are already a prominent fixture on the city’s streets, nine years before the sale of gas- and diesel-burning cars will be banned in the Netherlands. It is this kind of original approach that is being applied to better understand the city’s rhythms. Public works projects, such as the traffic study in the city’s center, for instance, are being paired with anonymized data from mobile carriers and tourist pattern data from the city’s museum card program to better regulate foot traffic. “The city’s traffic department may know everything about what happens on wheels,” says Van der Kooij, “but the flow of traffic can’t tell you where the influxes of pedestrians are occurring.”
Companies such as Google and TomTom, as well as universities, non-profit organizations, and other institutions, are also being engaged directly. One of these is the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions. “It’s no coincidence that the institute is in Amsterdam,” says Hans Van Lint, head of the Urban Mobility Lab. “What the city does very well is that it fundamentally invests in research, seeking out partners to better understand how it functions.”
Van Lint, a civil engineer by trade, is helping to model how the city will respond to fluctuations of vehicles and pedestrians. “There’s truckloads of open data in the Netherlands,” he says. “One of our main sources is the National Data Warehouse, a collaborative organization that combines data from the country’s road operators, its 12 provinces and its four largest cities. We’ve also collected our own data in high-traffic areas like the Amsterdam Arena. The goal is to put the city in a box, so to speak, so that we can determine the impact of encouraging people to use one mode of transport over another, or the outcome of encouraging people to move through different parts of the city.”
Cycling capital: Amsterdam is one of the world’s cycling capitals, with an estimated 38% of all journeys made by bike. In June 2016, it further solidified this status through the appointment of the world’s first cycle mayor, who will work with residents and city hall to keep wheels spinning.
While most of these initiatives are ongoing, the initial insights gained from these collaborations have been integral to the creation of solutions for Amsterdam’s unique metropolitan problem. Two years ago the Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, created the post of nachtburgemeester, or night mayor, in response to the throngs of late-night revelers that clogged the city center and its all-too-narrow streets after dark. “The goal was to work together with residents, the municipality and businesses to create a more safe and welcoming nightlife,” says Mirik Milan, a former club promoter and the city’s current night mayor.
To alleviate congestion in the center, trial 24-hour licenses were granted to 10 multi-disciplinary venues dotted around Amsterdam’s outlying neighborhoods, many of which were built in the 20th century and benefit from being much more spatially accommodating. The city and its various departments, including planning, public health, and the police, worked with entrepreneurs and residents to ensure that the venues weren’t adjacent to dense residential areas – parks and industrial parks often provide a buffer – and that they were all well connected to the city’s existing transportation network.
“People can be funny about traveling in Amsterdam,” says Milan. “Cycling for longer than 10 minutes can be a big decision, so it was important that these venues were about more than just parties. By combining nightlife with office space for creatives, restaurants, events spaces and programming for kids, they’ve encouraged people to travel outside the center to discover something new, while supporting the neighborhoods in which they reside. It’s created a vitality in what were once neglected areas.”
Like the 24-hour venues, larger national infrastructure projects, such as the city’s upcoming Noord/Zuid (or North/South) Metro line, the renovation of the Centraal Station, and various ring-road improvements, also aim to spread the center’s vitality into other areas, albeit in the longer term
Night-time economy: To alleviate congestion and support Amsterdam’s night- time economy, a three-year pilot program has been introduced in Rembrandtplein, one of the city’s central squares. The program brings together local government, club owners, volunteers and residents and has created a 75% drop in petty crime.