Book Review: In the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan


Author: Pete Jordan
TitleIn the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
Publication Info: New York : Harper Perennial, c2013.
Previously Read by Same Author:   Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States
Summary/Review:

Pete Jordan’s book serves three purposes:  first, it’s a memoir of his coming to Amsterdam in 2002 for a five month urban studies program and ending up staying for over a decade so far and raising a child with his wife.  Second, it’s a distillation of the ideas behind what makes a great cycling city. But mostly it is a detailed history of over a century of cycling in Amsterdam based on deep archival research.  Jordan focuses on the rise of cycling in Amsterdam and the many aspects of the culture that makes it successful but also chaotic.  The occupation by Nazi Germany leads to attempts to ban the Dutch from biking and the bike becoming a symbol of the resistance.  The bike is also central to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (although the famous White Bike program was more powerful as a myth than in reality).  And in the 1970s and 1980s, when Amsterdam became overwhelmed by cars, there was the fight to reclaim the city for bikes. There’s a downside to biking in Amsterdam with the high levels of bike theft, and Jordan also ponders why so many bikes end up in the canals (and admiringly watches the city employees who have to fish them out).  Even a bike tunnel through the Rijksmuseum is a constant source of wonder and conflict.

It’s a wonderful and engrossing book filled with humor and smart observations and it makes me want to pack up and move to Amsterdam right now.
Favorite Passages:

It was past midnight. What the hell were all these people doing out on their bikes? Why were they all moving so unhurriedly? And why were they in my way? That’s when it struck me: It’s the middle of winter; it’s past midnight—and I’m stuck in a bicycle traffic jam. My haste vanished. I decelerated, accepted the pace of the others and appreciated the rest of my ride home. From then on, whenever anyone asked why I had immigrated to Holland, I didn’t hesitate to reply: “So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight.”


The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required


The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required the lingering animosity toward the Nazis for all of their misdeeds. Over the next few years, whenever a German tourist in the Dutch capital asked a local for directions, the Amsterdammer was apt to either give false directions or ask for his bike back. If a German requested service in an Amsterdam café or restaurant, oftentimes the response was: “First, return my bike.”


A car is acceptable as a means of transport only within thinly populated areas or from a thinly populated area to the city. Cars are a dangerous and totally unsuitable means of transport within the city. There are better ways of moving from one city to another. For these purposes, the automobile is an outdated solution.


The film drew the audience’s attention to each renegade cyclist, leading us to overlook the obvious: the vast majority of the cyclists were actually obeying the traffic rules. Later I watched the film again. The number of cyclists highlighted as lawbreakers? Nine. The number of cyclists in the film who broke no laws (that is, stopped for the traffic signal, rode within the bike lanes)? One hundred and seventy-four. By featuring the 5 percent of the cyclists in view who were scofflaws, the film helped to embellish the image of the Amsterdam cyclist as out of control. Yet if the film had highlighted the law-abiders, the message could just as easily have been this: 95 percent of Amsterdam’s cyclists obey traffic laws. Maybe we aren’t such a bad lot after all.

Recommended booksAmsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak,  Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne, and  Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ****

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