In the City of Bikes is two histories: the story of an urban-planning student and his bicycling family intertwined with the larger story of bicycling within Amsterdam.
The author is an American transplant. Once, having moved to Portland, Oregon, he grew increasingly excited as he counted 19 bicycles rolling past his location every 30 minutes.
In Amsterdam he counts 19 bicycles every 30 seconds.
(Jordan is quite the observer. He counts how many city dwellers ride with an open umbrella and calculates that 61 percent of the total are women. He looks for people riding with an arm in a sling and determines 86 percent of them are male and 70 percent of the arms are the left.)
Recreational riders have to adjust their thinking to read this book. The bikes described aren’t new or glamorous or lightweight. They’re generic single-speeds and three-speeds with high upright handlebars, little changed from their counterparts of the 1920s. Lance Armstrong may have been a cheat and a liar, but as far as this book is concerned, he was right about one thing: it really isn’t about the bike.
It’s about how bikes get used, abused, stolen, abandoned, drowned, repaired, promoted and redeemed. And about how one northern European city seems to be a perfect host to all those activities.
City centers on the history, infrastructure and politics of Amsterdam. That’s not to say there aren’t discussions of technology. Here’s Jordan writing about the dredges used to pull stolen and abandoned bikes from the murky canals of the city.
“Though the claw hoisted up other junk–three car tires, two scooters, a no-parking sign, a long metal pipe, a chair–the vast majority of the time, when a catch was made, it was a bicycle. In less than 90 minutes, I watched the fishermen land 47 bikes.”
And while discussions of the physical challenges of bicycling are limited, they are illuminating. I remember when I lived in Champaign, Illinois, the biggest climb involved a highway overpass, which left me unable to surmount the “real” hills of southern Indiana during October’s Hilly Hundred ride. Amsterdam is even flatter, and its residents are just as unequipped to climb. Here’s Jordan on an automotive tunnel opened to Dutch cyclists during a transportation strike.
“…I stopped at the northern end of the tunnel and watched the cyclists. Of the 1,000 that I noted exiting, 342 of them–one in three!–were walking their bikes. A great many of the remaining two-thirds were panting heavily as they wobbled back and forth, struggling up the incline as if they were nearing a peak in the French Alps.”
In other words, this is not a book for someone who believes that the Tour de France is the summit of the bicycle experience. It’s a book for someone who wants to know how one of the world’s greatest cities for bicycling came to be.
If you’re unfamiliar with Amsterdam, this book reads almost as alternative history: an explosion of cycling in the 1920s, the emergence of the cycle garage in the 1930s, generations of a royal family’s love of bicycling, an art museum bisected by a bike path, and the challenge of cycling anarchy to the German sense of motorized order during World War II.
The stories I find most familiar–politicians determined to push bicycles off the street and the universal problem of theft–are easily the most depressing sections of the book. But even those stories are interesting. Take for instance, the story about a single drug addict responsible for an estimated 9,000 bicycle thefts over eight years. You may not appreciate his vocation or avocation, but you have to be amazed at his industry.
If you’re interested in the bicycle as transportation, you must have this book. If you’re like me, with a news feed that constantly generates photographs of people on bicycles, In the City of Bikes will help you understand why so many of those images come from the capital of the Netherlands.