Paris and Amsterdam have one thing in common – both have affirmative policies toward the bicycle as a preferred mode of travel. In other ways they are worlds, not just miles, apart. The streets and buildings of Paris have grown out of its medieval history. Walls, deeply sculptured, bend and break with the contours and byways of the ancient city. Rooftops break the blue edge of the sky with a three dimensional cubist assemblage of blue, orange and silver grey planes. It was in these garret “mansards” where the near starving Bohemian artists painted the beggars and gypsies that lived on the edges of French society.
Most of the streets of Paris are narrow and easy to cross, with just enough room for a
single auto lane and a three ft. bicycle lane, always in the opposite direction, bordered by stone sidewalks of five ft. or less; no parking at all, but occasional spaces for deliveries. The roads are surfaced in square rounded cobblestones. Some streets such as the Rue Mouftard or the Rue St. Andre are taken over entirely by pedestrians. Most are shared by walkers, bicycles, motorcycles, autos and small vans, except where they are demarcated by “bittes,” narrow iron bollards resembling upside-down table legs.
On October 24, I attended the “Bougez Malin” (Move Smart) outdoor fair where alternative forms of
low energy movement were on display. There I had my first ride on one of the sharebikes, run under a program directed by the firm of JCDecaux. I also spoke to their director, Pierre-Jean Maurel, who told me that bikeshare provides 20,000 bicycles at 1,800 terminals approximately 300 meters apart throughout Paris. They serve 140,000 riders daily, more than the 110,000 that ride the Metro.
Two days later, we boarded the Thaylis express train for Amsterdam. Traveling second class, the
height of luxury, we passed seamlessly across two borders with not even a pause for customs, thanks to the European Union. The ride was fast, smooth, quiet and exquisitely scenic through large generous windows, in total contrast to the ancient rattling, rocking, noisy AMTRAK slowly rumbling through a corridor seen through a small window, views of dead agent orange burned vegetation a world and century away. We drifted into a vast glass domed station where we boarded a tram to our destination a mile away.
The trams are ubiquitous, leaving their stops with a loud clang announcing their departure and warning pedestrians wandering across the almost invisible tracks imbedded flush with the brick streets. The architectural texture of Amsterdam differs sharply with that of Paris. The 4/5 story buildings rise smooth and flat at the edge of the street, and in some cases directly from the canal waters much like those in Venice. Their geometrically patterned façades are reflected in the purity of the modern works of Mondrian and the Di Stijl school of cubist art. Their precise neatness is carried down into the floors of the city where the roads are paved in grey-brown brick herringbones and the sidewalks in red parallel laid brick, the two separated by interlocking stone curbs. Bike lanes are segregated from both roads and sidewalks. Traffic mixes in an artfully self-controlled ballet with the occasional ding-ding of bicycle bells.
Bicycles are more dominant in Amsterdam than Paris. The Dutch bicycle has high handle bars and
seats, allowing the riders to sit upright. There is an equestrian grace and elegance to their bearing and a swift quietness in their approach. I could actually feel the wind of their passing and felt a bit precarious at first as a pedestrian, until I learned to count on their care and keep an eye out, especially when crossing or walking on a bikepath. The downside in the preponderance of bicycles is their being parked, leaning against building walls blocking the sidewalks and canal edges. At one location, where a small painted sign prohibited such parking, a defiant artist painted a bicycle leaning against the wall. Bicycles are designed and used for multiple purposes, carrying packages, materials, flowers and children. Window washers rode by, carrying ladders on one shoulder and a bucket in one hand.
The main streets are dominated by pedestrians with crowds coming by the thousands from the train station to this great outdoor ancient shopping mall. One afternoon, I counted over 8,000 people an hour walking down the 25 ft. wide Nieuwendijk Centrum. The canals, arranged as a spider web radiating out from the ancient center, define the city, its architecture and the public use of space for markets, movement and recreation. Boats traverse their length. The streets bordering them become stages for human life. This is a city like no other and is not to be missed.