Jerom Theunissen Photography


June 17-24

The next stop on my tour of the Randstad region saw a week-long visit to Amsterdam, the cultural capital of the Netherlands. I had visited the city several times in the past but was now keen to pay close attention to the city's mobility situation. I was also looking forward to attending the inaugural edition of the "WeMakeTheCity" festival, where experts and citizens came together to tackle the urgent challenges in urban daily life. By hearing with local and international perspectives on Amsterdam's unique urban agenda, I was able to form a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities the city faces as it plans for the future. 

City in Context

Amsterdam is the largest city of the Netherlands. By many measures, the city is thriving, and the city maintains its status as an economic driver in the province of North Holland and the country. The city is well connected to the rest of Europe by road, rail, air, and sea. New road and public transport investments are increasing the metropolitan area's connectivity, namely the Zuidasdok and Noord/Zuidlijn projects. The city is also world famous for its bicycle infrastructure, and the number of cyclists in the city reflects this: 63% of Amsterdammers use their bicycles on a daily basis. Over a third of traffic movement in the city is by bike compared to 22% by car and 16% by public transport. In the city center, 48% of traffic is by bicycle.

Amsterdam first became a bicycle city in the 1920s. Due to inflation, bicycles manufactured in Germany became cheaper to use daily than the city's tram. The city even had to cancel several tram routes. In the fifties, cycling was under pressure when postwar politicians promoted either public transportation or the car. By the early sixties, cars were clogging up Dam Square, and Rembrantplein and Leidseplein were turned into parking lots. Amsterdam mayor Van Hall famously declared "Twenty years from now no one will ride a bicycle in Amsterdam." In the seventies and eighties, cycling advocates and counterculturalists co-opted with Amsterdam citizens to demand right of way for bikes. The city was home to the world's first-ever bike sharing system, named the "Witte Fietsen," and sparked a movement that has now spread to thousands of cities around the globe. During this time, the Cyclists' Union was founded successfully campaigned for policy changes favoring bicycle mobility. Since the 1980s, new bike lanes were created, along with cycling routes that crisscrossed the city. This combination of public pressure, policy making and spatial planning ensured that the bicycle became an essential part of mobility in Amsterdam. To this day the city government is investing in maintaining and improving its bicycle infrastructure, as stipulated by the 2017-2022 Bike Plan. The focus is to ensure a networked system, provide ample parking at destinations, and stimulate more cycling via campaigns and financial incentives.  Read more about the city's bicycle policy and design at this link

Meeting with Wido van Bergen - Advisor to the City Council at the City of Amsterdam

On my second day in Amsterdam, I sought to meet with city officials to see how the government developed mobility solutions and tackled emerging issues. Enter Wido, a civil servant who works together with a team of 30 people that advise the college, a group that includes the mayor and the city council and which holds budget setting power. He and his team "make a web" to bring proposals to the college and also to implement directives from college to career civil servants. In the Netherlands, coalitions are formed at all levels of government between a wide array of parties. At the time of my visit, a new coalition was formed between four parties in Amsterdam. Together, they will govern until their four-year term expires in 2022. 

As advisor to the college about traffic and transportation, Wido has overseen many directives and projects in the area of mobility. Among them are the Noord/Zuidlijn metro expansion, taxi fleet electrification, bike sharing, maintenance of Amsterdam's many bridges and canal walls. We dove immediately into the expansion of the Noord/Zuidlijn, which has been in development since 2003. When asked what went wrong, Wido cited a lack of transparency in project cost and engineering troubles caused by differential soil settlement delayed the project. His group also oversees the development of connections across the IJ river, also called "Sprong over 't IJ." As advice to other cities, he suggested that a balance must be struck between performing due diligence and swiftly executing a project. Experimenting in the city and collecting data makes the city more agile and ensures the right permanent solutions are pursued. When starting on projects, he emphasizes analyzing all the options thoroughly, putting them all on the table. Through a classic cost-benefit analysis, Wido presents these options to the college and lets them make the decisions. His goal is to use fact-based analysis as much as possible to remove the political pressures mobility projects of large scale often contend with, affording elected officials with the data necessary to make the right choice for the city in the long term future.

Five phases of the "Sprong over 't IJ" connection with Amsterdam Noord. Source: City of Amsterdam

WeMakeThe.City Festival

Much of my time in Amsterdam was spent by attending a wide range of events put on by the inaugural WeMakeTheCity festival. I was lucky to attend one of the largest city festival in Europe. Over 600 local, national and international speakers, 25 themed conferences, 30 urban talks, 50 workshops, 30 city expeditions, 15 special events, 10 exhibitions, and 30,000 participants took part in conversations about major urban challenges, simultaneously sharing knowledge by presenting the latest solutions. 

The City as Subject

The festival kicked off by attempting to answer challenging questions. Namely, how to create a new city given the continuous growth of our cities, climate change and the fact we are reaching the limits of non-renewable resources? How do we include everyone in this new city? I attended four events throughout the day to take part in discussions that sought to make progress on these challenges. These conferences helped me bring think about the many forces at play in our urbanized world, and to begin thinking about how to appy these challenges and questions to deliver sustainable urban mobility.

Living Lab North Tour

Only five years ago, Amsterdam Noord was a remote location on the far side of the river IJ. A fringe where shipyards and the shipbuilding industry once found place, its home has left its marks on the environment. Over ten years ago the first development project started but was put on hold due to the financial crisis in 2008. Ever since, a bottom-up movement of self-builders with sustainable ambitions manifested itself in Buiksloterham. Circular Buiksloterham was born and with it dozens of houses, cooperative apartment buildings and an intensive collaboration between the water company, network managers and citizens, to create new forms of self-sufficiency. The NDSM wharf has developed into a public space for the continuing experiment, with workspaces and studios for artists and designers, like MX3D, a startup which is 3D printing a steel bridge for an Amsterdam canal.


Just after the tour of Amsterdam North wrapped, I headed back across the IJ River to attend urban conference "Together." Practical examples of participatory, multi-stakeholder approaches to urban problems were presented. Experts from London, Sao Paulo, Tehran, and Mexico City underscored the need and necessity of tackling them together.  The conference was centered around the "Amsterdam Approach," initially applied to tackle the threat of being flooded by high sea levels. Amsterdam turned a big challenge into an opportunity for a new way of collaboration and city planning.

Opening Night: Setting the Urban Agenda for Tomorrow

During the opening program Kate Raworth had a riveting keynote speech about the circular economy and the role of cities to help bring humanity into the "doughnut." Here is Kate's TED talk, where she explains this vision for the 21st century economy succinctly and expertly. In her vision of the economy, the market is regenerative and distributive, working within the planet's ecological limits while providing the essentials that every person needs for a life of dignity and opportunity. Her keynote answered the nagging question I always had in my economics courses: what do we do as society when the increase in real income loses its luster?

Jozias van Aarsten, the acting mayor of Amsterdam, spoke about the state of Amsterdam's metropolitan area. He said that while the city is currently thriving, citizens must not rest on their laurels, especially because an overheated housing market, irritations about increasing tourism, and a decline in accessibility and mobility are a huge task ahead for the city. He suggested that the city do more to expand the Noord/Zuidlijn metro line further to connect to Schipol Airport, a project which will open in July 2018.

Jozias van Aartsen, Acting Mayor of Amsterdam

Prince Constantijn van Oranje, Special Envoy of StartupDelta 

The City as Challenge - Metropolitan Mobility Conference

Attending this conference was high on my priority list. Given that the appeal of Amsterdam is mainly due to its high quality of life, transport planners must seek to keep up with the rate of growth the city. I noted that during my time in Amsterdam how overcrowded the bike lanes, roads, and railway stations were. New technology offers possibilities and solutions but also raises new questions. What kind of city do we want our metropolitan region to be? Do we have a right to commute? And what does the commute of the future look like? During this conference, these questions were addressed.

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)

Several speakers spoke about TOD, a type of urban development that integrates urban places designed to bring people, activities, buildings, and public space together, with easy walking and cycling connection between them and high quality transit service to other parts of the city. The eight principles of TOD, as outlined by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) are shown in the figure below. This is the model of development Amsterdam and many other cities worldwide are following to realize the efficiencies or urban living.

The discussion also centered around the need to overcome the challenges of TOD. Firstly, there are a large number of stakeholders that are needed to successfully realize the efficiencies afforded by TOD, requiring many parties to coordinate and buy-in to the project. These typically include city government, land developers, transit authorities, etc. No stakeholder can carry the cost of TOD alone. Add to this the complications that stakeholders are involved at different points in the project development cycle, and that many are not used to working together, and it becomes clear that outside stakeholder coordination is required. One solution that was discussed was the use of an area-organization, bringing the diverse parties and timelines together to realize TOD as seamlessly as possible. Discussions around TOD provided a solid framework in which to evaluate this type of development in cities I will visit during my travels!

Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS)

MaaS was a topic of discussion at the conference as well. In short, MaaS seeks to shift users away from personally-owned modes of transportation and towards mobility solutions that are consumed as a service. The MaaS Alliance, formed in 2015, defines MaaS as "the integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand." Typically, this emerges in the form of a trip-planning app that facilitates a wide array of transport options, including public transport, ride-, car- or bike-sharing, taxi or car rental/lease, or a combination thereof. By pooling transport options into a single platform, immense benefits for users of mobility services can be realized. Using the single platform to provide access to mobility removes the hassle of multiple ticketing and payment operations. For the mobility system as a whole, MaaS can bring advantages for transport operators as well, including access to improved user and demand information and new opportunities to serve unmet demand. 

The panel discussion about MaaS acknowledged that, if done well, MaaS can provide a seamless alternative to the use of the private car that may be as convenient, more sustainable, help to reduce congestion and constraints in transport capacity, and can be even cheaper. However, the panel was apprehensive about the governance and coordination that would be required for equitable access mobility for all, and not the privileged view. I fear a winner-take-all scenario where one aggregation platform exists has a monopoly on mobility and is over-rewarded for its contribution to enable seamless mobility. After this discussion, I had more questions than answers. Namely, who decides which mobility providers operate on the MaaS platform? Should the MaaS operator be public or private? Who will regulate these operators to ensure mobility for all? Clearly, we have a ways to go before wide-scale implementation of MaaS. I found this excellent article from Deloitte, the Finacial Times, and Skedgo particularly informative.

Source: MaaS Global

The City in Progress - Up Close and Liveable

I was very excited for this urban conference. It highlighted the need for international exchange to share new strategies and solutions which improve the quality of life in urban environments. Naturally, my fellowship project concerns itself with urban livability and the role of transport. "Up Close and Liveable" offered global reviews of urban strategies, where I spoke with professionals from Amsterdam, Berlin, Seoul, Singapore, and Sydney to discuss issues relating to sustainable, compact, accessible, mixed, and inclusive development. The bottom line of these developments was to tease out how they make cities more likeable, loveable, and liveable. 

Pieter Klomp, Deputy Director Department of Urban Planning and Sustainability, shared Amsterdam's case. Beyond the new development of an artificial island called Ijburg, the city does not plan to expand its boundaries further. Instead, densification efforts are being made in areas between pre-war and post-war housing developments. The focus lies mostly in development around the A10 Ring Road, specifically the Zuidasdok project, the largest of its kind in the Netherlands. Pieter mentioned that the city is employing TOD principles, densifying and developing around nodes of transport. In this manner, the built environment will be more conducive to sustainable modes of transport. Pieter hopes to spread the mode share of the bike (60% in the city center) to these new areas as well. By emphasizing the bike and public transport, the city frees up more space for public use and less for the private automobile. The city already boasts an impressive amount of green space per resident (60 square meters!) but feels it can do better. Specifically, Amsterdam would like to strengthen the "green-blue" character of the city, where parks and access to water improve quality of life for residents.

An artist's impression of mobility developments around Amsterdam Zuid Station. Source: Amsterdam Zuidas 

Panelists from around the world shared their concluding remarks "Up Close and Liveable"

Parting Thoughts

Overall, I found that Amsterdam was a wonderful case study to visit. It is clear to me that Amsterdam is a global leader in terms of delivering integrated transportation systems that can thrive without reliance on the private automobile. No matter what part of the city I was in, the bicycle almost always was the fastest way from A to B. I was also happy to learn about what the city plans for the future in terms of smart mobility to help indata-driven transport management. The willingness of the city government to facilitate the use of the city as a dynamic laboratory offered the promise of achieving lower levels of congestion and improved journey times for people without the permanence of significant infrastructure investments. For sure, the city will need to build more to accompany growth as the population surges over one million residents in the coming years. To develop sustainability in terms of mobility, the city hopes to be the first emission-freecity in Europe. However, I also found that the city could do better in providing more room for pedestrians. Walking through the city was often spent looking over my shoulder or keeping alert for the ring of a bike bell. Sidewalks in Amsterdam are hilariously small, often only wide enough for one person across. Rising numbers of tourists does not help either. I think this is a missed opportunity for the city, and if more can be done to improve the experience for pedestrians, the city can truly be a shining example for mobility in dense urbanized areas. Through my visit to Amsterdam, I witnessed firsthand how proactive the climate is in which the government collaborates closely with knowledge institutions, industry, universities, social organizations, and of course with the people of Amsterdam. This collaborative "Amsterdam Approach" to problem solving, and the concept of "polderen" in greater Dutch culture, offers promise that together, we can make the city better, no matter what challenges we face. I am curious to see if this explosive combination of bottom-up and top-down urban development is realized in the cities I visit next.

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