By Feargus O'Sullivan, February 24, 2015
A man rides his bike in a bicycle shed near Central Station Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is currently tackling a problem most cities can only dream of having: It has way too many bikes.
So massively popular is cycling in the Netherlands' largest city that the city center has run out of places to put them all. Amsterdam’s daily two-wheeled commuter flood fills downtown with more bikes than it has space to park, forcing the city come up with a drastic, visionary solution. It’s going to park those bikes underwater. Oh, and on water, too.
The city has just announced a plan to excavate a 7,000-space bicycle garage under the Ij, the former bay (now a lake thanks to the construction of the Afsluitdijk barrier) that forms Amsterdam’s waterfront. The lake forms a sort of moat around the city’s Central Station, its main transit hub and a place where it could be possible to connect a subaquatic bike catacomb directly via tunnel to the city’s metro system. Stacking a total of 21,500 new bike spaces around the station by 2030, Amsterdam also plans to create two new floating islands with space for 2000 bikes each. Add this to the 2,500 spaces already in place and you have what will comfortably be the largest bike parking accomodations in the world.
This might seem like a pretty grand infrastructure overhaul just to stow a few bikes, but Amsterdam’s cycling statistics are phenomenal. A massive 57 percent of Amsterdammers use their bikes daily, with 43 percent of them commuting to and from work using pedal power. It helps that this is a city in which cycling is particularly easy to do—the terrain is flat, the city compact and segregated bike paths make it pretty safe, while central canals often make road widening to accommodate cars impossible anyway.
The problem is what to do with bikes when they arrive downtown. Inner Amsterdam is densely built with often narrow streets, and bicycles chained up randomly here and there can become a major headache. So infested is Amsterdam with wrongly parked bicycles that in 2013 the city had to remove a phenomenal 73,000 of them from the streets. This is expensive—it costs from €50 to €70 per bike, while owners pay €10-12 to retrieve them from the pound. The city could increase the release fee, of course, but Amsterdam is also a great place in which to buy a cheap used bike—there’s a sense that many local scofflaws would simply buy another before paying a large fine.
All round, offering a lot more real parking places is a better and ultimately cheaper option. But where to put them? Not only is central Amsterdam full, but thanks to its marshy soil, it’s not an easy place to create basements either. Plans a while back to give canal houses parking places went as far as planning to temporarily drain the canals to build vaults in the clay beneath them. In a tight, soggy space like this, constructing under and on water is often the best solution, which makes the plan for Amsterdam’s Central Station less surprising. It should be impressive when it's finished. Within 15 years, the building will bristle both above and below ground with so many stacks of bikes that it may end up resembling some sort of vast brick pincushion.