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he surest way to avoid getting hit by a bike is not to come to Amsterdam. But that would be no fun. I mean, you can get hit by a bicycle in other cities too. Just like you can get your arm torn off by a polar bear in Buffalo New York. (That really happened). But if you really want polar bears you go to the arctic circle; for bikes you come here. If Amsterdam were any more bike-centric, it would be in China.

When I tell Amsterdammers that I do not have a bike, they react with a mix of consternation and pity — as if I had just confessed that I only had one testicle. I guess for them cycling is a natural part of daily life, just like breathing, pooping, checking your email and dialing 0906 for phone sex.

Amsterdam has about 740,000 residents and 500,000 bicycles (of which 80,000 will be stolen this year). Bicycles account for 40 percent of all human transport in the city center. Cycling is quiet, healthy and pollution-free, and it cuts downtown traffic congestion. So the Gemeente (city council) is fanatically pro-bike. Today nearly every street has at least one dedicated fietspad (bike lane) running along it. And even more traffic-sculpting measures are planned to keep cyclists happy and safe.

Uh, okay so what about us peds?

One consequence of giving cyclists their own traffic lanes is that they can get a little cocky. If a motorist and cyclist have an accident, of course the motorist is deemed at fault. But the same attitude has casually extended to the relationship between cyclists and pedestrians. People just seem to acknowledge that the bicycle is lord of the street, and that everything else — human being, car, truck, tram, bus or Boeing 747 — must give way to anything on two wheels. True, in pedestrian zones cyclists are required to dismount and walk their bikes. And I've seen that rule strictly enforced, too, whenever the moon is in Sagitarius and today's lottery number begins with 4.

I've seen one cyclist blithely cross a major intersection against the light and cut off a moving tram, forcing it to brake to a dead stop — without so much as a rude hand-gesture to acknowledge that anything happened.

Now, if you stay alert, play by the rules, look both ways, and can recognize every type of bike lane in the Netherlands — you'll still get creamed. All it takes is one sloppy move on somebody else's part. Experience helps, but not all the time. One of my more street-savvy friends is a lifelong Amsterdammer born in the Jordaan. He got whacked by a fiets last year and ended up with a bruised rib.

But don't let me scare you. With a little directed attention you really can cut down your risk of becoming bike sauce. That and some luck, and you should be fine. Really.

Let's begin by examining the theory of how to cross the street.

Where I came from, walking down the street was always a more systematic affair. A typical American street has a sidewalk on each side and vehicular traffic down the middle. Period. In Amsterdam, any broad, well-planned major thoroughfare is really eight streets in one: that's one sidewalk, one bike lane, one car lane and one tram lane for each direction. Taxis, buses and emergency vehicles also use the tram lanes. Bicycles obey no laws whatsoever and may come from any direction at any moment. So you really just need to check each lane as you cross it. In other words, look both ways all the time. And if you keep that simple thought in mind, you'll be perfectly safe crossing Centrum Amsterdam's broad, well-planned major thoroughfares.

Both of them.

Let's face it, part of Amsterdam's charm — part of what makes it not Omaha — is that its streets are not all broad, straight, well planned, or even vaguely sane. Many of them used to be water. None of them used to have separate bicycle lanes. Cut these guys some slack, it ain't easy retrofitting discrete lanes for foot, bike, car and tram across the medieval city's more organic inter-sections. One particularly delirious example is the approach from the Singel to the Spui (sounds like "spow/spy"). The Spui was once a body of water linking the point of confluence between the two western burgwal canals to the river. Now it's a paved plaza. As the car, bike and tram lanes from the Singel flow into the Spui, they split every which way and cross over each other in an exquisite dance of confusion. If you're looking for an excuse to absent-mindedly step into a bike lane while looking out for a tram, here's your chance dude.



The key phrase here is step into a bike lane. Cyclists curse about "tourists walking in the bike lanes" because it slows them down. But walking in a bike lane is not what causes accidents. Accidents happen when someone unexpectedly steps into a bike lane they didn't see coming. And for anyone who didn't grow up surrounded by bicycle paths, that's pretty easy to do. Bike lanes are not especially standardized. Some are tinted a rosy color, some not. Some are physically separated from the footpath by a curb, some not. Some are parallel to a footpath; some jut right out across one from behind a corner of a building. The only thing they all have in common is the bicycle icon embedded at intervals in the pavement — and even the icons come in about a dozen different designs.

In other words, it takes a bit of getting used to. Like most anything else in Amsterdam, traffic follows a rule system up to a given point, and then below a certain resolution — in the details — it becomes anarchistic. For every experience here, there is a soft boundary between the rational and the situational, and you just never know when you're about to cross it. Last night I was walking by the Carlton hotel at Muntplein, and was passed, on the sidewalk, by a woman on a motorcycle. She tried not to bump into me, and I tried not to bump into her. The underlying rule of anarchism is try not to hurt anyone.

Seven tips. Here is the best advice I can give — speaking as someone who, to date, has not yet been hit by a bike.

[1] Look for the bicycles themselves, and try not to walk into a moving one. Bear in mind that a bicycle is not always in a bike path. It could be anywhere, even in your bathtub.

[2] Look for a little bicycle icon painted on the pavement. If it's there, and you're there, move.

[3] Look for a difference in pavement color on the path. Something on the same level that looks like just another part of the sidewalk could well be a bike path in disguise.

[4] If the sidewalk you're walking along suddenly peters out to nothing, and you have no choice but to walk either in a tram lane or a bike lane, then choose the bike lane — cuz getting hit by a tram hurts even more.

[5] Listen for the telltale jing jing of a bicycle bell somewhere behind you. That means either that a courteous cyclist is trying to make you aware of his or her presence, or that a not-so-courteous one finds you an impediment to progress.

[6] Be especially alert for yellow or red bicycles with little signs on them indicating that they are rented bikes: this means a dangerous amateur is behind the handlebars. If you see ten such bikes travelling en masse, take cover.

[7] If someone behind you yells "Rot op uit de weg, klotzak!" then step aside first and argue later. (Yes you were just called an asshole. Or to be precise, a scrotum.)

Going with the flow. There's always the 'if you can't beat em, join em' approach — you could become an Amsterdam cyclist! It's good exercise and you'll get around town much quicker. Just try not to get hit by some dazzled pedestrian.

You can rent a bike from places like Mike's Bike Tours at Kerkstraat 134, or Mac Bike, with locations at Weteringschans, Centraal Station and Meester Visserplein (near Waterlooplein). They do sales and service too. Of course there are plenty of places to buy a bicycle in Amsterdam. The Gemeente strongly urges you not to buy a bike on the street, but to use an established bike dealer and get a receipt marked with the frame number. Some modern bikes even have ID chips to discourage theft. But new bikes are not that popular except with thieves. Most people want a cheap crappy bike, because of the one-in-five chance it'll be stolen anyway.

Getting a bike is easy enough. Keeping it is another story. It helps to have a good lock. If you can't chain your bike to some immovable object, you're supposed to chain it to itself. Don't leave your bike anywhere that's marked Geen fietsen plaatsen or Fietsen worden verwijderd, which mean you can't lock your bike here or it will be taken away. Theoretically it also helps not to park your bike at a train station, cuz the top six bike-theft zones are all train stations (with Centraal topping the list). About 220 bikes are stolen in Amsterdam every day. People think it's junkies that do all the stealing. In fact the Gemeente reports that only 30 percent of bike thefts are done by junkies. I find that extremely comforting.

You might ask, where are all those stolen bikes going? Well they're not being recycled into shoulder-mounted SAM launchers for Al Qaeda. It's something far more sinister. They are being recycled right back into the street and people are riding them away. People steal bikes, and sell them to other people. It's an Amsterdam thing. It happens in a lot of public places, but there used to be one corner in particular, at the end of Oudezijds Achterburgwal, where you could just stand with a bike lock in your hand, and somebody would take the cue and ride up to offer you a bicycle. At that moment you're supposed to ask the guy "Are you a policeman?" Supposedly they're not allowed to lie about that. If you do get caught buying a stolen bike you'll pay a fine of EUR 160 — especially if the sun is in Capricorn and today's lottery number begins with 7. But after having their bikes stolen three or four times, some citizens just decide to stop fighting it. They buy a stolen bike, and after awhile it gets stolen again. Then they buy another. It might seem like a bizarre aspect to an otherwise fairly civilized place. I guess it's just part of the uh, cycle of life.



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