Amsterdam is a city of almost 800,000 inhabitants, and 600,000 bicycles. Bicycles are stacked along the sides of canals, outside restaurants, historic buildings, at the docks for the canal "taxis" and tethered to the sides of the 2,500 houseboats. But as a North American traveling to Amsterdam, I was simultaneously impressed by their pedal power while surprised to discover that not one single cyclist owned an essential piece of biking equipment from our part of the world: the bike helmet.
While they are well-equipped to cycle their toddlers about in fancy front seat holders complete with windscreens, the concern to protect these children from errant flies and rain in their faces supersedes the apparent need to stop their tiny heads from hitting the bumpy cobblestone streets on which they ride.
"Oh, it's not like heads aren't getting smashed," our tour guide cheerily admits, but "you know what our laws are like for other things as well..."
"Other laws" referring to its well-known government regulated prostitution and marijuana industries, exemplified by the Red Light District and the "high" coffee bars. To say they're liberal would be a slight understatement.
Notably, the bike lanes are well marked and established, and have extremely high traffic. Stepping into the lane without checking first can be dangerous. "We know we should yield to pedestrians especially at the zebra crossings," said a local, "but we can sense when it is a tourist and so we are aggressive." Aggressive as in, "we'll clip you if we have to."
But it's not likely that anyone would step into a bike lane without looking here. Unlike in North America, where many pedestrians are at risk of walking into roads, traffic signs, and even small children due to their preponderance of looking down at their cellphones, the Dutch look where they're going. During my three days walking through the city, I noticed only a handful of people stopping on the street to text, and I suspect these might have been tourists. Certainly the general Amsterdam public does not seem to have the same cellphone addictions that we do.
Just as well, as cycling helmet-free on a bike into a canal while on your BlackBerry could have disastrous results. Let alone smashing into a lady in a window after visiting a coffee bar.