The strange, functional beauty of Centraal Station in the heart of Amsterdam.
Mobility embraces multiple forms—and the future—in the Venice of the North.
At one point, I compiled a mental note of the various vehicles that nearly hit me while I walked through the incomparably beautiful city of Amsterdam. Bicycles, for starters—there are, according to city statistics, almost 900,000 bikes in a city of 835,000 (compared to approximately 225,000 cars)—but also Razor® scooters, self-balancing scooters, a boat, skateboards, trams, buses, tandems, scooters, motorcycles, roller skates, a subway and a commuter rail. I even got bumped by a ferry as it lowered its gate and, once, a car as I scanned for bikes.
This isn’t a complaint at all. It’s more of a testament to the diversity of mobility options in the Netherlands’ capital. There’s a reason for the mix: the concept of smart mobility. Given its space constraints, canals and progressive approach to urban issues, Amsterdam is at the forefront of the future of mobility and currently ranked first in urban planning on the 2017 IESE Cities in Motion Index—one spot ahead of Suzhou, China, and four above New York.
Smart cities and smart mobility options aren’t just about modes of transport. They form the centerpiece of a philosophy that encourages innovation and structural improvements to make cities more livable and even more sustainable while urban populations continue to grow.
In the case of Amsterdam, its smart city approach requires the city and regional governments to partner with private companies and residents to adopt strategies and solutions that aim to, basically, reduce the urban carbon footprint and increase connectivity via public Wi-Fi® and the Internet of Things. Smart city initiatives such as Amsterdam’s efforts are designed to lower carbon emissions, use interconnected information technology to improve traffic flow, implement connected smart grid technologies and unleash innovations that make cities more attractive and less vehicle centric.
Amsterdam Deputy Mayor of Traffic, Transport, and Organization Pieter Litjens laid out the goals when kicking off the city’s “Action Plan Mobility” for its 2025 mobile reality.
“That is what smart mobility means to me: using smart technology and the opportunities that innovations and the use of data offer,” Litjens said. “That way, we can organize traffic more efficiently, giving more room to cyclists, to pedestrians or even to cars in the places where it is necessary. It means, for example, that we can provide better transport for particular groups and that we will change our approach to traffic flows in the city.”
To that end, the public-private consortium Amsterdam Smart City has become the central incubator for individual, corporate and government partnerships for smart mobility ideas and implementations. These include everything from The Waste Transformers—which take organic waste from ten restaurants and other businesses in the city’s Westergasfabriek development, turn it into green energy for households, and also use the nutrients to make a natural fertilizer—to a city-wide free charging program for electric vehicles that partially relies on renewable energy like wind and, even in damp and dark Amsterdam, solar.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of programs throughout the city that contribute currently to the several varied themes of Amsterdam Smart City. They encompass topics from “Mobility” to “Circular City,” which relies on the concept of a circular economy—a robust repurposing of materials and resources to optimize sustainability. One example: beer made from rainwater captured in rooftop tanks around the city.
AUDI IS IN THE MIX
It’s easy to get lost in the possibilities of what all of these projects do and could mean down the road. It’s also important to understand what is happening here and now. Many of these innovations are in their infancy but have made a huge impact on the urban environment and the changes in companies’ outlooks.
As in the United States, our cousins at Audi Netherlands strive to stay ahead of the changing environment of vehicle ownership and what that means for the consumer. That’s why, despite the overwhelming number of bicycles seen everywhere here, Audi is still in the mix.
People still want to drive because it’s convenient. What the smart mobility programs might mean in the future is that driving becomes more fun again. Think of the possibility of open roads and fewer, if any, traffic jams. Of lights synced to your acceleration. Of a vehicle that could one day park itself so you can get to shopping earlier and easier.
Proof of the utility and the need for vehicles is seen in sharp relief on the tiny cobblestoned streets around Amsterdam’s Canal District. Parking is tight and a challenge to find. The roads are narrow and uneven. And yet, tens of thousands of vehicles cross over the canals every day. Driving in the center of Amsterdam is an impressive feat unto itself, which pretty much proves that the automobile belongs as part of the mobility options—just not the only one.
The numbers back that up. According to city statistics, there are more vehicles in the city than ever but fewer owners. That’s in part because of the prevalence of car sharing, which has increased by 378 percent since 2008.
Audi Netherlands sees this as part of its future. Wil Giezenaar, Manager Marketing Communication and Digitization at Audi Netherlands, gave me a brief outline of how.
According to Giezenaar, it offers a special program to companies in the fast-growing Amsterdam Business District “Zuidas” to implement Audi shared fleet, as it has in urban centers like Berlin. This initiative allows people to commute to work via their normal public transportation routes and to use an on-site Audi vehicle for business meetings.
APPLIED INTELLIGENCE IN THE SMART CITY
I spent most of my time in Amsterdam walking around it. It’s a perfect walking city: flat, compact, endlessly charming and discoverable. But for locals, walking isn’t necessarily the preferred mode of locomotion. In fact, according to Amsterdam Smart City, 63 percent of all of its inhabitants use a bike daily. Bicycles account for a staggering 32 percent of all traffic movement in the city—which includes all of the modes of transportation I listed earlier.
So I decided, finally, to do what the locals do and get on a bike. One of the most readily apparent aspects of smart mobility in Amsterdam is the network of bike paths and dedicated bike lanes throughout the city. One of the most noticeable results of this dedication to self-propelled transportation is the vast number of places where bikes are parked and locked. They include dedicated plazas in main squares and transportation hubs but also on stationary multi-level watercraft, where thousands of bikes float securely, just off land, on their canal boats or retro-fitted ferries.
I went on an organized “experience” offered through AirBnB. Stephan van der Meer, who runs a “hidden art and culture” cycling tour, gave me and several other visitors a ground-level but surprisingly fast look at what urban mobility means now.
We rode over drawbridges from the 18th century that can still be drawn by two people pulling a ring at each end of the bridge. We rode past pedestrian-only shopping streets. We took dedicated bike lanes to Centraal Station and its vital transportation hub options: subway, tram, inter-Netherlands train system, international train system and ferries.
Van der Meer took us on a free ferry that crossed Amsterdam’s IJ river and dropped us off at Amsterdam Noord (North), a former industrial district turned into a newly vibrant neighborhood of artists and massive installations.
It struck me how easy and efficient all of it was. Whether we were riding through the outer districts or the inner city, bikes were part of the fabric. And so were cars. And other public transportation options. We were able to track our progress and our schedules with mobile apps, free Wi-Fi® and convenient departure points.
True mobility requires a certain freedom of movement, and here, in almost every way, it’s easy to get around—so long as you look both ways before crossing the street. That’s what a real smart city looks and feels like.