Perhaps flying cars and jet packs will one day be the hallmarks of futuristic cities, but today – in 2023 – they are huge underwater bicycle parking facilities like the one just opened at Amsterdam Central Station. The structure has room for 6,300 personal bikes and 700 more for shared bikes to ease the first or last mile of train travel. The capacity will be expanded to 11,000 bicycles when a second garage opens in February.
The four-year, €60 million (about $65 million) project may seem bizarre to anyone outside the Netherlands, but it’s business as usual for Dutch cities, which are slowly but methodically transforming personal cars into remnants of a misplaced past – a time when cities were built around the needs of cars, not people. Hell, there’s an even bigger underground (but not Underwater-) bicycle parking in the city of Utrecht, suitable for 12,000 two-wheelers. In a country where bicycles easily outnumber citizens, data is consistent about 35 percent of Amsterdammers cycle daily, rising to 50 percent of Utrechters.
A timelapse released by the municipality of Amsterdam shows how this marvel of engineering is being built. Workers first had to drain the water in front of the 19th-century station before laying the garage floor and installing giant columns, brought in by barge, to support the roof that would eventually be submerged.
An estimated 200,000 travelers arrive at Amsterdam Central Station every day by train, ferry, tram, bus and metro – about half arrive by bicycle. Traditionally, they parked in many of the cluttered above-ground bicycle sheds that still surround the station, which will be removed in the coming weeks. While the largest of these is so huge that it has become a tourist attraction in its own right, locals consider them stinking monuments of frustration that often run out of free space due to a large number of half-abandoned bicycles. As a result, regular commuters risk being seized by locking their bikes to nearby trees, streetlights and signposts, or leaving them on an available concrete slab, increasing their chances of theft.
At least for now, the new underwater parking structure I’ve visited is immaculate and serious 2001: A space odyssey mood. It just opened on Wednesday and was only used sparingly on Thursday when I visited. In the 24-hour-run facility, I saw maybe a few hundred personal bikes and a few dozen OVFiets bikeshares available for you to check out. Most importantly, I also saw a daily cleaning crew hard at work and a handful of friendly staff ready to explain how everything works.
Parking in the garage is free for the first 24 hours, then € 1.35 per additional day. That’s both useful for everyday commuters and a great motivator for people to get rid of their bikes quickly. To get in, you need to get your public transport chip card (Dutch transport card tied to your bank) or have a Fietstag (“bicycle tag”) on your bike. The chipped tag is free to subscribers and took just two minutes to request and process at the garage.
A street-level bike path leads you directly to the above-ground entrance to the underwater garage, which is marked with a large blue sign and bicycle logo, making it visible from a great distance. The sign shows the number of parking spaces still available (when I arrived it said 5792 in illuminated green numbers), so you can find an alternative parking space if it is full. Here you disembark and walk or stand on a pair of sloping beltways that descend below the waterline and take you to the car park entrance.
Because my bike was equipped with a new Bicycle Tag, I could roll through the so-called “check-in and check-out zone” without delay. Others have to tap their OV chip card on the clearly marked spot below the display. The surrounding lights turn green and the display reads, “Bike checked in!” (Bike checked in!) to let you know you can move on.
Red and green lights on the vertical columns in the garage make it easy to see which rows of bicycle racks still have free spaces. Everything was green during my visit. You can grab any available spot to park your bike. Once parked, an escalator at the far end of the garage provides direct access to Amsterdam Central Station.
The underground garage is an engineering marvel, but not without flaws. To begin with, there is no special parking space for large cargo bikes, which are very common in Amsterdam for families with small children. There are also no charging points for e-bikes, which is a real loss in a country where more than half of all new bicycles sold are electric.
It is also currently not possible to check in with a smartphone, smartwatch or debit card. Tourists with a rental bicycle or someone else without an OV-chipkaart can request a loan card from a supervisor to check in and out.
And as someone who leaves my bike outside at night, I’m not too keen on leaving the Bicycle Tag permanently on my bike. It can be easily stolen and used by anyone to stealthily check in or out of the garage, with all bills automatically deducted from my account.
Nevertheless, these are such minor nitpicks that I’m almost embarrassed to mention them. But modern cities like Amsterdam have only gotten to this point after decades of continuous improvement. The project around the Central Station may have started in 2019, but the foundations were laid long ago.
Amsterdam didn’t become a cycling wonderland overnight – it took decades of investment in infrastructure that began in the 1970s with the help of locals and enlightened politicians who collectively demanded a more livable city. And replacing private cars with electric versions that take up the same amount of space and spend most of their time idling will not help.
Granted, not every city can be like Amsterdam. But even new cycling cities like Paris have proven that if you build the lanes, the cyclists will come. And you have to start somewhere.
All photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge