Maybe one day, flying cars and jetpacks will be the hallmarks of futuristic cities, but today — in 2023 — it’s massive underwater bicycle parking garages like the one that just opened at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. The structure has space for 6,300 personal bicycles and 700 more for bikeshares to facilitate the first or last mile of rail journeys. Capacity will expand to 11,000 bicycles when a second garage opens in February.
The four-year, €60 million (about $65 million) project might seem outlandish to anyone outside of the Netherlands, but it’s business as usual for Dutch cities, which are slowly but methodically transforming personal automobiles into relics of a misguided 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 garage in the city of Utrecht, capable of hosting 12,000 two-wheelers. In a country where bicycles easily outnumber citizens, data consistently shows about 35 percent of Amsterdammers using their bicycles daily, which increases to 50 percent of Utrecht’s residents.
A timelapse released by the city of Amsterdam shows this marvel of engineering being built. Workers had to first drain the water in front of the 19th-century station before laying the garage floor and installing giant columns, shipped in by barge, to support the roof that would eventually be submerged.
An estimated 200,000 travelers arrive at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station every day by rail, ferry, tram, bus, and subway — about half arrive by bicycle. Traditionally, they’d park in many of the messy above-ground bicycle stalls that still surround the station and are scheduled to be removed in the weeks ahead. While the largest of these is so massive that it’s become a tourist attraction in its own right, locals consider them smelly monuments of frustration that often lack any free spaces due to a high number of semi-abandoned bicycles. As a result, regular commuters risk impoundment by locking their bikes to nearby trees, street lamps, and signposts, or by leaving them on any slab of available concrete which increases their chance of theft.
At least for now, the new underwater parking structure I toured is immaculate, giving off serious 2001: A Space Odyssey vibes. It just opened on Wednesday and was only sparsely used by Thursday when I visited. Inside the 24-hour managed facility, I saw maybe a few hundred personal bicycles and several dozen OVFiets bikeshares available to check out. Importantly, I also saw a daily cleaning crew hard at work and a handful of friendly employees ready to explain how everything works.
Parking in the garage is free for the first 24 hours, then €1.35 (about $1.46) for each additional day. That’s both convenient for daily commuters and an excellent motivator for people to remove their bikes quickly. To enter, you have to swipe your OV-chipkaart (Dutch transport card tied to your bank) or have a Fietstag (“bicycle tag”) fitted to your bike. The chipped tag is free for subscribers and took just two minutes to request and process once inside the garage.
A street-level bike path leads you directly to the above-ground entrance of the underwater garage, which is marked by a large blue sign and bicycle logo, making it visible from a good distance. The sign shows the number of parking places still available (it read 5792 in illuminated green numbers upon my arrival) allowing you to find alternate parking if full. Here, you hop off and either walk or stand on a pair of rolling beltways that descend below the waterline, bringing you to the entrance of the parking garage.
Since my bike was fitted with a new Fietstag, I was able to roll right through the so-called “check-in and check-out zone” without any delay. Others will need to tap their OV-chipkaart on the clearly marked spot below the display. The surrounding lights turn green, and the display reads, “Fiets ingecheckt!” (Bicycle checked in!) to let you know you can proceed.
Red and green lights on the vertical columns inside the garage make it easy to see which rows of bicycle racks have open spaces still available. Everything was green during my visit. You can grab any available space to park your bike. Once parked, an escalator at the far end of the garage provides direct access to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station.
The underground garage is an engineering wonder, but it’s not without its faults. To start with, there’s no designated parking for bulky cargo bikes, which are very common in Amsterdam for families with small children. There also aren’t any charging points for e-bikes, which is a real oversight in a country where more than half of all new bicycles sold are electric.
You also can’t check in with a smartphone, smartwatch, or debit card currently. Tourists with a bicycle rental or anyone else without an OV-chipkaart can ask an attendant for a loan pass to check in and out.
And as someone who leaves my bicycle parked outside overnight, I’m not too keen on having the Fietstag left permanently on my bicycle. It can easily be stolen and used by anyone to surreptitiously check in or out of the garage, with all bills automatically charged to my account.
Nevertheless, these are such minor nitpicks I’m almost ashamed to mention them. But modern cities like Amsterdam only arrived at this point though decades of continuous improvement. The project around Centraal Station might have started in 2019, but its foundation was laid long ago.
Amsterdam’s metamorphosis from an automobile-centric city into a wonderland of multimodal transport began in the 1970s with the help of locals and enlightened politicians who, in concert, demanded a more livable city. Cars are still around and necessary, but private ownership is discouraged in favor of clean and reliable car sharing services that receive preferential treatment. Replacing privately-owned cars with electric versions that require just as much space and spend over 90 percent of their time unused won’t help move cities into the future.
Granted, not every city can be like Amsterdam. But even new bicycle cities like Paris have proven that if you build the lanes, the bicyclists will come. And you have to start somewhere.
All photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge