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  • Leah Nagely Robbins

A Portland Civil Engineer Marvels at Dutch Design


I glimpsed another way in Amsterdam. The chaos of motion on the busy Amsterdam streets belies an organized calculus. People are alert, alive, in the present tense. They must be since there are fewer traffic signals to control who moves when. As one of my traffic engineer colleagues described, it is possible to design a system that is ‘so dangerous it is safe’ where the guardrails of signalization controlling every movement are removed. I laughed, naïve, thinking it was a joke. But here in Amsterdam, everyone is making decisions for themselves while connecting to others, remotely, safely, with fewer controls. Why does no one wear helmets, asks the lady with multiple concussions from bike accidents?!

A herringbone brick sidewalk, along with other materials, helps define different purposes.

Standing on an Amsterdam corner, alert, I cannot let my guard down, but I’m swept into the visual dance, part ballet, part square dance. The players know their roles, the steps, and I am an interloper. But I’m learning. I stand on the corner calculating trajectories of cyclists, vehicles, who may be going straight or turning.

The herringbone brick sidewalks, red asphalt bikeways, asphalt drive lanes and steel tramways each have equal footing. Egalitarian sounds philosophical, maybe it is. The streets are filled with people comfortably using any mode of travel that works for them, feet, scooters, trams, occasional cars, and many, many bicycles.

A tram in Amsterdam

I find frogger-sized gaps to cross to reach a tram station on Kinkerstraat at Bilderdijkstraat. We use our OV-chipkaart to tap on to a tram, contactless entry, quick, organized. The trains arrive frequently so there’s no need to consult a schedule. Standing in the articulated section of the tram is like being inside an accordion with the pleated panels that expand and contract with each turn. There’s a familiar comfort in the sound of a tram in motion. With my eyes closed, using my train legs for balance, I could be traveling from Holladay Street to Oak Street, crossing the Willamette River instead of Da Costagracht, Singelgracht, Lijnbaansgracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht canals we cross on the way to the Museum of the Canals. The steel wheels roll with a rumble and chatter through girder rail, ribbons in the street in discrete lines and curves orienting me to which turns I’ll be taking. The route of the 7, 17, 19. A little like home.


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