Amsterdam is the global poster-city for urban bicycle networks, and rightly so. With around 450km of cycle lanes and the majority of its population riding a bike at least once a week, the largest city in the Netherlands is doing something right. Whilst undertaking research in Amsterdam earlier this year, I heard numerous perceived positive repercussions including economic benefits, improved air quality, and equal opportunities, all of which were credited to the city’s bicycle network. An impressive accomplishment if true.

Marc van Woudenberg – founder of the Amsterdam cycling blog Amsterdamize – stated that ‘business is better in Amsterdam. Shopkeepers want to have more access for people on bikes and pedestrians, and whilst it means less amounts of shopping, it means more trips, more moments of shopping.’ However, not all shopkeepers appear to be embracing cyclist’s custom as eagerly as van Woudenberg suggests. In 2009, Detailhandel Nederland – the Dutch retail association – called for the better promotion of free car parking facilities available nearby in an attempt to boost business. In addition to this, whilst cycling has undergone a resurgence in Amsterdam since the mid 1970s, the amount of local shops has fallen in that time, from 7,347 in 1975 to 3,227 in 2010. If business really is better in Amsterdam as a result of its bicycle network, it’s not good enough to halt the decline of independent traders in the city centre.

Connections between cycling and improved air quality seem logical, due to the bicycle being a zero emission form of transport when in use. However, road traffic in Amsterdam remains the biggest contributor to air pollution, despite a modal share that many cities would be envious of. Regardless, the Dutch government remain confident that bicycle network investments can improve air quality, with environmental legislation in the mid-1990s emphasising ‘a preference for public transport and bicycles’. Although encouraging bicycle use has benefits when attempting to improve urban air quality, it cannot provide the solution independently. Factors such as local geography, climate, and industrial activity are major contributors that would be foolish to ignore.

Though air quality considerations are complex, the ability of Amsterdam’s bicycle network to increase access to local services is clearer. The city has a comprehensive, web-like infrastructure of bicycle lanes or roads in which cyclists have legal priority over cars. As well as this, Amsterdam has extensive signage and traffic lights exclusively for bicycles. In terms of implementing bicycle-friendly roads that make it easy for citizens to access urban services, Amsterdam’s bicycle network is hard to criticise. The only major omission is that north and south Amsterdam aren’t connected for cyclists, though with a harbour dividing these regions, this is forgivable. Similarly, the absence of the city-wide cycle hire schemes so popular in cities of late is justified by high levels of bicycle ownership and prevalence of independent cycle hire merchants in the city.

Whilst cycling remains a distinctively male experience in the UK and USA, the Netherlands has succeeded in getting a broader portion of its citizens cycling. A 2008 study by Pucher and Buehler found that 55% of all trips by bicycle are made by women, and those aged over 65 make 24% of their trips on bike. Yet despite the city’s bicycle friendly form, some of Amsterdam’s residents remain unenthused. Bicycle use remains low among ethnic minorities, potentially due to a lack of cycling traditions. Similarly, lower income groups cycle less in Amsterdam, suggesting that, even in one of the world’s most bicycle friendly cities, the car remains a valuable status symbol.

Public transportation challenges are the norm in today’s cities, partly as a result of population growth and inadequate investment. At the same time, pressure to make our cities more sustainable is significant. Bicycle networks are therefore an understandably enticing opportunity. What could be better than getting citizens off crowded, predominantly loss making and polluting transport options and onto vehicles they maintain that take up hardly any space? But urban bicycle networks and bicycles themselves do not provide the answer to every modern urban dilemma. Economic challenges, struggles with air quality, and portions of society who do not engage in bicycle use in Amsterdam, despite its impressive bicycle network, demonstrate this.

But the city’s achievements should not be forgotten. Amsterdam has some of the world’s highest levels of cycling, and a bicycle network that is the envy of cities all over the world (apart from, maybe, Copenhagen. You lucky Danes). Whilst challenges remain that Amsterdam’s bicycle network cannot address, the city has seen a lot of cycling success, though once again, this cannot be attributed entirely to its physical bicycle network. A legal system which prioritises cyclists on the city’s roads is an integral ingredient, and just as importantly, if not more so, is an incredible enthusiasm from Amsterdam’s citizens for the bicycle as a mode of transport.