Why are there almost no bridges across Amsterdam’s largest river?

If only: one of the proposed designs for a bridge across the IJ. Image: Fons Alkemade.

What is Amsterdam famous for? Besides being Europe’s Sin City, and having one million bicycles, it’s also known as “Venice of the North”. The city has more than a hundred kilometres of canals and more than 1,200 bridges.

With that in mind, this picture looks a bit odd:

An aerial view of the IJ. Image: NASA.

This is the IJ river, which divides the north and south of Amsterdam. The IJ is a pretty odd river. For one thing, its name is a single letter in Dutch, which is why IJ is fully capitalised. (To be more precise, IJ is a digraph which behaves like a single letter).

The IJ is also not a real river. It’s a former bay which changed in shape, thanks to the Dutch national hobby of reclaiming land. Technically, it’s a long lake, which connects a canal to another lake, which itself was formerly a sea.

But let’s not make things too complicated: the Dutch say the IJ is a river, and so will we.

None of that, though is what’s odd about that picture. For a city known for its bridges, very few span its major river. In fact, there’s just one single bridge, the Schellingwouderbrug, and a set of locks right next to it. They are about 5 kilometres away from the city centre. There is a tunnel closer by, but pedestrians and cyclists can’t use it.

The only way Amsterdammers can ride their bicycle from the city centre to the northern part of the city, is by using a network of free ferries. These are very cute and quite convenient: the ferry right behind Amsterdam Central Station leaves every six minutes and takes about five minutes to cross the river.

A ferry on IJ. Image: Wouter van Dijke.

But a ferry is no bridge, and cycling across the same stretch of river would only take about 45 seconds (and burn a little over eight calories). So why has no bridge ever been constructed across the IJ?

I asked Bas Kok, the author of Oerknal aan Het IJ (“Big Bang on the IJ”), a new book about the history of Amsterdam-North. He says that there is no technical reason why a bridge couldn’t be constructed. The span of the IJ is between 200m and 300m, similar to the Thames. But for a long time, there was simply not enough demand. As Kok explains:

“Between about 1300 and 1795 the north bank of the IJ was a field of gallows. In the 1800s and 1900s, the area was transformed into an industrial estate. It wasn’t a very nice area: you wouldn’t go there unless you absolutely had to. The North was the ugly duckling of the city, so why would you build a bridge there?” 

That’s not to say the idea hasn’t been raised before, he adds. But the maritime lobby managed to deter these plans, on the grounds that obstacles in the river would harm trade.

“In the 20th century, people in Amsterdam looked down on the inhabitants of Amsterdam-North. They were working class people, who didn’t have much business in the city centre. It was decided that they wouldn’t need the convenient connection a bridge would offer.”

But now, the north bank is booming. After a Shell research facility just across the river from the Central Station moved to another area in the borough, development of a new neighbourhood started in 2007.  A beautiful new film museum opened in 2012, a cultural centre and concert venue opened in 2014 and a new dance music hub is currently being developed in a hundred-metre high tower.

Across the rest of the northern borough, houses and entire new neighbourhoods are being constructed. The population of the borough is expected to rise by thirty to fifty per cent in the next ten years. 

 

The north bank skyline. Image: Wouter van Dijke.

Those free ferries are having a hard time coping with the increased use. Recently, demand has risen by ten per cent per year and during rush hour the traffic on the ferries is extremely chaotic.


This led a group of Amsterdam-North based entrepreneurs to campaign for a bridge across the river. Their idea was picked up by the city council, which is now researching the possibility of making the so-called “leap across the IJ”.

Traversing the river is no easy task: the Amsterdam harbour still draws a lot of traffic, and a large cruise terminal on the south bank opened in 2000, which means any bridge would need to be able to let cruise ships pass. The latest idea is a set of two bridges across the river, on either side of the city centre. The council is expected to decide sometime next year, after which constructing of the first bridge might finish by the end of the decade.

In the meantime, however, architects are having a field day coming up with what these bridges might look like. Several more and less serious proposals for colossal bridges are popping up. Such as this, from Urban Echoes:

Or this, from Xoom Lab:  

In a few years time, when Amsterdammers are cycling across the IJ, it seems they’ll be doing it in style.

 
 
 
 

How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.