12 Reasons that Amsterdam has the best transport system

The map. Image: Gemeentelijk Vervoerbedrijf (GVB).

Last month, a great injustice befell the readers of CityMetric. Accompanied by what I can only assume to be a feeling of collective horror, an article appeared with the accompanying claim that the Lisbon Metro “blows every other transport system out of the water”.

Now, whilst I accept the claim that metros are, indeed, great, as is Lisbon, the author makes one fundamental and catastrophic error. They misidentify which one is, in truth, the best. The best metro does not lie in Lisbon: it lies in Amsterdam.

Here are twelve reasons why.

1. It’s one of the great train maps

It may be true that Lisbon’s map is simple and effective, but the Amsterdam Metro is in a league of its own. Look at it, it’s an elegant but exceptionally straightforward collection without clutter or silly routes (hello, London). It just needs to be a bit longer.

2. You can go on the underground. In Amsterdam

For a city famed for its canals and below-sea-level foundations, the fact that Amsterdam has a series of underground stations is itself quite the achievement. A mixture of bored and immersed tunnels, the newly-opened North-South line runs directly underneath some of the city’s oldest streets.

Even more thrilling is that one of the stations is called Waterlooplein, thereby all-but confirming that Mamma Mia 3 will revolve around a rowdy weekend in the Dutch capital and Colin Firth falling into a canal. 

3. The tickets are accessible and needs-focused

Planning a trip to Amsterdam but you want need free entry to museums and unlimited access to public transport? Get a City Card. Need something a bit cheaper or lasts a bit longer? GVB, the transport authority which operates the metro, has that covered. Because the company operates both the trams and the city’s metro, any ticket you buy is compatible with both, which is a genuine joy when compared to the stuff the UK gets up to.

As with Lisbon, day tickets last for 24 hours. Sort it out, Grayling.


4. One of their station’s doubles up as an archaeological museum

The arrival of the new Noord-Zuidlijn line (North-South) in July 2018 brought with it an unexpected bonus. Around 700,000 objects were uncovered by archaeologists during the construction of the line, with the oldest dating back to 2400BCE.

Each object can be examined on a specialist website, belowthesurface.amsterdam, but that’s not the best part. If you head to Rokin station, close to the centre of the city, you’ll be able to see around 10,000 of the excavated objects on the escalator ride down.

And what’s better than a metro station that’s also a museum? Right? Guys?

5. It opens up access to a part of the city you’ll have never been to

So, you think Amsterdam is essentially just an old town with a few suburbs? Well, turns out there’s an extra part of the city that you’ve almost certainly never been to (unless you’ve studied at Vrije University, or live there).

Zuidas is Amsterdam’s financial district, the new home of the EMA, and almost certainly where half of Canary Wharf is going to end up after Brexit. So… check it out, maybe?

6. It’s surprisingly quiet. And clean

Discounting the bit of winter when snow adorned Europe and nobody could use a bike, riding the metro is a generally spacious affair, to the point where you can actually find a seat. The carriages are even clean and surprisingly enjoyable. Madness.

7. It doesn’t intrude on the city

In spite of the increasing size, the Metro operates largely outside of the urban hub, with stations designed to have a minimal impact on the surrounding area. Instead, it primarily focuses on taking passengers to and from Amsterdam Centraal station and outlying residential areas and major venues such as the Bijlmer ArenA. Because of this, you only ever have to use the metro when you either want or need to, which is exactly how a metro should work.

8. T R A M S

TRAMS! In the Dam Square. Image: Getty.

Yes, trams. As CityMetric readers are hopefully aware, they are like buses but more amazing. Given that only a select few metro lines operate inside the centre of Amsterdam, trams quickly assert themselves as the only practical means of public transport, and the best way to get around if you don’t have a bike.

9. Accessibility is taken care of

Liberalism and inclusivity have long-been seen as Amsterdam’s guiding ideological principles. Every station is therefore designed to cater for disabled access, with specialised information publicly available and step-free access.


10. The in-train maps are a step above

Instead of simply having the boring old maps you get in London, each station is fitted with a little bulb that lights up if it’s on your route, going out once the respective station is behind you. It’s a simple solution that is also a lifesaver if you’re terrible at remembering where you are.

11. It’s in Amsterdam

For starters, Amsterdam is objectively one of the world’s great cities. It’s densely populated but immediately accessible, it has great food, great music, bicycles, great museums, and great architecture, and it’s where all our businesses are going to go after Brexit. It therefore wins by default.

12. It TILTS

Okay, so it doesn’t really tilt. That is, it’s not a full-on rollercoaster. Tilting only occurs for about five-seconds on a Gein branch of the East Line to Isolatorweg, just near Biljmer ArenA. [Editor’s note: That A is actually capitalized. No idea.]

But 1) it tilts, and 2) if you’ve just been to IKEA after a night of writing essays for your MA to replace the mugs you’ve accidentally broken, it’s the best thing on earth.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.