An Amsterdam bike hire company is encouraging cyclists to offer tourists lifts on their luggage racks

"Gissa lift, mate." Image: Yellow Bike.

If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, you’ll have encountered them whether you’d like to or not. Used by 63 per cent of Amsterdamers on a daily basis, and with an estimated 800,000 in the city, you may, if you were feeling adventurous, even have had a go on one yourself. I’m talking, of course, about bicycles.

But despite the world-renowned cycling facilities available, there has recently been a spate of stories, blaming tourists on two wheels have for numerous accidents. Although there are no statistics to back this up, it's easy to see how those who are concentrating more on their selfie-sticks than they are their steering could get the blame.

To counter the issue, a company has come up with an innovative solution – a sort of Uber-meets-couch surfing for bikes.

The scheme, Yellow Backie, is the brainchild of one of the city's cycle hire companies, Yellow Bike. In essence, it encourages locals to give tourists a lift on their bicycle’s luggage rack. The company provide the volunteers with a yellow rack to make them identifiable around the city; all people have to do to hail down a ride is shout “backie” and hop on.

Martin Luyckx, online marketing and communication manager of Yellow Bike, says the company was fed up with the bad reputation tourists were getting. “We wanted to counter the negativity with some positivity,” he tells me. “Catching a ride on someone else’s luggage rack is quite common in the Netherlands for short distances – so by having a yellow rack, it now shows that you are open to giving tourists a short ride instead of ignoring them in our great city.”

He hopes that the scheme will become a “common good”, likening it to the Het witte fietsenplan (White bicycle plan) that was introduced to the city in the 1960s. That saw 50 white bicycles were left around central Amsterdam for the public to use free of charge.

Although relatively new, since the scheme’s launch in August, 107 people have signed up in Amsterdam. Luyckx also claims that others around the world are already picking up on the idea – with unofficial DIY yellow racks seen riding around in Utrecht, Haarlem and Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and as far afield as Boston and Denver in the US.

Skadi Renooy, a recent Urban Studies graduate from the University of Amsterdam, is one of those who has got involved in the capital. She said it’s a “charming way to show tourists in Amsterdam that the locals are open to show them the city from an insider’s perspective”.

Renooy has mainly given lifts to backpackers who were travelling alone and wanted to get a local’s perspective on the city. “I think in reality, having a Yellow Backie is more about the signal it gives,” she explains. “You're basically saying: 'Hey, I am a local and I could show you around. Don't be scared of me and my bike!”

That, Luyckx says, is what Yellow Backie is about. “We want tourists to know that they can shout ‘backie!’ when they see someone with a Yellow Backie, and hitch a short ride and see something they may not have seen otherwise. After all, we should not forget that we also are tourists when we go abroad to visit cities such as London, Paris, Venice or Berlin.”

It's hard to predict how successful Yellow Backie. But if it can get visitors out of the red light district and into the real Amsterdam shows, it’ll be on the right track.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.