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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.