As the clock strikes eight, Amsterdam awakens to the symphony of wheels and bells. From left and right, bicycles pass, dodge, rub and push each other, weaving in and out of traffic along the streets and canals. With its timeless style and rustic charm, the omafiets (granny bike)– the Amsterdam bicycle par excellence, sets the tempo for this harmonious ballet. But a new player has entered the game, disrupting the balance in the cycling capital of the world: the sleek and powerful VanMoof electric bike. As it takes the city by storm, it leaves no one indifferent.
E-bikes are becoming immensely popular in the Netherlands, in particular in major urban areas like Amsterdam. According to BOVAG, over half of all bicycles sold in 2021 were electric, comprising three-fourths of total revenues from bicycle sales. Among them, the eye-catching VanMoof, with its minimalist design and distinctive whooshing sound, stands out. Because of its eco-friendly power source, its ease of use and its reputation as a trendy mode of transportation, this bike is particularly popular among young riders.
These bikes are taking over the cycle path with lightning speed – figuratively and literally. According to recent measurements conducted by Fietsersbond Amsterdam, an organization advocating for safe cycling, e-bikes have been found to ride at significantly faster speeds than traditional bicycles. The typical maximum speed for e-bikes was recorded at 30 kilometers per hour, compared to just 17 kilometers per hour for regular bikes. Some e-bikes even reached speeds of 40 kilometers per hour. Many residents are frustrated with the increasing presence of VanMoof e-bikes on the streets of Amsterdam and believe that it is becoming a real safety concern. “These bikes zoom past me like I’m standing still, and have no regard for traffic laws. They’re like rockets on the cycle path!” says Annie (68), a retiree living in Amsterdam Oost. She feels that the driver’s behavior, not the bike itself, is the main problem: “They don’t seem to care about other people, someone will get hurt at some point.” A report from the municipality shows that two-thirds of Amsterdam residents feel unsafe in traffic, in part due to the large speed difference between cyclists. Recent analyses from the Amsterdam police show that the number of accidents involving e-bikes is increasing. Similarly, the Fiesterbond Amsterdam, overwhelmed by the number of accident reports caused by e-bikes, has called the current situation “alarming.” The organization is now calling for a speed limit to be imposed on e-bikes. There is no speed limit for cyclists in Amsterdam. Although e-bikes are supposed to have automatic braking systems when they reach 25 kilometers per hour, this system can easily be bypassed with the help of an app or boost kit.
The VanMoof bike has drawn much criticism not just for the nuisance it causes on the cycle path, but also for what it represents in the city. At a cost of around €3000, the bike is more than 20 times the price of a standard bike. According to Jonas Kooyman, who writes about city life for the Dutch newspaper NRC, this is the typical bike of young urban professionals, with high income, busy schedules, and hip lifestyles: “the VanMoof is a status symbol, like a new iPhone or a pair of sneakers. You don’t just buy a bike, but also an identity.” In media and daily conversations, the VanMoof bike has become associated with the aesthetic gentrification of Amsterdam and is now the symbol that makes visible the growing gap between the haves and haves-not. As Kooyman outlines, “If you have a VanMoof, you send the message ‘I’m doing well in life.’ You are a winner.” This has led to the perception that VanMoof bicycles are a visible sign of the changing demographics and rising costs in areas that are undergoing gentrification in Amsterdam. “It stands as a metaphor for the changes in Amsterdam over the past 10 years. In poor neighborhoods, where people struggle to make ends meet, a VanMoof parked in front of the building has a clear symbolic aspect. The more gentrified, the more VanMoofs”, explains the journalist behind the “havermelkelite” (“oat milk elite”), a parodic Instagram account making fun of the little quirks of the young professionals in Amsterdam.
Stickers bearing the slogan “Do everyone a favor, throw a VanMoof in the river” (“Doe iedereen een plezier, gooi een vanmoof in de rivier”) have been appearing on street furniture. Amsterdam-based rapper Massih Hutak has released a song criticizing VanMoof owners, referring to them as “pirates on wheels.” Recently, media reports have surfaced of a mysterious group known as “The Red Bike” (“De Rode Fiets”) shaking VanMoof bikes in the middle of the night to trigger the alarm and wake up the owners. “Capitalism has no address, but it does have a bicycle”, their manifesto states. While these small acts of resistance rightly highlight the dark sides of gentrification, they paint an incomplete picture of the complexity of the city. As Jonas Kooyman explains, “VanMoof is a clear symbol of the rapid changes taking place in the city, but it is too simplistic to place the blame solely on individuals. We need to think more broadly and look at the systemic forces that enable these changes. What kind of urban policies have led to a city where people move around with this bike?” In other words, gentrification goes beyond the presence of expensive e-bikes and is about broader issues such as structural inequalities, unaffordable housing, and the feeling of being uprooted.
That being said, one cannot help but question the real necessity of this two-wheeled Tesla, especially in a small city like Amsterdam, where everything can generally be reached within half an hour. Jonas comments, “Unless you live in Amsterdam Noord or outside the Ring, there is little need for a VanMoof in Amsterdam.” For Ralf (25), an American Studies student at the UvA, this trend is a reflection of the neo-liberalisation and individualisation of urban life: “Rich people are giving up public transport for VanMoof and Uber. This shows that life in the city has become extremely individualistic. The connection to the collective has been lost.” This is echoed in the words of Vincent (24), a Dutch Language and Culture student at the UvA: “VanMoof owners need to realize that in the Netherlands, the bicycle is the symbol of egalitarianism. It is a very democratic mode of transportation. A VanMoof is everything but democratic.” He adds with a chuckle, “With such a bike you’re not even really biking anymore; it’s so un-Dutch!”
“the VanMoof is a status symbol, like a new iPhone or a pair of sneakers. You don’t just buy a bike, but also an identity ” – Jonas Kooyman (NRC)