Amsterdam has more bikes than cars.

Multi-Modalism Is a Privilege That Too Few of Us Embrace

I traveled to Europe for the first time in October, basing in Amsterdam because I wanted to experience a city built for multi-modal transportation. How heartening to see the possibilities: adults of all ages cycling to work, ready rail service to nearby towns, having officers stop traffic so pedestrian throngs could cross the street.

A prosperous city in a country with a relatively high tax rate, Amsterdam has its priorities in order. Whether walking with my family or jogging early in the day, I was surprised by how bicyclists rule, sailing along with no apparent intention of stopping. I learned to gingerly cross roads designated for cycles, trains and pedestrians, in that order. History shows it wasn’t always so – and that Amsterdam evolved into the Bicycle Capital of the World during the later 20th century only through “fierce activism” and a growing number of pedestrian deaths.

Amsterdam has more bikes than cars.

Amsterdam has more bikes than cars, with a climate not markedly different than our own.

Back home in St. Paul, I am face to face with the reality that what Amsterdam accomplished may be impossible in the United States, where the automobile equates with status and a freedom we assume to be our birthright as Americans. Evidence?

  • Arguments online —and at Union Park District Council meetings — over remaking Ayd Mill Road into a short cut that works for cyclists and walkers, too.
  • Three years on, I still hear grumbling about the street parking lost to bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue.
  • More than 100 comments are choking about the temporary protected bike lanes on Grand Avenue because they’re near Kowalski’s, a high-end grocery store that will get crowded over the holidays.

“Is the city being taken over by bicyclists?” one woman asks. “It is a disaster.” Another person laments that his trips to the Kowalski’s wine shop have been slowed down.

The lengthy debate about whether drivers ever should be inconvenienced and how many cold-weather cyclists St. Paul actually supports seems to miss a key point: The #63 Metro Transit line runs right past Kowalski’s. Couldn’t any of these frustrated drivers ride the bus?

Change is hard, and hard-won

Over eight days in Amsterdam, with a side tour to Bruges, I saw executives, older people, families, young adults and workaday folks like me walking, cycling or riding the rails. The racial and class distinctions that I observe on transit in the Twin Cities — especially on urban lines like the 21A, where I am a distinct minority, as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman — did not appear to exist.

When transit is reliable and cycling lanes are readily available, and when driving is the least convenient option, as it is in Amsterdam, middle-class people will reevaluate their use of cars. As it is, to proudly declare myself “multi-modal” in a two-vehicle family is to show the inherent privilege of that choice.

Nighttime cycling in Amsterdam

The only vehicles on the street where we stayed in Amsterdam were delivery trucks, early in the morning.

A woman my age who has to ride two buses to her job because she can’t afford a vehicle lives a life very different from my own. I walk to my job less than a mile away because I choose to. I rode the bus throughout much of the Thanksgiving weekend because I didn’t want to drive my fuel-efficient car on icy roads. That woman riding two bus lines is not “multi-modal”; she is poor or working class, getting by — and getting around —as best she can, on a Twin Cities transit system that is anything but predictable.

What difference can people of privilege make, beyond the obvious support for pro-cycling and pro-transit groups or lobbying legislators for more equitable transportation funding?

We can start, step by step — and conversation by conversation — to shift the assumption that driving everywhere is both a norm and a right, or a choice that has no consequences for the planet. That begins with education. “You can’t force this on a society that has been auto-dependent,” a neighbor told me recently. “You can urge people to use their car less. But you have to make it simple and reasonable.”

Consider these:

  • The environmental argument: Talk about vehicle emissions as a key source of climate change in Minnesota, as I did recently at a Midway Chamber of Commerce meeting when the talk turned to the dilemma of tight parking for some networking function. Let’s encourage folks to ride the bus!
  • The exercise argument: How often do people complain that they have no time to work out? Commuting by foot feeds my commitment to daily exercise, and the winter cyclists plowing their way over snow-packed roads surely have no need to hit the gym after work.
  • The multi-tasking argument: Multi-modalism can be convenient. “Text away!” says a Metro Transit ad campaign. “Be hands-on with your phone while we drive.” It’s a clever reminder that reading for work or pleasure is impossible with your hands gripping a steering wheel. Frequent bus riding is why I got a digital subscription to the New York Times.
  • The experimental argument: This one’s easy. You don’t have to do it every day. Urge car owners to try taking the bus when the weather is bad, as I did on a recent trip to the dentist. When three different office workers asked about my drive, I pointed to the cleats on my walking boots and said, “Oh, I bussed. I would never drive in an ice storm.”

Tom Ruffaner, a retired facilities supervisor at Augsburg University, told me after a transit advocacy meeting how he had organized his life around mass transit because he couldn’t afford both a house and a car. The former chair of Augsburg’s environmental concerns committee, Ruffaner talked about his “massive re-education” campaign to convince students that mass transit would help them see the city or to reassure employees that their worries about parking would be over.

I have the luxury of choosing to be multi-modal, rather than having it forced upon me out of economic circumstance. Ruffaner argues that such privilege inhibits change. People who own cars “tend to drive short distances,” he explained. “Affluence is a disability. It doesn’t challenge people to be inventive or curious. Our whole culture lives unconsciously.” Time to get woke.

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

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Amy Gage is managing editor of A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging ( and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.