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Transport / Mass transit

Why are there almost no bridges across Amsterdam’s largest river?

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.
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