Amsterdam’s Infrastructure Dilemma: Bridges or Boats?

A years-long debate over a bridge pits the city’s vision for the future against the national government’s.

Over the past few years, Amsterdam has been caught in a minor existential debate. It boils down to this: In planning for the future, should the Dutch put more emphasis on the city’s role as a lynchpin in the national economy? Or should the day-to-day lived experience of citizens take top priority?

Given the gravity of the questions, the object that provoked them seems small and unlikely: a single bridge.

The bridge hasn’t been built yet, but it would cross the so-called River IJ in central Amsterdam (at this point, it’s really a narrow bay). Advocates for a new bridge—who include both the city’s government and most of the political opposition—insist that it’s vital to speed up and decongest transit to the city’s north, making it an altogether more livable area.

Opponents, meanwhile—including the country’s minister for infrastructure and environment, the inland shipping industry, and the port authority—say the city must build a tunnel instead, because a bridge would hinder shipping access to the very asset that put Amsterdam here in the first place: the port.

After years of wrangling over the issue, the city council finally decided Friday that it won’t just build a bridge—it’ll build two.

The reasoning is so stereotypically Dutch you might laugh, if it wasn’t so obviously sensible. Amsterdam needs two new bridges so one can be used by motor vehicles while the other is reserved exclusively for bikes and pedestrians. The cycle bridge is probably getting the most central site, right next to the central station, while the road bridge will be somewhat more remotely situated on Java Island, which lies midway across the IJ. The exact design, timing, and cost of the project is still somewhat…

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