White bicycles

With approximately 800,000 bicycles for a population of 779,808‌, not only can Amsterdam pride itself on being one of the world’s leading bike-friendly city, but also the cradle of the bike-sharing movement.


Founded on May 25th 1965 by Robert Jasper Grootveld - a furniture maker, happener, copywriter and window washer - and the two anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk, the legendary counterculture movement Provo intended to bring awareness on the environmentalist movement by fighting air pollution and condemn the Dutch monarchy - which at the time was being shaken by a series of scandals. [1]

Anarchist in its statement and actions, Provo adopted the public happening - a brand new way to connect art to politics and daily life, directly imported from the United States - as a “dynamic catalyst for change and transformation”. [2]


The first revolutionary performance that Provo undertook - which turned out to be also the movement’s first violent confrontation with the authority - was imagined by Dutch designer Luud Schimmelpennick and was named the “White Bicycle Plan”. It was announced at the end of July 1965 in Provokatie #5, an underground newspaper self-published by the group itself [3]. A virulent condemnation of the notion of private property and of the car as status symbol and pollution generator, the “White Bicycle Plan” envisioned to release some 20,000 white bicycles free of use to everyone in the city to “supplement public transportation”, and to introduce “municipal taxis, electrically powered, and parking lots on the outskirts of the city for people to park their car”.


Luud Schimmelpennick - in an article that appeared recently in the Guardian - explained how he came up with the concept, saying that he was inspired by 17th-century Amsterdam. “In that era [the city] doubled in size in a relatively short time, and it became blocked by all the carriages trying to get through. So the council set up ‘carriage squares’ on the outskirts of the city, where people could leave their carriage in order to continue by foot. This was exactly what Provo wanted: to make people leave their cars behind in order to continue by white bike.” [4]


During the "symbolic act" - which simply lasted several months - only a few bikes were actually painted before being confiscated by the police. Nevertheless the happening rapidly became a myth among the underground movements and was a first step towards the bike-sharing movement so well known today around the world.

According to the legend the initiative even inspired the song “My White Bicycle”, by psychedelic rock band Tomorrow's (1967).


Members of the Provo mouvement, carrying a white bicycle, 1965.

[1] Richard Kempton, The Provos : Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, May 10, 2003 p.6; [2] Richard Kempton, The Provos : Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, May 10, 2003, p.10; [3] Richard Kempton, The Provos : Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, May 10, 2003, p.30; [4] Renate van der Zee, “Story of cities #30: how this Amsterdam inventor gave bike-sharing to the world”, The Guardian, April 26th 2016;

Published: 16 Feb. 2017

#pioneers #Amsterdam #Provo #60s #Counterculture, #WhiteBicyclePlan #Cycling #Mobility #Anarchy #UrbanRevitalization #TogethernessInDesign

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