Three years ago when I moved to the Netherlands, I knew the cycling culture would be intense going in, but what I wasn’t prepared for is how it would redefine my view of cities, and how I interact with them.
Growing up in New Zealand, you learn pretty quickly that a car is the beginning and end of living there. Until recently, you could get a license at 15, and most of us did. If you don’t have your driver’s license, you’ll find yourself left out of events, asking your parents for rides, or navigating a near non-existent public transit infrastructure.
In 2017, my partner and I were in a car so few times that I can count it on two hands. Back home in New Zealand, we’d exceed that in just a matter of days — because it’s unavoidable. If you don’t have a driver’s license, you’ll simply have it much harder there, because it’s otherwise difficult to get around. I spent hundreds of dollars on gas every week.
Cars are a part of life for us in New Zealand; it’s difficult to avoid them if you don’t live downtown in a large city. If you’re popping to the store, it’s probably realistically 2–3 KM away, even if you’re in a reasonably sized city — so you drive. Popping to a friend’s house? Drive. Heading to the beach? Drive.
In the Netherlands, almost all of these end up being what you’d expect: cycling. I hadn’t really considered how car-focused New Zealand was until I went overseas; Europe’s densely packed cities are easily cycled, and choosing to use your two-wheeler will likely get you to your destination faster.
The moment I realized that we were so dependent on cars back home was when I tried to explain to a Dutch friend what we do with our cars all the time, and how easy it is to get a license compared with here. In New Zealand, teenagers hang out in their cars; I spent hours in my teenage years driving around with friends, listening to music and occasionally stopping to look at the view.
The inevitable next question: “What were you doing? Well, nothing… just driving. Such is a part of life growing up in a small town in New Zealand, and many of my friends echo the same experiences: their teenage years were spent driving around, hanging out, going nowhere in particular.
I miss the feeling of owning a car, and the magic of those aimless drives, but I never want to own one again. Every city in the world should be looking at why they’re filled with traffic, and asking themselves: could we make cycling work here too? What would it take?
When I first moved to Amsterdam, the cycling was something magical and terrifying all at once — anyone who’s ever visited can attest to this experience. The cyclists seem intense, aggressive and scary; enough to put you off ever doing it yourself.
What I quickly discovered is that it’s neither aggressive or intense, nor is it scary.
Bikes are the equivalent of a second set of legs for the Dutch: they’ve been riding them since before they could walk, and the cycling here is more like a confident, practiced dance. As long as you’re predictable, you won’t have an accident.
It took a few solid months — and at least one tumble — to come to terms with this. At first, I thought people were assholes; pushing through, darting around, ringing their bells and even sometimes shouting.
Now I’ve realized it’s because we’re all one big enigma of people, trying to get to our destinations as humans, rather than big metal machines. It’s much more personal because you’re out there next to each other, rather than cocooned in your comfy driving box.
To commute in Amsterdam on your bike, as I did for more than 10 KM a day in 2017, is to become one with a river of cycling bodies that are jostling their way to the office. It’s busy, but simply don’t hesitate and nobody will hit you because they’ve estimated your trajectory already.
Sure, there are other modes of transport — we have trams, trains and Uber — but it’s fastest to cycle. And you’re part of something that makes this city so magical; it isn’t a novelty, we’re just living our lives.
Two wheels, no matter what
What took me the longest to become accustomed to was the attitude toward the weather and how that plays into the cycling dynamic. Essentially, it doesn’t at all.
“Jij bent niet van suiker gemaakt” is a popular Dutch saying that translates to “You aren’t made of sugar” — or you won’t dissolve in the rain. The first time it rained after I moved here, I caught the tram to work and the whole office thought it was hysterical; they wondered if my was bike broken!
People here, quite literally, will not let any type of weather stop them.
The Dutch will cycle in the rain, hail, sun, heatwaves, a full-on snowstorm, gale-force winds and anything else nature can throw at them, because they don’t care. It’s raining all the time anyway, so what’s there to do about it?
This shift in mindset is perhaps the biggest thing that took a while to grasp: just ride your bike, no matter what.
Back home, a bit of rain or wind and I’d have driven into the office instead of running or cycling, like everyone else. Here, you either cycle or work from home.
The same rules apply in any other circumstance. The Dutch have solutions for moving 2–3 children around on a single bike along with you, or even up to five at a time. People bike with giant boxes, their groceries, and whatever else.
All of this is to say that what’s transformative is that there’s just no excuse to not ride your bike, and you’d be surprised by how normal this quickly becomes. I’ve caught myself riding with a computer screen under one arm, because I couldn’t be bothered taking the tram.
The reality is that much of what we have in Amsterdam is because we have the infrastructure for it, but it wasn’t always this way.
The city nearly lost its cycling culture just forty years ago, when cars began creeping in and roads destroyed cycling routes that had existed for decades. Thanks to a rallying of the people who wanted the city back, the city has spent the better part of those four decades putting bikes first, one step at a time.
The bitter irony of cycling-first cities is that they first must start with the cycling infrastructure, which is perhaps the hardest part to change because it’s so confronting for those that live there. At first, it seems like it’s pointless investment in something nobody uses. Only later do the cyclists come.
In Amsterdam, most streets have protected bike lines — separate from the road, with parked cars in between active traffic and the cyclist. This separation makes it safer for the rider, and offers a buffer in case of an accident; it’s the ideal scenario.
At intersections, you respect the ‘teeth’ on the road. Little jagged lines are painted on the ground that represent who must give way, which often falls to the car. For an example of this, and how it improves both traffic flow for bikes as well as cars, the video below depicts a roundabout in my neighborhood that utilizes complex, but understandable give-way rules that favor the cyclist.
We still have cars. It’s just a clear shift in priority from building cities around cars to building cities around multiple modes of transport. Other subtleties help: bike traffic lights, bike crossings and much more add to the feeling that you’re a first-class citizen, even if you don’t ride on top of a motor.
Amsterdam has a bold vision for the future, too. In the Meerjarenplan Fiets which lays out the vision for the next five years, the city hopes to build ‘royal routes’ which speed up a cycling trip even further by dedicating the entire vehicle lane to cyclists, from one side of the city to the other.
Another bold idea in the plan, which is being tested in 2018, holds the traffic lights longer for cyclists who are about to make the light before it goes red, encouraging cycling even more, because it’s ultimately faster than any other form of transit.
By prioritizing safe, comfortable cycling routes, but considering cars in the equation, Amsterdam allows those who choose to drive to still get to their destination, but opens up the city to a diverse audience regardless of wealth. Once you have a bike, it’s free to ride.
Rich or poor, everyone rides a bike, because it’s the best way to get around.
A shift in mentalities
Cities around the world are grappling with ever-increasing amounts of traffic, and traditionally the solution to this problem was always build more roads. I believe it’s time to change that mindset: cars are a luxury, not a right. We should treat them as such. People, and the planet, need that to happen.
After living here, I just want my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand to pour as much money as it can into ripping out roads, and making our cities human-focused again. I want that for every city, and I think we should all want it, regardless of if we love cycling or not — because a fun side-effect of cycling-friendly cities is they reduce traffic anyway!
What’s frustrating to watch, from far away, is Wellington’s massive investments in cycling infrastructure and changes to the city that support it, met with massive aggression.
The city piloted a multi-million dollar cycling project that locals then attacked with thumbtacks, physical aggression and eventually, political pressure, to the point that the city had to back down. The same is happening in Auckland. And many other cities around the world.
People in my hometown are furious that the government is installing a cycleway that they believe ‘nobody will use,’ and insist the government should focus on traffic instead, but can’t understand that the endpoint of all of this is simply more traffic, more cities choked with smog and more dependency on something that just can’t stay this way forever.
It starts with a mentality shift, from the bottom. Mandatory helmet laws have to go away first: studies have repeatedly shown that overall, helmet laws actually make the mortality rate worse by making cycling less incentivized and causing drivers to act more carelessly.
Then comes the attitude change: Dutch road laws tend to favor the cyclist in the case of an accident, and will almost always side with them. Most Dutch healthcare includes free basic dental insurance, in case you break your front teeth falling off of your bike. Dutch roads are reorganized to require cars to give way to cyclists in almost every instance, and drivers are trained while learning to drive about how to interact with cyclists and be aware of them.
I saw this first-hand in a trip to San Francisco last week. Uber’s recent acquisition of JUMP bikes means cheap electric bikes are readily available around the city in an app everyone already has anyway, and it utterly changed the way I interacted with it on this particular trip.
I cycled everywhere; up and across the Sunset district to the Mission, across the city and between meetings. San Francisco suddenly felt small, something I couldn’t have said before when surviving on seemingly-cheap Uber and Lyft rides instead. Unlike previous trips, where I took a cab to get around constantly, I took a single rideshare this time.
San Francisco, which didn’t have any dedicated bike lanes on my first trip just seven years ago, suddenly is inundated with safe, protected bike lanes and laws that protect cyclists almost everywhere in the city.
It’s a game-changer, and I saw first-hand how it’s changing people’s impression of the city: it’s theirs again. Electric bikes are a game changer; now it’s time to fix the cities.
Drivers express frustration about empty bike lanes, and will argue them to the death, trying to get rid of them, minimize them, or de-prioritize them on the street…no matter what you do.
We need to be louder.
Those drivers but can’t understand what that bike lane represents: an open invitation to cycle, and an ultimate aspiration: a city that doesn’t need to depend on cars to survive. A city inhabited by humans. They might be empty now, but that’s because it takes time. Believe me, build it and the cyclists will come.
I remember owning a car, and standing at the fuel pump staring at the dollars clocking up. I thought I’d miss it, but now I just hope I never need to own one again to live my life.