The Netherlands — A Bicycling Mecca
Everyone in The Netherlands has nice legs.
That’s because the Dutch ride their bicycles. Everywhere.
This past April, I went on two 250 mile bike trips; one in New Jersey and one in The Netherlands. I took note of the attitudes and infrastructures around the bicycle in both places.
As expected, it was downright night and day. In the United States, where the car is king, riding a loaded bicycle draws countless stares and questions. In Holland, however, a total of one person asked me where I was coming from.
The Dutch don’t just ride bicycles — they find every possible way to take advantage of this outstanding invention. Like a student I saw in Utrecht who managed to strap an IKEA stool to her back rack, a father who pedaled a bakfiets — a popular freight bicycle — with his wife and two small children crammed in the front, a man who pushed his senior-aged mother in a wheelchair bicycle tandem, and a 60-pound dog cruising on a bakfiets.
As my Dutch aunt once told me — in The Netherlands, biking is freedom. Two-thirds of children under the age of 12 walk or cycle to school. Here, people ride bikes as if they’re walking. They ride in clumps of families and friends. They hold hands while pedaling. They put their arms around each other.
Riding a bicycle to get from A to B has become the norm in Holland.
In Amsterdam, even if it’s faster to take a bus, even if it’s raining and gross, people still bike because that’s what you do. And since so many people do, everything is built for bikes and trams and trains while I imagine trying to find parking would be a miserable, terrible disaster.
All modes of transport coexist naturally. People driving cars watch out for bikes because they are taught to do so in driving school. Bicyclists are confident enough to maneuver their rides through the narrowest of spaces because the bicycle has practically become an extension of their bodies. Bike path intersections during rush hour are almost as crazy as an L.A. freeway yet somehow, no one runs into each other.
In the U.S., I’ve experienced several near misses and the all-too-familiar terror of cycling a winding road with no shoulder. A lot of the time bicycles are seen as a nuisance and merely guests on the road. In Holland, however, often the bicycle is the majority on the road. And because everyone cycles, infrastructure is centered around the bicycle. The famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was even built around one beloved bike path. When a renovation threatened it’s existence, cyclists revolted.
On Dutch bike paths, cyclists can expect to be mostly separated from cars. Bike networks are built like regular roads and are complete with roundabouts, mileage posts, countdown traffic lights, road markings, and even trash cans positioned like basketball hoops allowing you to easily toss your trash mid-pedal. Meanwhile, on American roads, I’ve gotten accustomed to riding the balance beam that is the strip of road between the rumble strip and the grass. I’ve come to dread highway intersections because navigating one on a bike is nearly impossible. In Holland, reaching one is a beautifully orchestrated series of ticking and countdown clocks, escorting me safely from one side to the other.
In America, everything is built around the car. In Holland, everything is built around the bicycle. The world’s largest bike parking lot was recently unveiled in Utrecht. The multilevel structure is more technologically sophisticated than most car parking lots. Cities are geared toward pedestrians and cyclists, too. Every major town has several main streets permanently closed off to cars.
Not only is the infrastructure tailored to the bike, but the bicycle itself is made for frequent commuting. Almost all bikes have a rack to easily carry bags as well as a spoke lock — an ingenious, simple system that locks the back wheel with the turn of a key to prevent thieves from quickly riding away.
In The Netherlands, the bicycle is seen as an easy, affordable, and safe mode of transportation. That’s because here, there are more bikes than people. The bicycle isn’t just a vehicle for sport, but a celebrated mode of transport that’s taken seriously. So what can you do to help improve bicycle infrastructure and safety in the U.S.? If we’ve learned anything from the Dutch, the answer is simple —
Ride your bike!