What to do and what not to do when riding a bicycle in The Netherlands — these are big, important questions. Riding a bicycle in The Netherlands is THE main reason why I’m so happy here. But there are some rules you need to get used to.
I lived for 26 years in a big Mexican city with no biking infrastructure. Riding a bicycle to work was basically asking for a shorter life, and being stuck in traffic in my car was as common as breathing. But alas! Those days are behind me, and now I go back and forth everywhere with my trusty bicycle!
I love biking (and having money to eat) so much, that I even deliver food on my bicycle on the weekends for spare money. After a year of biking for leisure and work in this country, I have learned firsthand the do’s and don’ts of riding a bicycle in The Netherlands. Some surprised me, others made me go “well duh…“. But all of them — without a doubt — I wish I knew from day one.
Here’s a handy guide of things you may already know, and some that may surprise you, about riding a bicycle in The Netherlands.
Legal requirements to riding a bicycle in the Netherlands
In a country that has built its cities with bikes in mind, you won’t be surprised that the legal system has also been shaped around cycle culture. Here are some legal requirements to note.
Don’t ride under the influence (RUI)
Boy did this surprise me, back when I first started living here. It just made no sense. I mean, if I was drunk in Mexico after copious amounts of tequila, I would either take a taxi, walk home, or try to materialise a bicycle through nonexistent psychic powers and ride it home.
One of the first things I erroneously thought when I first got here, is that if you’re drunk, you could always ride your bike back home. Like a walk of shame, but on wheels.
Rule of thumb: don’t get on your bike if you can’t drunk-call your ex at 03:00 AM.
But, despite what most Dutchies do, it is actually illegal to ride your bike drunk or stoned. If caught, you can get a hefty fine of up to €140! Riding drunk is dangerous no matter what type of bike you’re on… so, no drinking and biking!
Get yourself a bell
Are you familiar with Ivan Pavlov’s experiments on classical conditioning and all that? Well, that’s me with bicycle bells. I turn around and look out for the impending bike when I hear the “tring-tring” of a bell.
Every bike should have one, it’s compulsory. They let you know when someone is behind you and wants to overtake you, or if you’re in the way. It’s very handy, and much more polite than being having cancer-swears yelled at you by an angry Dutchie.
If you’re like me and like being annoying but also safe on the road, you can get a bike horn. It’s just as good as a bike bell, but 1000% more hilarious.
Bright lights! Use them!
Using a properly attached white or yellow light on the front of you bicycle, and a red light on the back, is required if you’re riding at night. Not having a light can result in a fine. Also, worse than a fine, it can result in a car not seeing you and running you over.
Bicycle lights are very easy to find, and you can purchase some very cheap ones at the Hema or Action. If you get detachable ones, make sure you take them with you when you park. Stealing bike lights is the top Dutch national pastime right after getting cheap groceries.
Signal when you turn
I think the first time somebody yelled “lul!” at me, was when I did a tight turn with 10 high schoolers behind me. At first, I thought it was the Dutch variant of “lol.” Naturally, cause I am hilarious. But then, I realised I was called a d*** because I did not signal when I turned. After being in the place of those 10 high schoolers a couple of times, I understood how important it is! In fact, it’s compulsory to signal, so make sure that you do it.
If you want to go left or right with your bike, stick your left/right hand accordingly! It lets non-psychic people know what direction you’re turning. It makes traffic more fluid and prevents any name-calling that hurts your feelings.
Do not text and cycle!
Much like how you shouldn’t text while driving, you also shouldn’t text while cycling. At first, this was only discouraged amongst Dutchies — have you seen them cycle? They can do almost anything on those bikes! — But now it’s illegal. If you’re caught even with your phone in your hand whilst cycling, you risk getting fined €95. So send those memes later, focus on the road.
What’s good to know?
That’s enough on law, let’s discuss some helpful tips on things like not getting your bike stolen. 😉
Put a lock on it — properly!
“If you like it than you should’ve put a lock on it?” It’s surprising how many people get their bike stolen cause they don’t know how to properly put a bike lock on. Now you might say “c’mon that’s easy! Besides, nobody steals anything in this country.” Well that’s where you’re wrong. Stealing bicycles in this country is like eating tacos in Mexico. It happens every. Single. Day.
Although there are many types of locks out there, U-locks and/or sturdy chain locks are the best. The more expensive, the better, most of the time. If you want to cheap-out on something while living here, it better not be your bike lock! Bike thieves in this country are also like taco stands in Mexico. They’re everywhere. (I’m from Mexico. I can make that joke *dabs in Mexican*).
Also, most people ignore it, but there is a proper way to lock your bike. You should lock your bike on a pole or biking rack, and your lock should surround your frame and your tire. To explain it better, here’s a handy picture.
Don’t buy €10 bikes from shady guys in alleyways
Well, that one is pretty straightforward, right? I mean, who doesn’t dream of buying a cheap bike days after moving to a place where a lot of cities are very expensive. But, it should be obvious that any bicycles you buy from shady guys in the inner city are probably stolen.
“Not my problem!”, exclaimed a person reading this while heading to the inner city, probably. Well good sir/madam, it actually is! If you’re buying a stolen bike, you’re supporting the offer of stolen bikes, which is a way of supporting the stolen bike market. Which perpetuates the cycle, and might even get your newfound bike stolen. So, don’t do it.
The Netherlands is filled with second-hand bicycle shops. While a secondhand bike shop will not sell bicycles for €10 euros, I’m sure you can find something that fits your budget.
Get your head in a helmet — maybe
Wearing a helmet while biking is important because it protects your brain in the case of an accident. And brains are important because — in my case — they hold a lot of 90s references, and the lyrics to R. Kelly’s “I believe I can fly”.
Although not compulsory, and although there’s this big helmet/no helmet debate, I recommend wearing a helmet if you’re like me and bike really fast. In three years of living here, nothing grave has happened to me. But hey, odds are something might. I remember I had this conversation with a colleague who also works in the bike-delivery business. He is pro-helmet, and told me something that made me laugh and also stuck with me:
“Helmets are just like condoms man, it’s better to have one and not need it, than to need one and don’t have one.”
That’s a good argument indeed. However, The Netherlands — right after Denmark — is the European country with least the least amount of accidents per square km that result in cyclists dying. So why wear a helmet then if it’s so safe, right? It would appear that the traffic infrastructure and a superb biking culture are better than enforcing helmet laws. Maybe that’s why not a lot of Dutchies wear helmets.
So wear a helmet! Or not! It’s your choice.
No headphones when riding your bicycle!
There’s two things I love doing but I know I shouldn’t do. One of them is having Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice-cream for breakfast every damn morning, and the other is riding my bicycle while listening to music.
There’s something spiritual about listening to Queen’s “Bicycle Race” while you’re riding your trusty steed down Scheveningen’s pier. Or blasting Meneer Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” on your headphones when coming back from having a good “coffee”.
While it’s not technically illegal to ride your bike while listening some Iron Maiden on your headphones, it can be detrimental to your health. By detrimental to your health, I mean not hearing a tram and getting run over by it.
I stopped listening to music while biking after I got a close call with a bakfiets full of adorable children. I still remember the exact part of Britney Spear’s “Toxic” I was listening to when I almost crashed into that bundle of adorableness. God knows what would have happened, probably gotten deported or something.
So, like the helmet thing, it’s not illegal…but it is highly recommended to not listen to music while riding your bike.
Respect signs, pedestrians and watch out for tram lines!
Lastly, there are 3 things I always keep in mind when riding my bicycle: signs, pedestrians and tram lines. There’s a wide range of road signs that you need to keep an eye out. Four of the most important ones to recognise are: uitgezondered fiets; rechtsaf voor fietsers vrij; let op! uitrit bouwverkeer; and “pedestrian zebras”
I used to get intimidated when I saw these signs because they are usually on “no entrance” signs. But uitgezondered fietsers actually means “except people on bicycles”. So if you see a red sign with a white line in the middle (no entrance), but it is followed by uitgezondered fietsers, you may follow that road — if you’re on a bike, of course.
Rechtsaf fieters vrij
You’ll see these signs in white letters and on blue signs. These mean “right turn free for bikers.” So even if they’re next to a red traffic light, if you’re on a bike you can turn right freely — just remember to signal!
Let op! uitrit bouwverkeer
Back in the day when I didn’t speak any Dutch, I used to hate these. When they are on signs with tiny construction man cartoons it’s fine. But sometimes it’s just the words, and those I didn’t understand! It means “watch out for construction traffic.” Ride carefully if you see one of these, because they are usually followed by mid-constructed bicycle lanes!
Zebras: pedestrians first!
It’s normal to feel super important when you’re on a bike all the time. Cars stop for you and pedestrians fear your bicycle bell. But, in the traffic hierarchy, pedestrians crossing on zebra crossing go first. So if you’re biking, and you see a zebra crossing in front of your, make sure you stop if you see any people trying to cross!
Tram lines: criss cross!!!
There are three things I have a deep and crippling fear towards: spiders; that one scene in Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring; and crossing a tram line while I’m on my bicycle.
No matter how many times I’ve done it, my pulse skyrockets when I have to cross a tram line. If you fall in one it’s almost a guarantee you will fall embarrassingly. Best way to cross a tram line while riding a bicycle in the Netherlands is to cross one as perpendicularly as possible. Here’s a handy picture to save your life in the future.
Did we miss something?
Well, that’s about it for the “do’s and don’ts” of riding a bicycle in The Netherlands. Hopefully, you’ll find this list useful if you’re new in this country. Riding a bicycle here is easy and incredibly safe. But of course, if you keep these handy tips in mind, I’m confident your biking experience will be considerably better.
Did we miss any important do’s and/or don’ts? If we did, let us know in the comment section below!
Feature Image: Stocksnap/Pixabay
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2018, and was fully updated in May 2021 for your reading pleasure.