Before I came to the Netherlands I knew that cycling was a popular thing here. Now that I’m here I realize that I had no idea just how popular it is. There are more bikes than people to ride them and even the Dutch Royals cycle! Whereas most other cultures take to riding bikes as more of a fitness thing (I refer you to that one guy in the office that shows up every day in spandex carrying his helmet like Tom Cruise in top gun) The Dutch use it as a primary mode of transport. They cycle everywhere, to the shops, to work, to school and for fun. But how did this all begin? And why don’t we all do it?
Holland: The Flat Country
Well there are many factors that have contributed to making cycling such a big thing here. Firstly Holland is a famously flat country, and without those pesky hills getting in the way the whole time it makes it really easy to get around by bike. They also have these things called ‘living streets’ in most city centers. This essentially means ‘no cars allowed’ so the space is free for pedestrians and cyclists to use with ease. It may well be a shared area, but you definitely have to look out when you cross a living street or walk through the shopping districts or anywhere really, as I’m sure many a tourist to Amsterdam knows.
Secondly the whole country is designed to accommodate bikes with clearly visible bike tracks and lanes that snake through the countryside and along major road ways. This means it is as easy to get where you’re going on a bike as it is to drive and often quicker! Where I lived in England there were very few bike tracks and those didn’t even stretch the whole length of the street they were on. I know what you’re thinking though ‘I would love to ride a bike everywhere but there’s nowhere to leave it safely once I’ve arrived’. Well the Dutch have solved that little problem too. Parking your bike can be a hard task in other countries and you will often see bikes chained to every available post and railing.
While this is also true in The Netherlands, due mostly to the sheer numbers of bikes, they also put a lot of designated bike racks around. They have even built multistory bike parks in the most used pubic areas such as train stations and city centers. Clever right!
Why is the rest of the word not cycling like the Dutch?
I think the main reason the cycling culture hasn’t spread to other countries is that it is just not easy. Everyone has seen that cyclist desperately clinging to the shoulder of the road, being buffeted by the winds coming off the cars and trucks that speed round him, and just trying not to die let alone get where he wants to be. I haven’t done much cycling anywhere else but England and I reckon, no scratch that, I know that British motorists speed up when they see a cyclist on the road, and I’ve had many a nasty word thrown my way from a particularly pissed off driver. People can’t help but think ‘screw that’! No-one wants to risk their life just going one town over to do some shopping. But you are wrong, you should direct your frustration at the people that made it this way in the first place.
There are also so many rules and regulations that come with cycling I can’t help but feel that there’s some kind of plot to keep people off bikes (something to do with the declining motor industry perhaps). You must wear a helmet, you must have lights, you can’t ride on the pavement, you can’t ride on the road that’s for cars. I’ve had tickets for all the above. If I can’t ride on the pavement or the road where do I then! I realize that some of this is for safety, and as we all know safety first, but it’s a hassle getting all the extra gear. There’s this guy in NY that recorded himself riding into things in the cycle lane because the police fined him for not riding in it and I think this helmeted crusader is a hero for all of us who want a simpler cycling experience.
Saying that though Boris Johnson (the mayor of London for those of you that don’t know him) is trying his best, bless him, to promote cycling in the city. Good on ya Boris! I hope what you’ve cooking works better that the congestion charge. And there are those free bike sharing schemes in a lot more cities worldwide now, where you can pick up a bike in one place, drop it off in another and all the bikes are communal. If these sorts of schemes continue to develop maybe more people will be encouraged to take up cycling, and maybe we should all just copy the Dutch.
It is clearly a good thing that so many people cycle here because it’s good for you, better for the environment and cheaper than driving. If you are thinking of coming to Holland this is the way to see it. Get the wind in your hair, a panoramic view of the beautiful scenery and most importantly right of way!