More Thoughts from the Netherlands

So much has already been said about cycling in Amsterdam in various blogs that there’s not much more I can add to the general amazement at all the bikes and all the people on bikes and all the different kinds of bikes and the little kids on bikes with stabilisers cycling right in the middle of a big city and, well, just, you know, bikes. Everywhere. However, now that the general amazement has worn off, a few points have occurred to me thinking back over our weekend trip:

1. It’s actually quite stressful to cycle in Amsterdam, due to all the bikes. We’re not really used to sharing our cycle paths with anything other than the odd dog walker and maybe another cyclist coming the other way. Trying to insert yourself into a flow of bike-borne traffic,* especially when you’re still instinctively looking the wrong way at junctions, can lead to you learning some interesting new Dutch swear words. And once in, it’s even harder to stop with all those silent bikes coming up behind you. Best just to go with the flow, and hope that eventually you will find some way to escape.

2. Scooters in the bike lane are a nightmare. Stressfulness aside, and even with the odd hapless looking-the-wrong-way visiting bike blogger in the mix, in truth everyone seemed to rub along fairly well in the maelstrom, just swerving out of the way when necessary and adjusting their speed to meet the conditions, but the scooters just blast along regardless, weaving through everyone else. As one of our party commented, the only good thing about it is that it makes the Dutch seem a bit human because otherwise everything would be a bit too perfect. Of course, we may be biased because we’d barely arrived before all four of us were almost wiped out by a scooter blasting round a corner at high speed.

3. The Dutch have an inalienable right to cycle side by side with their mates. I knew that they had nice wide cycle paths so that you could cycle side by side, but I hadn’t realised just how ingrained this was into cycling culture – it is not considered a nice-to-have. Not just on the nice wide out of town paths, but right in the middle of the city where there are meandering tourists and scooters and people in a hurry also using the bike lanes, there will be two Dutch cyclists going at a stately pace side by side, chatting away. I consider this a mark of the highest civilisation.

* At the Vondelpark, where the central path is basically a huge river of bikes, we watched a Dutch dad launch his young son on what appeared to be his first stabiliser-less maiden voyage into the endless stream. I suppose that’s the way to learn to cope – but it did strike us as being similar to teaching someone to drive on the M25.


12 Responses to More Thoughts from the Netherlands

  1. John Gibson says:

    I never drove a car until I was 42. I passed my driving test in 1998.
    I wished I had had some lessons on the M25, I would have packed it in as pointless.

  2. Jim Moore says:

    Yes, Amsterdam’s streets are a ‘swirling vortex of terror” to noobs, but Vondelpark is the chillin’ EAC, dude!

    Squirt: Whoa! That was so cool! Hey, Dad! Did you see that? Did you see me? Did you see what I did?
    Crush: You so totally rock, Squirt! So gimme some fin.
    [they slap fins]
    Crush: Noggin’.
    [bump heads]
    Squirt, Crush: Dude!

  3. There’s much more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam, most of the Netherlands is like Milton Keynes but with actual proper well thought out provision. So much of the Netherlands wasn’t built until recently and it’s been done very well, get out into the burbs and amaze at the innovative and space age design of the houses, you push down on your pedal and the surface is so smooth, you barely need to make any effort.
    Historical Cities like Utrecht or Leiden are buzzing but not as crazy as Amsterdam, you see countless kids on bikes, it’s quiet because there’s no traffic noise and on the whole, it’s funny feeling being in the heart of a buzzing city, where you can hear church bells, see people absolutely every where but unless you are waiting with a huge cloud of cyclists from 4 years old up to 90 years old, it’s not that busy.
    The side by side thing, you get used to too, as well as seeing mums riding next to their kids with one hand on their shoulder, something I wish I could do more here but the pavements are too narrow.
    In a month I’m moving to Utrecht, selfishly, because I want to give my kids that life, in a city full of families where they are taking out the traffic, closing the motorway through the centre and giving the city back to the people. I can’t wait.

  4. My daughter and her husband honeymooned in Amsterdam at the end of March, and although she said they would rent bikes when they got there, in the end they didn’t cycle at all, for the very reasons you mentioned. Although he cycles around Edinburgh quite a bit, she hasn’t really done much if any cycling as an adult, and she said it was just too confusing for her to try it. A pity, she is a natural for that kid of lifestyle and with two young daughters would take to a local cycling culture like a fish to water, if it were easy for non-confident riders to get around in Edinburgh – which it isn’t, particularly.

  5. disgruntled says:

    I felt a bit disloyal posting this, because I don’t want to imply that it isn’t great for cycling – just that it takes some getting used to. And big cities are big cities however bike friendly they are…

    I agree that the rest of the Netherlands is different (well, Assen and Groeningen which are the bits I’ve seen) and much calmer – almost blissful to cycle in.

  6. juliusbeezer says:

    Yes, well done for reporting on the reality of cycling in The Netherlands: it is no cycle paradise, however much cycle campaigners elsewhere would like it to be. Not being able to cycle the most direct route on the road (cyclists are banned from using the roads) makes the place a non-starter as a model for elsewhere in my opinion.
    If you want a nice cycling holiday, can I suggest France? The difference is in the general respect for the cyclist, which is possibly related to the Tour de France, and also, perhaps, their extremely demanding driving license qualification, not to mention la loi Badinter de 1985 (basically, it’s always the driver’s fault). You are free to use all parts of a very nice smooth and well-signposted road system. Every so often, you’ll see a sign that says “Partageons la route!” (Share the road!). Absolument! Soyez la bienvenue chez nous!

    • Paul M says:

      I cycle a fair bit in France and all I can really say for it is that it is better than the UK. Potholes are a rarity, most roads are quieter (far more kilometrage per head of pop, being three times the area of the UK) and up to a point French drivers are more respectful.

      Up to a point. I have been close-passed plenty, and their pinch points are every bit as bracing as our own. French drivers seem constitutionally incapable of observing speed limits, or of driving nicely behind a car already doing at or above the limit – they have to overtake even if they only plan to go 0.5 kph faster.

      Common or garden utility cycling is almost as unusual there as here, except perhaps in holiday resorts where people are generally adopting a vacationer mode of life for a brief time. I see even fewer female cyclists, especially among the club groups out in their lycra and racing bikes – at least they are less in thrall to the plastic hat.

      I think that if statistics tell any story at all, France, while definitely more dangerous on the roads overall, is safer for cyclists and pedestrians, ie there are more motorists deaths, especially among the young. Our local edition of Ouest France will almost certainly have three or four cases of motorists who have “trouvé la mort” in a typical week in the one departement. Motorcyclists/scooterists seem to die by the hundred but I suspect the KSI per billion km is no worse than ours.

  7. disgruntled says:

    Sorry Julius, absolutely cannot agree with you there. Cyclists are not banned from the roads in the Netherlands, unless there’s a cycle path alongside it, and in many cases the most direct route is the cycle route, while the cars have to go the long way round. And I’ve cycled in France too and I can tell you that I’ve had close passes and disrespect from motorists there just as I have in the UK. Sure it’s not perfect in the Netherlands and I don’t want to pretend it is but, the odd motor scooter aside, it’s still many times better than the conditions on the roads we get here, and almost everywhere else in Europe.

    (PS read my blog a little more carefully and you’ll see I’m one of those dreaded cycle campaigners calling for more Dutch provision here)

  8. Philip says:

    Except for a small reference to the motor scooter, the blog’s description of the negatives of the Amsterdam experience of riding a bike are descriptions of it being a victim of its success, i.e. the fact that there are just so many people. I suspect Julius is displaying the true opinion of many holders of his perspective – a few more cyclists like him, ‘yes’, but the mass of the public on a bike, ‘no thanks, keep the riff-raff out of my way’.

  9. disgruntled says:

    It is amazing how many people cycle in the Netherlands if it’s really that inconvenient… unlike, say, in France…

  10. […] you read the comments to my last post you’ll see how lucky I am to still have this right, unlike the poor beleaguered Dutch cyclist […]

  11. Andy in Germany says:

    I didn’t find it that bad in Amsterdam, except for the few minutes I was cycling around the block to get used to my shiny new Bakfiets on a road and nearly got run over three times; once by a street clearner.
    When we got to Utrecht one of the cyclists even led us through the city so we’d get to our camp site before it got too dark. Keeping up with him was hard work…
    We have the same problem with scooters on cycleways in Germany. It seems that because they are too low powered to keep up with traffic, they go illegally onto cycleways to terrorise people that are slower than them.

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