The Netherlands is a small country and is famous for a lot of things such as clogs, cheese, stroopwafles, windmills, canals, tulips, nightlife, architecture, and bicycles. Cycling in Netherlands is an everyday activity, and the Dutch people don’t regard it as a special initiative. Cycling is normal and a daily routine which gets them going from A to B and B to C and so on.
Cycling for all:
Half of the Dutch population rides a bicycle and there are on an average about two bicycles in every household. People of all age groups, gender and economic status rides a bicycle. Even the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte is seen on a bicycle very often. And the members of the Dutch Royal Family – King Willem Alexander and Queen Maxima don’t feel shy to ride a bicycle. Rich or poor, everyone rides a bicycle as a matter of pride. Cycling is deeply engraved in the Dutch society and has a patriotic significance.
The culture of cycling is blessed with a dense network of cycle lanes (statistics suggest 35000 kms of dedicated cycle lanes) that run parallel to the roadways, cycling highways and dedicated cycle parking infrastructure. The cycle paths are distinguished with red colour asphalt with adequate road markings and signages. Some of the streets are declared cycle only lanes “Fietsstraat” (cycle streets) where no cars are allowed. While some streets have cars as guest and cyclists are welcomed as chief guests. Cycle routes are more direct and quicker compared to car routes which enormously saves time, CO2 emissions and encourages people to commute by bicycle.
Hundreds and thousands of cyclists use the cycle paths on a typical day. During peak hours the usage goes up substantially and there is cycle traffic at busy intersections. Over the years, cyclists have developed the art of communicating with the fellow riders. Using hand signals, subtle signs, gestures, and eye contact, they interact with each other using non-verbal communication. Cyclists in the physical environment have learnt to communicate effectively, use the facilities cohesively and developed a synergy amongst themselves. It’s almost like a visual symphony to see several cyclists passing by without conflicts and shared use of space.
The Dutch national government has provided a public bicycle rental scheme “OV-Fiets” for the last mile connectivity. OV-Fiets can be hired from a network of 300 stations using a NS card. But this rental scheme is open only for the Dutch citizens and not for the tourists. One can easily carry a bicycle in train free of cost or park it at the station as suitable – be it rented or owned. Apart from OV-Fiets, there are several private shops that give bicycles on rent, including cargo bikes.
About 17 million inhabitants live in the Netherlands and together they own nearly 23 million bicycles. The Dutch people ride for short and long distances depending upon their needs. Children cycle to school, moms to the supermarket, working population to office and elderly to stay fit and some others for recreational purposes. Everyone has a reason to ride that may change from time to time.
In terms of kilometres on an average a Dutch citizen rides for 1000 kms annually and together the cumulative figure for the entire population goes up to 15 bn kilometres per annum.
The physically challenged people also use the cycle lanes but on their custom-made trikes, scooters or ebikes. The cycling infrastructure ensures that those who are physically disabled remain mobile, active, and connected with the society. The cycling infrastructure is designed to be accessible, inclusive, and safe for everyone and no one is left out.
Another important observation to be noted is that the Dutch people don’t wear helmets while cycling. One straight reason is that it’s not mandatory under any law. Second, there’s no enforcement as such by the government. Thirdly, cities and rural areas are well connected with the cycling network which means cyclists are separated from road traffic and there are no major point of contacts other than at traffic lights, intersections and roundabouts. Cyclists have the right of way and in case of any collision the onus of proving not guilty is on the driver/motorist.
Another psychological reason suggests if people were to wear helmets, they will feel insecure and such a negative feeling may discourage them from cycling. A cyclist seen without a helmet is a symbol of safety, freedom, independence, and success of the Dutch cities cycling policies, budget allocations for cycling infrastructure and error free implementation. Hence most of the Dutch cyclists don’t wear a helmet since they find it to be safe and secure without it.
The Dutch cyclists have their own fashion sense. They ride their bikes wearing normal clothing. Bicycles with upright handles, step-through frames, skirt guards, chain guards and a comfy saddle makes it much convenient to ride without lycra. A famous phrase say’s “The Dutch people dress for the destination and not the journey”. Cycling in fashionable clothing makes a style statement and enhances street ambience. One Danish urbanist Mikael Colville Andersen coined a term “Cycle Chic” and even started a blog on this subject. To popularise cycle chic further, Mikael has a Instagram page called “Cycle Chic Republic” which is a visual repository of men and women riding a bike in everyday clothing.
I was amazed to see parents carrying their children on cargo bikes. In any other country people would be scared to do that due to lack of safety but it can easily be done in the Netherlands. Cargo bikes have a special usage in the cycling ecosystem for micro logistics. They are used for parcel deliveries, to transport goods, for grocery shopping, to run small businesses by entrepreneurs, to drop children to school and even to carry their pets. Cargo bikes provide a cost effective and eco-friendly alternative to vehicles. Cargo bikes have grown substantially in the last few years and more people are opting for it. There are parking spaces being designed to catch up with its rise and popularity in the future and some train stations already have parking slots for cargo bikes. I would love ride one on my next visit.
Prepare yourself to be overwhelmed with the cycling culture in the Netherlands. To experience it by yourself is a great idea, but first ensure that you know to ride a bicycle before you plan a trip to the cycling paradise. Enjoy the photo album.
You might also like to read my previous blog: WORLD BICYCLE DAY 2023 CELEBRATIONS IN THE HAGUE NETHERLANDS
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai