Going Dutch, by bike

“The Dutch are born on a bicycle” was the mantra we heard time and again during our six-day sojourn in the flattest and possibly most cycling-friendly of countries.

Women ride bikes with their children in Utrecht. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Women ride bikes with their children in Utrecht.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We all know the timeworn – and eternally beloved – scenario of the Jewish mother holding her baby and dreaming about little Moshe or Sarah becoming a doctor, dentist, lawyer or accountant.
It appears the Dutch equivalent runs something along the lines of, “Let’s get little Johan/Anika on a bike ASAP.”
“The Dutch are born on a bicycle” was the mantra we heard time and again during our six-day sojourn in the flattest and possibly most cycling-friendly of countries, at the behest of the Dutch government.
(By the way, the Danish may contest the latter epithet, and there appears to be pretty fierce competition between the Dutch and the Danes over the unofficial global cycling hegemony. But it is apparently an amicable “squabble,” and it certainly produces positive, health-supportive and definitively green energies.) There were five of us on the cozy Israeli press tour and we spent time meeting industry leaders, municipal transportation infrastructure officials, designers and various entrepreneurs in Amsterdam and Utrecht; there were also highly instructive and enjoyable visits to the towns of Houten and Maarn in the Utrecht environs. It was an unadulterated eye-opener from beginning to end and, to tell the truth, left me both enthused and more than a little envious.
Prior to this year’s Sovev Tel Aviv mass cycling event, which took place in mid-October, Dutch Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp noted: “For people from the Netherlands, cycling is a natural thing to do. We grow up with it; we have almost 35,000 kilometers of bicycle lanes throughout the country. A quarter of all Dutch citizens use the bicycle to go to work every day.” Incidentally, Veldkamp and most of the embassy staff who were due to take part in the Tel Aviv ride – naturally in orange shirts – were prevented from doing so due to an unusually ferocious cloudburst.
We hardly felt a drop of precipitation during our week in the Netherlands, and the country basked in unusually mild weather as the sun filtered through the multi-hued autumnal foliage. A refreshing constitutional in Amsterdam’s Rembrandt Park on the first morning revealed a large number of cyclists crisscrossing the pathways, presumably on their way to work or college. The sheer volume of Dutch who use environmentally friendly, quiet, quintessentially healthy, human-powered means of transportation was gradually becoming apparent.
Our post-prandial morning session with representatives of the Royal Dutch Touring Club (a.k.a. ANWB) added considerable statistical weight to the scenes from the park across the road. The ANWB was established in 1883 and has around four million members. “We are a cycling nation,” we were told, and advised there is “mutual respect” between Dutch on their way hither or thither, between cyclists and pedestrians, cars, buses and trams. “Streets are public spaces, not just traffic routes,” said the ANWB official.
The Dutch have a long history of cycling, starting in the 19th century. While in Utrecht we cycled along the country’s first bike path, opened in 1885, and literally everywhere you go there are cycling arteries available to get you from A to B safely. I did not see any sidewalks with cycle routes designated as such only by signposts and painted markings, as one finds in, for example, Tel Aviv and Vienna – though the latter also has its fair share of cyclists. All the bike lanes were fully segregated from the danger posed by motorists.
In fact, the only danger Dutch cyclists are subjected to is themselves. On the last day in Amsterdam, I witnessed the result of a crash between two cyclists. No one, it seemed, was seriously hurt – though the middle-aged gent sitting on the ground looked more than a little dazed. While of course any accident is regrettable, a collision of two cyclists is less likely to have serious consequences compared with those resulting from an unwanted encounter between a human-powered – or even electric – two-wheeler, and a motorized vehicle traveling at a far greater speed.
The cycling figures in the Netherlands are truly astounding.
It is rumored that New Zealand has more sheep than human beings; for Holland, in place of woolly creatures, read bicycles. Cycling calmly along the pleasant canal-side bike lanes in Amsterdam, one sees houses with more than their fair share of bicycles and kids’ scooters, chained up by the front door. “Often, you find that families of four have six bikes,” notes Ria Hilhorst, policy adviser at the Municipality of Amsterdam’s Directorate of Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation.
The statistics Hilhorst reeled off in her presentation made for impressive listening and reading. It appears Amsterdam has 800,000 residents and the same number of bicycles.
Half a million people who live in Amsterdam cycle daily to school, work, the store or just for leisure purposes, clocking up an accumulative 2.3 million km. a day in the city. In Amsterdam as a whole, 32 percent bike their way to and from their various destinations, 22% go by car and 16% use public transportation.
The preference for bicycles as the mode of transportation is even more striking in the city center, where a full 48% get around by bike, 14% by car and 10% via public transportation. The healthy mobility approach is also reflected in the fact that 27% of people in Amsterdam get around on Shanks’s pony, while 25% walk in the center of town. In this steering wheel-mad country of ours, one can only dream of such statistics.
Holland’s largest city also endeavors to ensure maximum safety for cyclists by installing special mirrors at traffic lights, to solve “black spot” problems at potentially dangerous intersections, and many roads have speed limits of 30 kph or 50 kph.
In truth – and pardon the topographic incongruity – cycling in Holland has known its ups and downs over the years. It really took off in the 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II when fuel was scarce.
Then prosperity hit in the 1960s and the number of cars increased dramatically, leading to diminishing use of bicycles and greater pollution, while traffic accidents reached unprecedented numbers.
When the oil crisis kicked in during the 1970s, the Dutch as a whole also took to the streets to protest the rising number of road fatalities, and to reclaim urban streets and rural road space for bicycles. The accident level duly dropped, and the country has never looked back.
In addition to being cycle-centric, the Dutch also have a keen sense of aesthetics. Increasingly, bicycle manufacturers in the Netherlands are producing attractive human-powered – some electrically assisted – two-wheelers that offer visual delights as well as environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
The Gazelle (pronounced “Chazelleh”) Experience Center near Utrecht was packed with delightful models, some with a distinctly retro feel. And, as bicycles in Holland are used almost purely for A to B purposes, the company offers all sorts of practical solutions for ferrying items and children around on two wheels. Gazelle manufactures around 300,000 bikes a year and is looking to spread its wares across the globe. The company’s product range includes unwieldy cargo bikes, which can accommodate several children or plenty of shopping, bikes with baskets and bikes with kiddie seats.
There are also some zippy electric models on offer, which require a minimum of pedaling.
Back in Amsterdam, the fledgling Fietsklik venture (fiets is Dutch for bicycle) has come up with a nifty detachable, expanding luggage box which, the owners say, can take a full crate of beer. That could come in handy if you want to pop over to a friend’s party by bike.
Then there’s the Vanmoof bicycle-manufacturing enterprise, in downtown Amsterdam, whose stated intent is to “pursue one goal and one goal only: helping the ambitious city dweller move around town faster, more confidently and in the utmost style.” The Vanmoof chiefs clearly have at least one eye constantly trained on aesthetics, and have also come up with some compact anti-theft solutions.
While you might logically assume that having so many people getting around town and between cities by bike is a boon for one and all, there are some serious logistical conundrums to be tackled, too. For starters, how do you ensure the millions of cyclists have somewhere convenient and safe to park their bikes while at work or school, doing their shopping or watching a movie?
In Utrecht, I saw someone using an electric rotating saw to cut through a bicycle chain. Intrigued that no one appeared particularly bothered by this seeming act of theft, I noticed the “thief” was wearing an official- looking, very visible lemon-colored vest. It transpired that the saw operator was a municipal employee who was hired to go around town impounding illegally or unsuitably parked bicycles. “The cyclist comes to claim his or her bike and they have to pay a 13-euro fine,” he explained. “That’s not a lot of money, but it is a deterrent.”
Utrecht has a serious bike parking problem, and is now constructing what is claimed to be the world’s most capacious bicycle parking facility, designed to accommodate 12,000 bikes. For now, as in Amsterdam and other cities and towns around Holland, Utrecht has some safe underground daily bike storage facilities.
Dutch cycling use also includes riding to railway stations, leaving your bike in the one of the aforementioned parking facilities, and picking it up on your way back home. The system seems to work well and, if you are lucky enough to find a parking place, your trusty two-wheeled steed is protected from the elements as well as opportunistic thieves.
Bicycle theft is a problem in Amsterdam, for example, although it seems the owners are not always devastated at finding their bike is no more. Typically, the Dutch don’t shell out thousands on their bikes and, if you haven’t spent an arm and a leg on your favored mode of transport, its albeit unwanted disappearance is a little easier to take – and replace.
Not only are the Dutch “born on a bicycle,” they also get the requisite road safety training early on.
Our trip to Holland included a foray to the De Ladder elementary school in the small town of Maarn, where we saw children of all ages gaining important age-tailored education on such safe transportation aspects as using seat belts in cars, vehicle braking distances and bicycle maneuvering skills.
The most cycle-friendly location we visited was the town of Houten, which one might say literally grew out of its network of cycle paths. Houten has been around for around two millennia and can trace its origins back to Roman times, and there are still some buildings around from the 16th century. However, it is largely a new town, with massive development starting in the 1960s. The town’s core is a green belt through which the vast majority of local residents pedal their way to and fro, far from the noise and pollution of the periphery road. No wonder that in 2008, Houten was awarded the title of Fietsstad – Top Bike City of the Netherlands.
And if you are planning on spending a few days in Amsterdam, you could do worse than staying at the Student Hotel, which is not just for students.
The hotel has more a youth hostel feel to it, and the designers have done a pretty good job, with bright and breezy spots dotted all around the premises. The study area on the ground floor, for example, has a tiled message on one of the walls that reads: “The beach is boring.” “That,” cheerily explains hotel marketing director Frank Uffen, “is to encourage the students to study.”
Naturally, there are roomy parking facilities for bicycles in the hotel basement. Visitors may rent bikes there and, if you happen to decide to study in Amsterdam and opt to live at the hotel for over a year, you will be provided with a bike free of charge.
Wouldn’t it be swell if we all could go Dutch?