The Dutch Bicycle Culture

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The first time we saw the miles of bicycle networks and bicycle traffic in the Netherlands was 9 years ago, with a then 1 year old in a pack on our back. We had decided to backpack for a few months with a toddler, some would think we were insane, but it was a blast.  Our first stop was Amsterdam, it was the shortest direct flight from our then home in Vancouver. Vancouver at that time was just going through the beginning of a bicycle revolution, and it was a hot topic. Every Starbucks seemed to have a very heated conversation about the one bicycle lane going into downtown, That Burrard bridge bicycle lane took up so much newspaper space it was ridiculous, but it was a contentious issue for every car commuter driving in and out of downtown.

We spent our first morning in Amsterdam watching the city slowly wake up, and come alive with early morning bicycle commuters, then the “heavy” traffic of parents and grandparents shuttling kids around to school and daycare drop off. We watched all parents riding with their babies on bicycles and the odd looking (at the time) bakfiets. It was mesmerizing.  when in Amsterdam, we decided to rent some bicycles. At the time, we couldn’t find a place to rent a bakfiets, so we opted for 2 bikes and a baby seat up front. No helmets, just the security of separate bicycle lanes. Our son screamed with joy the whole day in that little bicycle front seat with a little screen, and cried when he had to leave his lovely perch. It was the most freeing experience in any city, to ride safely, to have your own traffic lights, to have right of way, to not even share the bicycle “road” with pedestrians, and dogs on retractable leashes, to get lost in the beauty of your surroundings because you are actually biking upright, slowly, chatting, and still getting exercise.

We soon discovered that no matter where we went in the Netherlands, a bicycle was still the easiest, most convenient option.

We have gotten lost several times, which seems to be a family tradition every time we are in the Netherlands. But people are friendly, and get us back to where we are supposed to be.

Time after time, we have gone back to the Netherlands and seen the expansive network of bicycle paths, the insane bicycle parking. The Mother’s and Father’s riding with their kids. The pack of kids who ride to school together chatting and joking. The throngs of people in suits on their way to work with their purses and briefcases in their baskets. Everyone is dressed for their destination, not their bicycles.

There is an ease to this morning commute, it looks so much happier, even in the rain, people are talking, laughing, hitching rides, slowing down, and enjoying life. Don’t get me wrong, there is still some swearing, especially to the insane Canadian tourist who had to relearn to use coaster brakes… yes, I had a wee accident, and a very angry throng of Dutch behind me swearing at me, until I turned around laughing and said in English “I am so sorry, I haven’t used a coaster break since I was 7.” all was forgiven.

That is the thing, the Dutch are a land of people who happen to ride bicycles, they aren’t cyclists, it isn’t something they are forcing, it is just natural, instinctive and quite frankly, a  lovely part of Dutch culture.

So why can’t we figure out how to replicate it?

A Few things I have learned about Dutch Riding:

There is no right or wrong attire, if you see someone in gym clothes, it is because they are going to a class. If you see someone in a suit or heels, they are going to a meeting, or work. simple as that.

Everyone owns and rides a bicycle, including the King and Queen, which in a sense, has cut out the class system. You don’t know by someone’s bicycle who they are, what they do, it just doesn’t cross your mind, you simply don’t care, but you do say good morning, you do say “have a good day”. In Canada, there is a preconceived notion that if you are riding a bicycle, you can’t afford to own a car. That is slowly changing, but it still amazes me how many people ask why we personally bike, or if we need a lift somewhere. I don’t know about you, but I love riding a bike because it makes me happy. I don’t enjoy grocery shopping every week, but I love getting on the bakfiets and riding to the store and getting fresh air. It has been a choice of happiness.

Dutch kids grow up on a bicycle, and are trained early on the rules of the road. We watched parents out on several Sunday mornings, riding beside their kids, instructing them to stop, to ring their bells, to signal. It is rare to see that in Canada. A few weeks ago a driver had to yell out “I’m sorry, I don’t know my hand signals.” Which was a little surprising. We seem to teach our kids the act of riding a bicycle, but nothing around it, but expect them to quit biking once they have their drivers licence.

When asking some Dutch friends why they use a bicycle, they laughed and replied to me “because we are too lazy to walk.”




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