Some More Thoughts on Bicycling in the Netherlands

I will try not to be too redundant with Michelle’s great summary of bicycling in the Netherlands, but one can’t travel from a place with sporadic, questionable bicycling infrastructure to the world leader and not say anything!

But first I do have to repeat just how amazingly pleasant it is to go anywhere.  Washington Bikes has been asking for people to write about their favorite ride or destination.  Mine is easy and too short for a blog post, though Michelle is now challenging me to do so.  It’s our church because it’s the only place we can go on neighborhood streets.  It’s pleasant though crossing the collectors still reminds one of the car-centric nature of everything.  The grocery store would almost be on the list but (1) it’s close enough that we walk, and (2) even it involves crossing an arterial, which is simply awful.  Every ride in the Netherlands was like the ride to our church, except better.

Second, they get it.  The planners/engineers get it.  The people (bicyclists, drivers) get it.  This isn’t news to anyone, but it’s hard to really understand what this means until one goes there and sees it.  The infrastructure just works, and we rode a pretty big range (from neighborhood streets with no separation to paths basically along highways).  There is cooperation between modes.  If a car comes up behind you on a neighborhood street, the driver doesn’t come up close or honk or any of that nonsense.  And when (and if) you get a chance, you let them through.  In the US, almost every moment is claiming space and self-defense to the point of forgetting that people might actually be able to work together.  There were many times where I was comfortable where I wouldn’t have been with the identical situation back home.

One design point from this: intersections are always at least as protected as the roads leading to them.  Normal bike lanes lead to protected intersections (and “protected” here means buffers and separate signals designed for the intersection, not cookie-cutter copies of the “protected intersection” graphic/video going around these days).  We’ve got this backwards where we seem to be fixated on the roads and often neglect the intersections.  Here’s an extreme example of no infrastructure leading to a separated path (though to be fair this is a pretty quiet street hitting a major one):

Third, it’s hard to imagine how many bikes there are.  Pictures and video give a pretty good idea of this.  They’re everywhere, and people don’t run into each other in intersections and plazas.  Seeing the sheer number led me to realize a number of things about handling it.  Bikes on buses?  Not where we were.  It simply doesn’t scale; bikes are too big (except folding ones).  So while it can be handy here and might help attract the next new wave of riders, I wonder how good of an investment it is.  (I don’t know how expensive those 2-bike to 3-bike conversions on the buses were, so maybe it doesn’t matter much.)  On trains?  Yes, but it will cost you 7,5€ (about US $8.25) one-way, so it’s for special occasions.  Then there’s parking.  The train stations are known for having lots of very good parking, but things get interesting in other places.  We’ve gotten very picky about our parking here, but our solutions (like widely spaced staples) take way too much space.  In dense areas, there needs to be a row (or rows!) of bikes pretty much touching all the way down the row.  In fact, often it takes some luck to find anything to lock to at all, so a lot of just wheel-locking is done.

In fact, I think it might be safe to say that the law of induced demand, which we love to refer to when discussing the expansion of highways, applies to bike parking.  The Delft train station houses a lot of bikes overnight.  Grocery store racks were over half full after closing.  It’s a bit annoying and feels wasteful, but it still comes out way ahead compared to space for car parking (not to mention the road space to get the cars there).

Last is pedestrian infrastructure.  In city centers things are fine because pedestrians (and bicycles) pretty much go everywhere.  Busy roads will have separate bicycle and pedestrian paths.  At the other end, it doesn’t really matter in the quietest places.  However, we found the middle area to be remarkably inconsistent.  Sidewalks would end without warning.  This picture from the Delft/Rijswijk border shows the priorities pretty nicely:

priorities on a narrow bridge

priorities on narrow bridges

The bike path continue on both sides.  The car lanes are reduced to a shared single lane.  From the camera’s view, the nearest part of the road only has a pedestrian path on the right side.  The bridge only has a pedestrian path on the left side.  (And unfortunately we were then turning right immediately after the bridge so we would have to cross back.)  And well back behind the camera, the pedestrian path flips sides again.  On the bright side, the merge point provides a pedestrian island.  And more importantly, the overall culture of careful driving trumps it all and makes it work out.

Bicycling in the Netherlands, as seen by an American family cyclist

We recently spent most of two weeks in the Netherlands, where we rented bikes to use as our primary transportation. The house where we were staying was just a little too far from anything, and we really didn’t want to deal with moving a car about or installing carseats for the kids, and I hear people cycle in the Netherlands anyway, so bikes it was.

And what a joy it is to bike in the Netherlands! The first day there we walked into Delft, and I was intensely jealous of all of the families I saw cycling along the canals. A few days later, we were one of those families. It was so nice to be in a place where biking with one’s kids is normal, not something that those weird people do. We saw many people biking with an empty kid seat on the back. It’s just what you do there.

Apparently it’s not so normal to rent bikes for an entire week. We walked into the bike shop in a pouring rainstorm and announced that we’d like to rent some bikes, and the fellow there said, “In this weather? Are you from Vancouver Island or something?” which is not so far off. But once we had them we were able to go everywhere, and the weather was mostly fine. We rode around Delft, but we also rode to the tram stop, and to the train station, where we’d catch a train to, well, anywhere (mostly Amsterdam, with train service every 15 minutes)(15 minutes!).

The bike parking at this train station was really something. Shortly after our return we saw this video posted from Bicycle Dutch (via CityLab), which means that we don’t need to write that blog post:

Really. That was our train station.

Our 6yo mostly biked herself around. It’s easy – most of the bike paths are separated from motor vehicle traffic, and for those that aren’t, the intersections are protected. And the signals! They automatically sense bikes, and have a separate light for the bike, but if the sensor doesn’t catch you, there’s a button placed with easy access for cyclists. So easy.

The wheel locks that are built into Dutch bikes are really handy. I want to put one on my bike here.

The mamafiets was amazingly easy to ride. I’d heard that Dutch bikes are heavy, so I was a little nervous about biking my babies around without electric assist, but this bike was significantly lighter than what I ride at home, so no problem. We loaded Mark’s bakfiets down with all the gear. The step through frame makes a huge difference in the ease of getting on and off while loaded with kids. It rode smoothly and easily.

It’s no joke that the Netherlands is flat, and that flatness is part of what makes cycling work. The biggest climbs we found were manmade. There was the climb out of the train station parking garage, and one day we rode over a motorway. Speaking of the route out of the train station: did you note that the path goes right along the canal? And that there are no barriers? That did make me a little nervous, but nobody rode into the canal, so all is fine.

Bikes allow for some sprawl. Housing that’s not walking distance to anything still can work if you have a bike. This means that communities don’t need to be as compact. But the Dutch are very efficient, so even the suburbs are fairly compact, as suburbs go. It was about a mile and a half to the grocery store, and similar to the train station – too far to walk, annoying to drive, but easy on a bike.

It’s easy to bike in the Netherlands. It’s flat, the streets are safe, and it’s perfectly normal.

(photo by my mom)