When people ask what I like most about living in the Netherlands, my immediate, no-thinking-required answer is, ‘The bicycling!’ This doesn’t mean that there aren’t tons of things I love about living here, of course – but it does mean that, hands-down, the thing that stands out the most is how pleasant, convenient and easy it is to get around here on two self-powered wheels.
When we arrived, even though we were expecting bicycling to be a big thing, the sheer magnitude of bicycles was a bit overwhelming. Leaving the train station, it was immediately clear that bicycles ruled the road, and that both cars and pedestrians were lower in the pecking order (the possible equal to the bicycle is public transportation, mainly because the buses can fill the narrow streets so completely that bicycles often must make room!). At any rate, one of our first orders of business here was buying secondhand bicycles, and although we had a bit of a learning curve, we quickly became adept at bicycling nearly everywhere we go.
Freedom and joy
The thing I love most about riding a bicycle is that it feels like flying. When you’re pedaling along on a nice flat road, with your wheels whirring smoothly underneath you and the wind blowing through your hair, it just feels like freedom to me. Especially if I’ve had a stressful day at work, I love the feeling of getting on to my bicycle and pushing off – leaving my cares and the awkward plodding of two feet behind. There is sometimes rush hour traffic, but usually I find a bit of open road where I can relax a bit, while enjoying the feeling of floating home.
On top of this, I really enjoy being able to bicycle everywhere and for everything. It always feels special to bike to a dinner and movie date with Phil, or to meet up with friends on a Saturday night. It is also fun to ride home with friends after a night out – continuing good conversations by bicycle, and calling goodbye as they peel off, one by one, on their own individual paths home.
Downhill both ways – in all kinds of weather
At any rate, somehow the Dutch have fully embraced the love of bicycling, and have made it part of their cultural identity, which is amazing to experience. There are more bicycles than people in the Netherlands (one bicycle apiece is clearly not enough!) and life here seems largely built around the activity. One of the benefits of bicycling in the Netherlands is that the country is notoriously flat (as the ‘lowlands’ that give the country its name). This means that the only ‘hills’ one generally experiences are those created by bicycling into the stiff wind (though these are not to be underestimated!).
The other benefit to biking here is that the warmer water of the Gulf Stream and proximity to the North Sea keep the climate quite mild and regulated. Much like the weather on the West Coast of North America, the weather is seldom very hot in the summer, or very cold in the winter, making it relatively easy to bike through (compared to the challenges of bicycling in the winter in Minneapolis – possible, but not for the faint of heart!). Although the geography is also notorious for producing a lot of rain, the Dutch are quite adept at dealing with it all – throwing on a rain suit and getting out there no matter what the weather.
Having fully embraced the bicycle as a central mode of transportation, the Dutch have also worked to make the experience as easy and pleasant as possible here in the Netherlands, which is a dream.
First, most roads have a dedicated bicycle lane. Most city thoroughfares have a well-marked bike lane going in both directions along with traffic. Often the lane is completely separated from the road – either by a curb, or sometimes with a median between traffic and the bike lane. Other times it is on the same plane as car traffic, but is well delineated with painted lines or red-colored paint or bricks. There are also ubiquitous traffic signals for bicycles, along with those for cars and pedestrians – so bicycles always have personalized traffic instructions to keep them operating smoothly and safely with the rest of traffic.
In addition, the roads connecting towns and villages nearly always have a well-maintained bicycle path running separately and parallel to the road – so if you can drive there, you can bike there! On our second Thanksgiving here, a Dutch friend very kindly invited us to a full-fledged Thanksgiving dinner at his place in the next town over from Utrecht. Being November, it was a cool, blustery, ~45-minute bicycle ride there – but the food and hospitality was so welcome when we arrived, and the post-dinner food coma was so completely vanquished on the bicycle ride back home, that I decided a Thanksgiving bicycle ride would be a great annual tradition!
Not only is there excellent infrastructure for riding bicycles here, but there’s excellent infrastructure for parking them. There are many municipal bicycle parking garages which usually allow you to park free for the first 24 hours. In these and other epicenters of bicycle parking (like the train station or the university) there are rather ingenious double-decker bike parking racks. Here you can lock your bicycle in a rack below, or lift them above with a mechanically assisted rack. (Phil loves these, and although I have a bit more trouble throwing my heavy bike up there, it is nice to have the option when needed.)
Utrecht has also made the international news lately, for building the world’s largest bicycle garage, in conjunction with an ongoing project to completely renovate the central train station. The garage is opening in phases, and although the first 6,000+ spaces are available now, by the end of 2018 there will be 12,500 spaces for cyclists to park on their way to the train. Phil and I stopped by the newly opened garage for the first time last weekend, and it was really quite impressive – with tons of spaces already in use, and curving ramps allowing you to bike between levels, just like in a car parking garage. Again – it is all free for the first 24 hours, which is incredibly convenient for people like me, who need a place for their bicycles during the workday when commuting by train!
At any rate, there is quite a bit more about bicycling in the Netherlands that makes it enjoyable – including how seamlessly it is worked into daily life, and how it impacts Dutch society as a whole – but I’ll talk a bit more about it all next week.
In the meantime, I am interested to hear what you think. Have you biked in the Netherlands? If so what were/are your impressions? If you haven’t, does it seem like something you would like to try? And would it be possible to bring any of this experience back across the pond? Let me know in the comments – I’m interested to hear your thoughts!