In the Netherlands, there are more bicycles than people. How come? It is a small, crowded country. If everyone drove a car, there wouldn’t be enough room. In the last hundred years, while the car culture grew as it did in the U.S., the far-sighted Dutch developed an alternative: bicycles. What does it mean when riding bicycles becomes a major social policy with broad support over many generations?
The Dutch have built a safe and convenient nationwide infrastructure for bicycles (fiets, in Dutch). The bike path in the picture on the right is part of a continuous (as in unbroken) network of thousands of miles of bicycle paths throughout the Netherlands. OpenFietsKaart (open bike map): The regular bicycle paths (fietspadden) are in blue; the designated long distance cycle paths (langeafstandsfietsroutes) are in green. In other words, you can go anywhere on a bike that you could go in a car without stopping for cars or red lights. Ever.
Where are the cars, then?
Below is a bird’s eye view via Google Earth of an example of how the bike paths relate to the car lanes in Leiden, the town I lived in just south of Amsterdam. All the red-paved lanes are for bikes only. Note the roundabout and the tunnels under the roadway. Note the convergence near the top where the car and bike lanes go over the Rhine River. The bicycle infrastructure is parallel but separate and you can see for yourself that it is clean. It is also safe. According to the International Road Traffic and Accident Database, the Netherlands has the safest roads of several dozen industrialized countries. Over a hundred cyclists die per year, but per mile traveled, it’s a very safe activity. Did I mention that it’s healthier than sitting in a car?
What about convenience?
The picture below left shows the parking lot at the main train station in Amsterdam. People ride one bike to the train, take the train to where they work, and ride another bike to work. Thus, this parking lot has the bikes of people who live in Amsterdam but work elsewhere, as well as the bikes of people who live elsewhere but work in Amsterdam. No matter that people in other countries have so many myths and excuses: narrow streets, population spread over great distances, cheap gas, hills, snow, and on and on. According to the Dutch Cyclists’ Union, on any given day in the Netherlands, 5 million cyclists make around 14 million cycle journeys. That’s in a country of 16 million people. They ride in the cold, in the rain, and in the snow. They ride to work. They’ve been doing it for a long time. In short, Amsterdam Loves Bikes!
One area where so much biking has a curious effect is in the independence of teenagers. In a car culture, people younger than the driving age are dependent on someone else to drive them in a car. Or they take public transportation, which can be expensive. Dutch kids have an alternative. At a very early age and certainly as teenagers, Dutch kids get on their bikes, go around the corner, and they’re gone! They are independent of their parents in a way that they seem to enjoy. And speaking of close observation. Look again at the two pictures on the left of people biking. They don’t wear bike helmets in the Netherlands, either.
Another effect is health. Given all that exercise, to say nothing of great pre-natal care and a diet full of cheese, the Dutch kids grow to be the tallest people in the world.
If you’re interested in learning more, here are some bike parking pics and a collection of images: Amsterdam Bicycles, (82 pictures of bicycles taken during 73 minutes on 9/12/06 in Amsterdam, Netherlands).
BicycleDutch YouTube channel
Best Dutch bike video: