From our Chair: Bicycling in the Netherlands, Part 1

– By ECGA Board Chair, Robert Spiegelman

As an avid cyclist with the opportunity to travel with my bike, I have found my favorite place: The Netherlands.

Bike parking near a train station.

Bike parking near a train station.

While in the United States most people on bikes are hobbyists, children, or people without another means of transportation, virtually everyone in The Netherlands — young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural — rides a bike. They ride for transportation, and they are able to ride because the culture and the infrastructure make it possible.

Most people wear their regular clothes and do not wear helmets when bicycling due to low speeds and bicycle-friendly infrastructure

Most people wear regular clothes and do not wear helmets when bicycling due to low speeds and bicycle-friendly infrastructure.

In the 180 days I have spent in The Netherlands, I have yet to see a crash, fender bender, or a person fall, even though I saw hundreds, if not a few thousand, of people on bikes every day.

The infrastructure has been designed with strong consideration for bicyclists. Most importantly, people in cars drive slowly and bicyclists have priority on the roads. Most roads have a bike lane or a designated bike path next to the road and a path for pedestrians. Busier roads have paths on both sides of the streets. Many secondary roads are narrow, allowing for only one car and two bicycles to pass at a time.

Bigger roadways often have cycle paths on both sides.

Busier roadways often have cycle paths on both sides.

At most intersections, bicyclists have the right of way and rotaries have separate lanes for bicycles. There are separate traffic signals for bikes and cars, including a height-appropriate button for cyclists to push for a green light, and separate left turn arrows for bicyclists at busy intersections.

There is also no waving or signaling to people to go. Bicyclists look at the situation and ride through the traffic in a cooperative, yet silent manner, even at busy intersections in the city. Watching this is one of my favorite things to do. There is no audible communication among people on bikes (other than riding and chatting with someone) as no one says “car back” or “passing on the left” and it is rare to hear someone ring their bike bell.

People have unusual rigs and carry many different things with them on their bikes. Parents carry children on a rear seat, a front seat, or both.

Ordinary Trip_sm

A father riding with kids in front and rear bike seats.

During rush hour, people look like commuters from anywhere, focused on where they are going. They are dressed for work, carry bags, and look straight ahead. However, they are on bikes, not in cars. Nobody wears high visibility cycling clothes; people wear what they are wearing. I rode in jeans and a black jacket for three weeks, something I never do at home. The exceptions are people on road bikes who tend to wear matching spandex suits and some “high fashion” women dressed for work whose saddle bags match their clothes.

Nap Time_sm

Stylish lady bikes with sleeping baby.

Nobody wears helmets except some of the hobbyists, tourists, and some small children. This is surprising to me since the Dutch are so practical and sensible. However, some would say that riding upright at slow speeds with ideal infrastructure in a place where cyclists get priority does not carry the same risks as we have at home.

If you haven’t experienced The Netherlands, this might sound like fiction. I doubt we will ever duplicate their culture and infrastructure in the US, but seeing and living this is inspirational to our efforts to build the East Coast Greenway and to improve biking throughout the United States.

Read more next month – Bob shares his reflections on the Netherlands’ long-distance bicycle routes similar to the ECG!


This blog post appeared in our June 2016 E-Newsletter – click this link to read the newsletter in full.