There was a study done about how The Netherlands is one of the happiest countries in the world. I have a theory it’s because everyone here is so free. The easy bicycling, public transport, and surrounding systems making getting around so easy, you’re truly free to go wherever, whenever you please.
– My Airbnb host in Bussum, The Netherlands
This statement resonated with me, as I think about all the people in the USA who are literally stranded without a car. I live in the land of the free, but if you live in a car centric city, you’re not free until you’re 16 years old. Here in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, kids ride to and from school as early as they can, and it’s no big deal. There is no such thing as a “play date,” because no one has to drive their kids to another person’s house.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. These car centric cities we live in are quickly changing to accept bikes into this system. It’s already easy to bike commute in many major cities around the world, with bike routes sometimes hiding in plain sight. The culture is shifting.
I spent 5 days biking in Amsterdam and Holland to get a feel for their mature cycling culture, and I want to share some insights that can get you psyched about the future of bike commuting! This is just Part 1 in a 3 part series. Read Part 2 Respect for Bicycles in Amsterdam. and Part 3 Bicycle Infrastructure in Amsterdam and The Netherlands later!
You know how you just always see cars parked on every road? It’s like this in Amsterdam, but with bikes. There are huge swaths of public space devoted to bike parking. But there are so many bikes that often all this bike parking is full! I always found a spot, but sometimes the racks were absolutely packed.
This makes me think about everyone complaining about the dockless bikeshare craze happening around the world. People are concerned that bikes will be left all over the sidewalk in disarray. Bikes aren’t in the middle of the sidewalk, but with so many people riding around, they really are everywhere.
Bike parking is actually a non-trivial problem when you have the kind of scale like the Netherlands, but if you plan and design for it, it can be handled. Here’s a picture of a small shopping center just behind the popular Heineken Brewery. You can see how a significant amount of this public space in the plaza is deemed for bike parking. But hey, if people had to drive here they would need an entire building for all the cars!
Nope, not even one (except maybe that expat over there). People are riding their bike normally, sitting on the rear bike rack, sitting on the front bike rack, sitting on someone’s lap, and still no helmet. Helmets are not a thing.
Now there are a few reasons to this that make sense. First of all, the dutch bikes are so chill that they generally go slower than the road bike counterparts. When you’re going slower, you have less risk of injuring yourself if you do in fact fall.
The next reason is that it’s generally inconvenient to carry a helmet around all the time. With the infrastructure making everyone feel so safe, it’s not worth the extra effort for most people to bring the helmet with them. I don’t completely understand this, as you could just leave it on your bike, but I think it also has to do with some kind of cultural norm.
As I’ve mentioned in one of my helmet posts, a lack of helmet laws increases people biking, since it’s one less requirement before people can just get on their bikes and go. That, in turn, increases infrastructure need and construction, which makes the roads safer. It’s not a coincidence that countries where biking is the most popular have zero helmet laws.
As someone who writes a lot about security and U-locks, it’s surprising to see no U-locks at all! The first level of security is this locking ring on the back wheel that’s on nearly every bike. It locks the back wheel to the frame and prevents the bike from rolling. It has a nice feature where the keys won’t come out unless it’s locked, so if you have all your keys on one chain, you won’t be able to walk away from an unlocked bike unless you forget your keys too! Most people are riding around with their entire keychain clanking around on their bike.
This simple act of locking the bike to itself is already a great theft deterrent. It can prevent a quick getaway and potentially keep your bike safe from opportunistic thieves, but most people I talked with would “double lock” their bike. Double Locking your bike just means they also lock their bike to a bike rack or something else solid and immoveable. This is simply called “locking your bike” for most people in large urban areas.
After locking the ring to the back wheel and taking their keys, they then use a chain lock to lock any part of the bike to some solid object. Many times this means locking just the front or rear wheel to the bike rack because it’s easier to access. These chain locks can be pretty cheap. I saw some at a market going for around 15-20 Euros. I think that the cheap ones are in fact secure, the tradeoff being that they’re heavier than a more expensive competing lock. But since the dutch bikes are already so heavy and the landscape is flat, a little more weight on the lock doesn’t do much harm.
If you don’t double lock (or single lock) your bike, it may get stolen. Or taken by a drunk person. Or lost in a sea of bike parking even if you locked it. I heard of a few success stories of bike recovery, but it’s all anecdotal. One person told me they lost their bike and found it later around the corner!
One thing the dutch definitely don’t worry about are bike components being stolen. In my other security posts, I wrote about how to protect your wheels, how to protect your seat, and even how to lock your lights. By the time you’ve finished outfitting your bike from my posts, your bike can barely be taken apart with normal tools. While this is unfortunately necessary in a city like San Francisco, it seems that no one in The Netherlands is trying to steal your seat or wheels, so no need to mention it!
The standard bike around here is a very upright cruiser bike. The handlebars are high so you can sit straight up and chill while you ride. Many people ride with one hand in their pocket, or more often than they should with one hand on their phone. I see quite a lot of people using their phones while riding. I was guilty of this for sure as well, but in my defense it was mostly for navigation purposes haha.
Since Amsterdam and most of Holland is pretty flat, it’s easy to have this more upright riding position. For short and easy rides it’s super comfy, but for a longer ride where you may have to push on some hills, a more forward riding position is usually better.
When I returned to San Francisco, I thought to myself, why can’t I find such a chill bike like that here? So I found a proper dutch bike on Craigslist that someone had brought over to California to experience the ride on my streets. The thing is, a dutch bike looks and feels a lot like a beach cruiser. The difference comes in with a higher quality of components, and just more general bells and whistles to make it commute ready like lights, a rack, integrated locks, and usually an internal hub gearing system.
When riding it on San Francisco roads, it reminded me a bit of the Ford GoBike bikeshare bikes we have around the city, but it wasn’t quite as slow or heavy. It did force me to slow down for sections of my ride that I was used to flying through on a road bike. I was surprised to discover that even the flat streets that have slight inclines are much more noticeable when I’m riding the dutch bike rather than my road bike.
This made me realize that in San Francisco I ride faster just to feel safer. If I’m riding closer to the speed of traffic, then I can more easily merge in and out of traffic, making the ride safer because there’s not a huge speed differential between me and other cars nearby. When I was riding the dutch bike in SF, this speed differential was greater, and thus I felt slightly less safe merging into traffic to go around a parked car, for example.
In Amsterdam, the traffic is going much slower, so I thought I was going the same speeds that I do in SF, but I was probably going slower without even realizing it. The Netherlands has laws about not allowing different kinds of transportation with significant speed differentials to be on the same road space, which is why it often feels so safe and easy.
If you’re interested in finding a dutch bike for yourself, it seems that secondhand like Craigslist is your best bet, but if you search for “dutch bike” on Amazon you do get some good results that may work, for example the Hollandia Royal Dutch Bike looks like a good one! I have not tried these myself. You can tell it’s a dutch style bike from how much higher the handlebars are than the seat.
That’s the end of Part 1 on Bicycling in Amsterdam. Check out Part 2 on Respect for Bicycles in Amsterdam Culture and Part 3 on Bicycle Infrastructure in Amsterdam and The Netherlands.