The Respect for Bicycles in Amsterdam Culture

Since almost everyone in The Netherlands rides their bike at some time, they understand what it feels like to be in the bike lane, and are therefore more respectful to the bicycles on the road. They know that it can be stressful to be passed closely, and they know that riding a bike is much easier when you’re preserving your momentum. Here are a few cultural results of that respect.

This is Part 2 in a 3 part series on Amsterdam. Check out my initial observations 4 Insights about Biking in Amsterdam and The Netherland and more info on Bicycle Infrastructure in Amsterdam and The Netherlands.

Cars Don’t Pass Too Closely

Of all the bicycle riding I did around Holland, most of it was on a specific bike lane where I didn’t mix with cars. However, sometimes I would end up on a street that was a bit too narrow for the cars to pass me comfortably. You know what would happen? Nothing. The car would slowly roll a safe distance behind me until there was adequate room or I turned. Usually I pulled over in a nook to let them pass anyway, but I was stunned at the amount of respect everyone had on the streets.

This can serve as a reminder to car drivers everywhere: In crowded urban areas with small blocks and traffic, passing a cyclist usually results in the cyclist passing you about 10 seconds later when you stop. So unless you’re sure you’re not going to be passed again, why not just drive slow for those 10 seconds. It can feel like an eternity, but you can do it! Pump the brakes and drive slow.

Although this may be largely culture, I think education can be key here. I glanced at the California DMV handbook, and out of 117 pages there were only a few devoted to bicycles, most being quite general. I wonder how many pages are devoted to bikes in the Netherlands DMV…(if you can find this out let me know!)

People Allow Bicycles to Preserve Their Momentum

For anyone who rides a bike, this is obvious. But it can be missed by people who believe that bicycles should obey all the same traffic laws in EXACTLY the same way as automobiles. Since most people in The Netherlands ride their bikes, they seem to be on the same page.

For example, if I’m coming down a path and nearing a pedestrian walkway with no one in it, it’s customary for the pedestrians to wait a few moments for me to pass with my momentum intact instead of walking out in front of me. It’s similar to a situation when there’s one car on a street with a crosswalk. You might as well wait for that one car to go through instead of making it slow down while you awkwardly walk across slightly faster than normal. I’d rather walk across the street with no one waiting on me.

bicyclists biking on bike lane with pedestrians about to walk out onto the cross walk
Here are some bicyclists biking through a crosswalk as the pedestrians step out just after them.

The same thing goes with cars. The drivers of cars know that they’re guests in busy urban areas, and they act accordingly. They give me the space I need and will wait for me to pass through an intersection if I’m just one bicycle.

Last but not least, other bicyclists are also helping each other conserve momentum. Many intersections have just a yield or no specific rules, so people are making eye contact and yielding according to what makes the most sense around them. Every situation is different, and of course there’s always a chance you’ll get caught in the “You go,” “No you go”, “Okay I’ll go,” dance, but in general it makes life as a commuter much more fluid.

Bike lanes crossing and merging other bike lanes and such.
So many bike lanes crossing and merging with other bike lanes, crosswalks, trams rails, and streets at the Amsterdam, Vijzelgracht roundabout. It’s all about the eye contact.

This does bring up one important point: Electric Assist Bicycles. I didn’t see many on the road, but I heard some Dutch people talking about them. The issue is that on these crowded streets, it’s harder to make assumptions about people’s speeds when the e-bikes can accelerate faster than normal! I heard of a few accidents from this, and I think the Dutch are being strict about the e-bikes, but their adoption is already happening. Most of the e-bike use so far seems to be intercity travel. People from outside of Amsterdam can ride on one of Holland’s “bike highways” to get into the city potentially as fast as a train.

Pedestrians Are More Aware

Since I’ve just mentioned that pedestrians are sometimes waiting on bicycles, it means that life as a pedestrian does require more awareness. While walking around Amsterdam, I had to really watch where I was walking. Bikes are quiet and fast. I can’t rely on sounds and bright headlights from cars. The bike lanes can be close to the sidewalk, and I have to make sure I don’t stray into the bike lane by accident.

It’s also noticeable when crossing the street. There isn’t just one street to cross, there’s 2 bike lanes, a street, and potentially other things like a tram crossing! I have to be very weary across these bike paths, since it’s not obvious if a bike is coming, especially in the darkness when only some people having bike lights.

With that being said, by no means do I feel unsafe as a pedestrian, and I think this is a worthy trade-off for much safer streets in general.

Thanks for reading my Part 2 musings about biking in Amsterdam. Check out Part 1 for my initial insights on biking in Amsterdam, and Part 3 on Part 3 Bicycle Infrastructure in Amsterdam and The Netherlands!

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