Look at me! Look at me! Kerplunk.
I am wheeling a loop around my driveway at age six with my bicycle, absent training wheels, showing off for a boy visiting from my Kindergarten class. Actually, my mother had somewhat coerced me to do it, as my shyness at being evaluated for my newly acquired ability would have surely prevented the inevitable spectacle. Having self-consciously boarded my bike with two mothers, my friend, and possibly a few neighbors cheering me on, I am now approaching the first turn at the end of my driveway, feeling both a sense of exhilaration and impending doom as I round the curve. As I straighten out, for a split second I think I am going to make it, that I will be back off my bike in no time pumping my fists in the air in triumph. Not so. Right after that split second, I wobble over a crack or dip in the pavement and fly over the handlebars, landing face-first in a humiliating, painful heap. Mothers run over to me and hysterics ensue. My nose, scraped raw on the outside, gets bandaged up and I am allowed to retreat into the family room of our house with my friend to watch TV. I will go on to sport a beauty of a reptilian-like scab on my nose for two whole weeks. My sister doesn’t board a bicycle until age nine or ten.
In the Netherlands (or Belgium, but let’s pretend I’m not that far behind on my posts), here is the way that story would have played out. Everyone involved would have gone on a bike ride, possibly even my sister at age four. No one would have had training wheels, no one would have showed off, and the trip would have been functional in some way, like going to the supermarket. When I fall on my face, any crazy tourist waving a first aid bag in the air (ahem…not us) would have been waved away impatiently and I would have been expected to get right back and ride with no special praise. At least, that is what Kyle and I have observed on at least five separate occasions as we tour around the country. Yesterday, a little girl, three or four, wobbled back and forth almost running me over as her family took a trip over the town bridge. On the other side of it, she did an all too familiar flip over the handlebars. Seconds later, they were back on their way.
Hands-off parenting aside, there is a reason I am focusing on bicycles (and not just because we happen to be touring around on them). The Netherlands has been heralded among planners as a bicycle utopia, with bicycles in major cities like Amsterdam and The Hague being utilized for up to 70% of all journeys. Basically what happened is that a country already high in bicycle ridership went through some growing pains after WWII when automobiles began taking over the road. In 1971, over 3,000 people (450 children) were killed by motor vehicles, invoking mass social movements against the “murder” of children. In response, the Dutch government invested in a vast bicycle infrastructure network, including segregated paths all over the country (from both pedestrians and automobiles). Bicycles reign supreme on the road, with motor vehicles in most cases required to yield to them (e.g. in roundabouts). If an accident occurs, the motor vehicle is almost always at fault, making most motorists fairly cautious when around bicycles. As a result of good infrastructure design and policies that favor the bicycle, less than 1% of people riding bicycles in The Netherlands wear helmets (making it incredibly embarrassing that Kyle continues to insist that I wear mine). Two things are sure to peg you as a tourist: 1) a helmet, and 2) a neon-colored rented bicycle (a Warm Showers host tipped us off – that is how locals avoid them). Just IMAGINE what it would be like if you could just hop on your bike to run a quick errand in town. No traffic jams, no parking hassle, less of a walk to your car, no money paid on gasoline, no carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the lovely feel of the air against your cheek as you shed those pounds and increase your heart rate.
Needless to say, cycling around The Netherlands is an experience – quite worth the added mileage or kilometers added to our journey due to an inconvenient ferry drop-off point at the Hook of Holland which forces us to do a loop around the country in order to visit Amsterdam. Really, the infrastructure in The Netherlands is a touring cyclist’s dream. First it is all segregated so you feel comfortable enough to take in more of the scenery with less attention paid to traffic. Second, the paths are all extremely well-maintained, making for a smooth ride (a nice break from all the potholes). Finally, everything is flat. Though cyclists tend to prefer hills with their beautiful vistas, I can’t say I am complaining given that interesting spatial layouts, new wildlife, fantastic architecture, and a number of cyclists on the road give us plenty to look at. Now the one thing The Netherlands DOES have is the “Dutch hill” created by the force of the wind from the North Sea; we encounter those more on the coast. Still, I have to admit I somewhat miss the rush of cycling in a shared space utilized by all forms of traffic.
Perhaps what is even more interesting than the infrastructure is the sheer number of bicycles – more than one bicycle per capita with new bicycles being produced and distributed every year. Everywhere you go, bicycles are a feature in the landscape. In Amsterdam, what is almost as fascinating as the canals are the bicycles decorating them. If it weren’t enough that a bicycle is chained to every street sign, bridge, lamp post, and bicycle post, there is a massive parking garage on land and even floating parking on water – completely dedicated to bicycles!
I ask one of our hosts, “Do people in The Netherlands take great pride in their bicycle infrastructure?” Our host replies, “Most aren’t really aware of it; it is just a daily feature of their lives and landscape.”