John D. Yoder, before retiring, was a cycling commuter between Goshen and Elkhart and continues his interest in cycling as a recreational rider, teacher of cycling classes and president of the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, Inc.
What I learned watching the Dutch cycle through Amsterdam
Though he’d been to the city before, cycling blogger John Yoder was once again amazed by Amsterdam’s bike culture on a recent visit. Here’s some of what he learned.
John D. Yoder
Posted on July 10, 2014 at 1:48 p.m.
I’m standing on a street corner in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, a few hundred yards from the central railroad station. I’m in Amsterdam with my wife for a week-long bike-and-barge tour with a group of friends. Today is our first day in town, and we have just unpacked at our hotel nearby.
Not wanting to sleep too much at this point in my recovery from jet lag, I’ve come outside to survey the bike traffic at this typical Amsterdam corner. Its 10 a.m. on a weekday, and the streets are a blur of people on bikes, walkers, streetcars, cars, motor-scooters and buses. Several hundred yards to my left is a three-story parking garage holding roughly 7,000 bikes, and it is full.
I walked through it earlier in the day, and for the life of me can’t figure out how anyone can find his or her bike because they are packed so closely together.
I’ve been in Amsterdam several times before, so the number of people on bicycles isn’t a total surprise, yet the transportation mix amazes me once again. I can’t help comparing it to a similar U.S. city, though in truth, there is no U.S. city that is remotely close to Amsterdam’s use of bicycles. Here’s a three-minute video of what I saw:
As I replay the video, I notice many interesting things about the bicycles and riders. These bicycles are built for work – i.e., they have baskets on their fronts or bags on their backs, making them ready to carry groceries, books or whatever needs moving. Some are carrying children. With fenders and lights, they are prepared for rain or darkness. The straight handlebars (with one exception) put riders in an upright position where they can most easily see what’s happening around them, ideal for city riding.
The clothes of the riders are not the lycra biking shorts and three-back-pocket jerseys of our recreational riders, but rather work clothes – long pants, coats and hats (it was quite cool) – but no helmets or cycling-specific shoes. The bikes also have chain guards to protect the work clothes from the greasy chain. Although I didn’t count the ratio of men to women, I see plenty of both sexes and all ages riding.
In this mix of pedestrians, bicycles, busses, cars and streetcars, all eager to get somewhere, the bicycle has status, if not priority. For the most part, the cars wait patiently for the pedestrians and bikers to cross the intersection. Everyone is polite.
The bikers, however, do not like to stop unnecessarily; when streetcars block the bike path, and they have a green light, they immediately go around them.
This interaction of various transportation modes at this intersection is typical of Amsterdam and much of the Netherlands. The bicycles, pedestrians and cars are separated from each other on separate pathways. Intersections are complicated, but each group respects the other’s right to be there, and I never saw a collision.
I’m not overly bothered by the absence of helmets. Statistically, we know that the more people ride the less likely they are to have an accident, and since the Dutch ride a lot, it follows that they don’t fall much.
What did I learn from the Dutch about cycling and its place in the transportation mix? I’ll need several blogs to list them all, but for a start let me say that on a personal level, I learned that I don’t have to dress in cycling gear every time I get on my bike. Too often I think of my rides as something I do for recreation and exercise and that requires cycling shorts, a cycling jersey and cleated shoes, when the short ride to the drugstore or doctor’s office doesn’t require them.
I also realized that when I don my cycling clothes, I’m sending the message that there’s a uniform for cycling, the absence of which makes you somehow less of a true cyclist. That attitude clearly doesn’t promote a greater participation in cycling. Instead it creates another hoop for the average person to jump through – a message we cycling advocates surely don’t want to send.
The bottom line is that for the Dutch, cycling is part of the daily routine – no special clothes or shoes needed. Just get on the bike and ride.