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Mad about bikes!

The Dutch are bicycle-crazy for many excellent reasons. Nowhere else in the world is bicycling so ingrained in the culture as it is in the Netherlands. Nowhere.

Dutch people are virtually born with a bicycle - or fiets - attached to them. Almost as soon as a Dutch child is able to walk, he / she learns to ride a bicycle. They grow up on bikes. They ride them to school as soon as they are able to - first with a parent at their side (often with mom’s or dad’s hand on their shoulder) and then on their own.

When they are nine years old, they are expected to pass an informal test - an actual cycling demonstration - and earn a cycling diploma.

As teenagers, they go out on dates on bikes (they ca not drive until they are 18), with one person on the front and one perched side-saddle on the back. Lovebirds, young and old, ride side-by-side, precariously holding hands. People of all ages and socio-economic status - including government and other dignitaries - regularly (i.e. daily) commute to work on bikes (a flat bicycle tire is a common excuse for being late for work). Police patrol the streets on bikes (often on mountain bikes, despite the fact that there are no mountains here). Couples and families frequently go on bike holidays.

And bicycle use continues throughout old age.

Cycling in the Netherlands is a way of life. It is second nature. The Dutch do not typically get up in the morning and say "Today, I think I'll go biking." They just do it routinely, as a matter of course. They run errands, shop, go to work, and socialise on bicycles - rain or shine (and it rains a lot here!), and through often - strong winds. They ride in short skirts, stilettos (after all, it is easier to cycle than to walk in them) and tailored business suits… and they carry anything and everything on a bike, including furniture, numerous shopping bags, four or five children… and even the family dog.

Practicality and day-to-day bicycle usage go hand in hand in the Netherlands; indeed they are the cornerstones of life in this traditionally Calvinistic nation. There is very little that is not done on a bicycle in this cycling utopia where an astounding 29.000 kilometers (18.020 miles) of dedicated bicycle paths (Fietspaden) lace this tiny country of only 41.526 square kilometers (16.033 square miles).

Global model for cycling
With the largest proportion of bicycles intransportation and the highest density of bicycle facilities in the world - including a cycling-dedicated infrastructure bar none - the Netherlands is considered to be the global model for cycling. Bike paths run alongside almost every road here, and there are even separate traffic lights for cyclists at virtually every intersection, with the bicycle symbol appearing in red, yellow and green. The infrastructure is totally geared toward cycling, making it a serious mode of transportation and an integral part of Dutch society.

Many other countries are now trying to emulate the Dutch cycling model, particularly with the international eye on sustainability, health and therefore, cleaner, more efficient transport, and they are asking the Netherlands to help them shape their own bicycle policies and cycle-friendly infrastructures. When it comes to cycling, the Dutch have a worldwide reputation for "doing it best." They are at the forefront of the global focus on the bicycle as a primary instrument for sustainability.

Cyclists’ paradise
The Netherlands is the only nation in the world with more bicycles than people. In a country with 16,5 million people, there are 1,1 bicycles for each one - or roughly 18 million bikes. In Amsterdam alone, there are approximately 550.000 bikes, versus 215.000 autos. 75% of all Amsterdam residents (aged 12 or older) own a bicycle; half of them use it daily. That astounding, nationwide fleet of bicycles - the highest bicycle density in the world - has a major impact on such a tiny country.

Seven reasons why cycling is predominant in the Netherlands
› Geography
For the most part, except for some gently rolling hills in the province of Limburg in the southernmost part of the country, for example, where people indeed cycle less, the Netherlands - once partly submerged beneath the North Sea - is as flat as a pancake and therefore, cycling is much easier here than in hilly or mountainous terrain, despite the fact that it is often very windy. Also, with compact Dutch cities - and indeed across this small country as a whole - many trips can more easily be covered by bicycle because of the short distances.

› Infrastructure
The infrastructure throughout the entire country is dedicated to cycling. There are an astonishing 29.000 km (18.020 miles) of bike paths lacing the entire nation - with more on the horizon - in addition to dedicated cycle bridges, tunnels, cycle-friendly ferries, etc. In fact, there is not much that is not bicycle-friendly here. Most of the bike paths are separated from motorised traffic and even feature their own traffic lights and directional signs. Dedicated bicycle parking garages also abound in the Netherlands. 

According to figures published by the NPC, a specialist in bicycle facilities storage, there are 350.000 bicycle storage spaces at train stations throughout the Netherlands, a number expected to grow to 480.000 by 2020 as more and more people travel by train and cycle to and from the station.

At Amsterdam's Central Station, a massive, three-tier bike garage - touted as "the world’s first bicycle flat" (2001) - currently houses 2.500 to 3.000 bikes. Combined with other spaces in the vicinity, there are a total of about 10.000 spaces. If you take in all eight Amsterdam train stations, there are altogether about 30.000 bicycles parked each day. With these facilities plus racks in public spaces and other bicycle garages, it is estimated that there are a staggering 250.000 places throughout Amsterdam to park a bike.

Similarly, in and around the station of Utrecht, a university town in central Holland, there are spaces overall for as many as 20.000 bikes. Leiden, by the same token - also a university town - has an equally large bike garage. Many bike garages are guarded, and some are underground, such as Leiden’s, Zutphen’s, and the one at the Groningen train station - yet another university town with many cycling students.

› Cycling is embedded in the culture
It fits very well with the Dutch mentality of practicality and thriftiness; traveling by bicycle is, after all, a cheap means of transportation - particularly considering the sky-high price of parking a car in the larger cities. Reportedly, Amsterdam has one of the highest parking fees in the world: circa 5 euros per hour. In the Netherlands, cycling is an icon of practicality.

As the Dutch "interculturalist" Jacob Vossestein, author of the Dealing with the Dutch, puts it: "Everybody can afford a bike… be it new or second-hand. And as the Dutch are not "into" status games, cycling becomes a very egalitarian means of transport. Exposed to wind and rain on a regular basis - drudging against gale force eight on unsheltered dike roads, any difference in status or social stature between cyclists is soon eradicated, revealing the essence of life: a body struggling with the forces of nature. Whether an office clerk, bricklayer, captain of industry, Prime Minister or royalty - all cyclists have to bow to the elements. Moreover, the bike also satisfies the Dutch inclination to not waste any resources - an aspect of ingrained practicality."

Clearly, the Dutch cycling culture is planted early and firmly. Dutch children get their first bicycles around their fourth birthday and immediately learn how to use them. The habit never stops, no matter how old they get.

› The government is pro-cycling
The "powers that be" recognise that cycling is sustainable, healthy, silent, clean and cheap - in purchase, operation and infrastructure costs (relative to other means of transportation); it enhances urban traffic circulation and provides more livability to residential areas.

› It is healthy
Cycling is known to combat obesity and prevent heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Overall, it makes people fitter and mentally more alert. As a regular part of everyday life, cycling is an ideal remedy against an overly sedentary lifestyle - and also against stress.

Indeed, the European Cyclists’ Federation cites (Tuxworth, 1986) that “An adult who cycles regularly will typically have a level of fitness equivalent to being 10 years younger, and a life-expectancy two years above the average."

› It is enjoyable
Second to walking, cycling is the most important recreational day activity in the Netherlands. Around 70% of the Dutch occasionally take to the bicycle for a recreational day trip. And with the dedicated infrastructure, there is a plethora of routes and countrywide cycling grids to be enjoyed, and they are constantly expanding. Of the 29.000 total kilometers (18.020 miles) of bike paths, there are some 6.500 km (4.039 miles) designated as "recreational bicycle routes," and of these, some 4.500 km (2.796 miles) are signposted.

 Freedom
Many people in the Netherlands like using their bicycles for regular transportation because it affords them the freedom to make their own timetable, as opposed to that of the bus or train schedules - not to mention getting stuck in traffic jams with a car. It is the "get up and go" feeling that they prefer.

The bottom line
Cycling just makes sense. In the Netherlands, it is not just a sport or recreation; cycling is a serious and extremely common mode of transportation. As emphatically stated by Jacob Vossestein: "In fact it’s not even serious; it’s just there - like breathing." 

Excerpt from Bicycle Mania Holland, new photo book by American photojournalist Shirley Agudo American photojournalist Shirley Agudo and contributing photographers capture the essence of the Dutch cycling culture; surprising and humorous images illustrating the practical (and not so practical) side of a country having more bicycles than people. Included are practical "Rules of the Road," "The Lowdown on Fines" and many more handy tips, plus a wealth of cycling-related websites.

Bicycle Mania Holland is published by XPat Media and available both at bookshops and www.bicycle-mania.nl. Price 19,90 euros.

 

Shirley

Author

Shirley Agudo

Author, editor, photographer and PR professional. Books include: 'Bicycle Mania Holland' (http://www.bicycle-mania.nl), 'Hot Pink', 'Fodor's Holland', 'Here's Holland', and 'Network Your Way to Success' (C. Ruffolo). http://www.shirleyagudo.com

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