The scooter problem
If you ride a bike on a regular basis in the Netherlands, you know this noise well. At first, It sounds like a nattering mosquito but it quickly grows louder. Seconds later, it becomes a high-pierced roar accompanied by a few blasts of a horn.
"EEEEE!!! HONK! HONK! HONK! EEEEE!!!"
Before your brain can completely process what's going on, it's too late. You've got a face full of exhaust fumes and your heart's racing at a 1.000 beats a second. You've just been buzzed by one of the most regular annoyances for bicyclists in this country: a scooter.
They're known by several names and they come in many makes and models. Scooters, snorfietsen, mopeds, snorscooters, motorised cycles, brommeren, etc. For the sake of clarity, this article is going to simply refer to them as "scooters."
Essentially, they're all two-wheeled cycles with combustion engines that, for the past several years, have been allowed to use bike lanes across the Netherlands, provided they keep their speeds below 25 km/h. The owners and operators of these vehicles are not required to wear helmets and are provided with special blue-coloured license plates that classify their vehicles as safe for use in bike lanes across Holland.
Proponents of these policies argue that it's not safe for scooters to mix with automobile traffic on Dutch streets. They contend that they're a perfect alternative to bicycles for older residents, people with health problems and / or those with long commutes. Scooters free up parking spaces in city centres, reduce traffic jams and they're also great for delivery services. If you order a pizza in the Netherlands, it will probably be brought to you by someone on a scooter.
"For many elderly they are a perfect means of transport. It helps them get around and do groceries, etc," said Leiden resident Roland Bouman. "And, usually, elderly scooter drivers drive decently. However, this is not the case for the younger ones. They speed, will overtake [cyclists] on narrow bike lanes and honk their horns when others are in the way. It doesn't even occur to them that space is limited. All they can think is, 'Get outta my way!'"
Since these policies went into effect, scooters have become the bane of bicyclists nationwide. It's exceedingly common for scooter riders to barrel down bike lanes while cutting off cyclists and leaving a trail of smelly pollution in their wake.
Many models of scooters, with their cheap, small engines, emit about 5,7 times more CO than many cars on the road and electric-powered versions have yet to make a major impact on the market.
Emission agencies around the world often overlook these vehicles when it comes to environmental regulations. Ever wonder why you find yourself coughing when a scooter passes you by? Now you know the answer.
Complaints among cyclists and pedestrians alike are common in the Netherlands. "I can't stand their noise pollution and lack of following traffic rules," said one American expat who posts under the username "@justmeinholland" on Twitter.
In recent years, scooter riders have earned a nasty reputation for ignoring Dutch speed limits and traffic laws. A 2011 report published by De Fietsersbond, a Dutch Cyclists' Union, revealed that 94% of scooters that drive on Amsterdam's bike paths often exceed 25 km/h and that their average speed was closer to 37 km/h. Many riders in the Netherlands have modified their scooters, enabling them to reach speeds more along the lines of motorcycles.
Worse yet, they're notoriously dangerous. According to one 2011 estimate, 20% of all traffic accidents in Amsterdam were blamed on scooters despite being used in only 2% of all trips. Scooter drivers were directly responsible for the death of a 78-year old cyclist in the town of Oisterwijk last May. Two months prior, an 83 year-old was killed in Groesbeek after a scooter collided with him in a bicycle lane.
Complaints and accident reports haven't fallen on deaf ears in some political circles in the Netherlands. Last April, in response to a petition signed by 6.000 residents, Amsterdam's city council voted to ban scooters from 60 kilometers of local bike lanes. There are also plans in the works that may soon require scooter riders in the city to wear helmets.
But the continued popularity of scooters may mean that, in most places around the Netherlands, they'll be allowed in bike lanes for many more years to come. So what's the solution to all of these safety concerns?
"Let's try education / enforcement," said one Amsterdam resident, who asked to remain anonymous. "Bikes are safer here because drivers are educated to give the right of way. Scooter riders just need to follow traffic laws. [Authorities] should revoke the individual scooter licenses of douchebags. No need for sweeping laws!"