a number of weeks in the final stretch of the presidential
campaign I was fortunate to have been able to hide out in
the Netherlands, insulated from all the campaign guano. The
low-lying country is a land where bicycles rule the road.
One of the reasons for my visit was to spend time observing
I spent a few weeks in the country with my friend Mary Anne
during late September and early October. I still cannot shake
my amazement at how central the simple bicycle is to the Dutch
transportation mix. Soon after exiting Central Station in
Amsterdam, I became acutely aware that the transportation
culture of Holland was markedly different from that back in
the United States. Despite the overcast weather and slight
drizzle, bikes were out in force as I left the train station.
As I continued to survey the scene outside the station, I
noticed that off to the side was a parking lot where literally
thousands of bikes were locked up. Their chrome handlebars
sparkled in the occasional glint of sunlight that broke through
The more I experienced the bicycle in Holland, the more it
seemed that I had gone through some sort of strange looking
glass where transportation priorities had been radically resorted.
My growing interest in Dutch bike culture even led me to stake
out tables at a number of outdoor cafes in order to observe
and take notes on the pedal-powered traffic. I was repeatedly
amazed by what I saw.
One café where I took notes was at a major set of cross streets
about a block from the Van Gogh Museum. This active Amsterdam
intersection presented a fairly full mix of the transportation
options present in the city environment.
Immediately next to my table was sidewalk and pedestrian traffic.
Next to this was a two-lane, one-way bike road set off with
curbstones and divided with a dashed line to distinguish a
passing lane. At the intersection, the traffic-signal pole
for cars had a second set of smaller lights positioned at
the level for bike riders.
Next to the bike lane was a two-lane, one-way road for cars
(which are much smaller and energy efficient than in the United
States). At the very inside of this transportation “conduit”
was an island where trams moved in both directions. Trams
are small-scale, electrically powered trains that provide
local service. On the other side of the tram rails were two
more car lanes, two bike lands and more sidewalk space.
The traffic was very active as I observed its movement. It
was the time of the late afternoon rush where workers head
from work to home. Interestingly, the bicycle lanes were actually
more crowded than the car lanes. A number of riders were chatting
on cell phones as they cranked by, and the relative quiet
would occasionally be broken with the light ringing of small
metal finger-triggered bells attached to raised handlebars.
On all of the streets around this intersection were substantial
racks chock full of bikes. Bikes were also locked up to about
every available piece of fence, window bar and extraneous
“standard” bike I saw consisted of a black, “clunky” rectangular
frame where the rider sits directly on top with a relatively
straight back. Sitting up on the seat led the bike rider to
be a tad taller than if they were standing. This positioning
and height seemed to help facilitate communication among pedestrians,
car drivers and bikers since they seemed to be constantly
looking toward one another for safe passage.
Most bikes also had chain guards, fenders and other wheel
covers, which help protect riders against wet days and the
stains of chain oil. Many of the bikes also had headlamps
and rear lights that were powered by generators that spun
against a wheel in order to produce the electrical current
needed. Often these bikes employed a couple of locks to keep
potential thieves at bay.
The biking crowd I observed in this Amsterdam rush hour flow
included a good number of well-dressed professionals, many
with substantial bags attached to the racks on the backs of
their bikes. Many also used backpacks. I saw a number of riders
whiz by with a variety of musical instruments including a
string bass and tuba. A number of specially modified bikes
to carry substantial goods for delivery also passed by.
The scarcity of parking spaces for cars, the expense of buying
and maintaining cars where petrochemical fuels run around
$5 a gallon, and the nearness of many destinations seems to
provide reasonable incentives for Dutch bikers to pedal on.
But there seems to be more to it than this. There seems to
be a cultural imperative that perpetuates the inclusion of
this important means for getting around.
This brings me to another set of observations made while eating
in the front window of a health-food restaurant in the 17th-century
settlement of Delft, known for its hometown painter Jan Vermeer.
From the window, I noticed a constant stream of bicycles riding
out from a street nearby. Apparently, they were coming from
a school where parents were picking up their kids for lunch.
The younger children were heading out on their parent’s bikes
in a variety of seats attached to rear racks or just behind
the raised handlebars. Soon the older kids emerged, riding
along on their own bikes. It was a drizzly day and they all
seemed prepared with raingear, a few adults sported well-
balanced umbrellas. It appeared that respect for the bike
as a transportation resource was learned at an early age.
There are about 16 million people in the Netherlands and it
has been estimated that they each own, on average, two bikes.
Dutch bicycles help reduce oil demand, reduce pollution and
the production of greenhouse gases as well as foster healthy
exercise to prevent obesity and other diseases. Somebody’s
doing something right over there!