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Feets of Transport

During 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 Dutch bikes.

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 clouds.

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 pole.

The “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!

—Tom Nattell


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