Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Culture Share: Netherlands - Bicycles in the Netherlands by Corinne Duyvis

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Corinne Duyvis discusses bicycles in the Netherlands.

Bicycles in the Netherlands by Corinne Duyvis

If you've ever been to the Netherlands, you'll probably have noticed that we like our bicycles.

We like them a lot.

The Dutch landscape, being approximately as flat as the computer screen you're looking at right now, lends itself perfectly to cycling. Given that most of our cities were built long before the invention of cars, we also tend to have narrow streets, with very little space to ride a car, let alone park it. For that reason, our cities encourage bikes or public transport as a means of getting around.

Add that to the fact that biking is pretty well engrained into our national consciousness...

Well. It means a lot of bikes.

It also means the following things (note that this is written from the perspective of someone who's lived in Amsterdam all her life, and it might be different in other/smaller cities):

* Practically everybody learns to bike from a very young age; kids get their first bike the moment they're able to walk.

* We bike everywhere. To school, to work, to the supermarket, to concerts, to the train station. Everywhere.

* We don't wear any special clothing on our bicycles. Bicycle shorts and helmets are reserved for hardcore sports cyclists and small children.

* We bike whenever. Midnight. In the snow. In the wind. In the rain. (That's what ponchos are for, after all. I've even seen a few special-made bike umbrellas.)

* Amsterdam has more bikes than inhabitants.

* Getting your tyre caught in a tram rail is always a risk.

* Sometimes people walk their dogs by bike.

* The police will patrol using bikes.

* We text while cycling. (I'm sure some even play Angry Birds.)

* We have separate bike paths, plus bike traffic lights to go with them.

* Depending on the time and place, it's perfectly normal to have a good ten or more cyclists waiting at a single traffic light.

* There are bicycle racks to park your bikes all over the city. Practically every non-residential street has several. (Even some residential streets have them.)

* Many buildings will also have basements to park your bike in -- both my old high school and former place of employment had these. Separate bike garages also exist.

* None of this will stop a true Amsterdammer from chaining their bike to whatever stationary item crosses their path. Bridge railings, street lights, trees, and "do not park your bike here" signs are especially popular.

* Bike theft is a huge problem. If you're smart, you'll carry at least one extra lock with you and you'll loop it through both the frame, the wheel, and Stationary Item X, because loads of thieves will just leave the wheel behind and take the rest of the bike -- or will take only the wheel to supplement other wheel-less stolen bikes. It's bizarre how many people fail to do this and end up surprised when their bikes are missing an hour later.

* Abandoned bikes are a problem, too. The city will tag bikes that have been standing around for too long; if they're still there a couple of weeks later, they cut the locks and take them with them.

* In a similar way, thieves will steal bikes en masse: They rent a truck and just toss any bike not chained to something on there.

* We have special bike compartments in trains -- and you'll need to purchase a special bike ticket to be able to travel with them.

* We'll have grandmothers in evening wear biking to a classical piano concert; fathers biking home from the grocery store, dog in a basket up front, a kid in the seat on the back, and a heavy grocery bag dangling from the handlebars; businesspeople in full suits biking to and from work, suitcase strapped on the back; and teens balancing a crate of beer on their laps or the handlebars.

Corinne Duyvis lives in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.