I often see Dutch culture and the city of Amsterdam misrepresented in American media. (“Amsterdam?” someone asked me once. “Is it OK to bring kids there?”) I can only believe I missed the NYTimes article on Amsterdam drowning in a sea of bikes because I was so ridiculously busy in June of this year—but this week I saw the video response to it, and I loved it. The curious thing to me about the original article is that it doesn’t propose that there’s anything better than a city of cyclists. It just laments that there is a parking problem for 880,000 bikes. It also ignores the eco-friendliness (and the personal fitness!) of the bike by quoting a guy who says the Dutch like bikes because the country is flat. They like it for a lot of reasons.
If you like stats, as the European Cyclists’ Federation points out: “Data is often mind-boggling, especially when it involves the Dutch and cycling.” There is a fietscounter in our town that electronically displays how many bikes have passed to that point each day. It’s often in the 6-700s when I pass it.
I am usually the last person to want to talk politics, but I feel like even in relatively smart American media, there’s this kind of idea that goes something like: “Watch out that you don’t become like Europe, America… because, you know, they’re crazy and liberal.” Well, I’m a convert to the bike culture, and when we talk about returning to the US, one of my stipulations is that I don’t want to be car-bound again. I know that owning a car will most likely be necessary, but I don’t want to live somewhere where I need it for every errand. I’m intimidated by biking in a US city (I had a brief try in Cambridge around 2005 and feared for my life, then gave the bike away), but I hope the skills from here would pay off.
I was daunted by biking when we moved here. It only makes sense; where I grew up, riding bikes was a kids’ activity, practiced in your suburban neighborhood and then abandoned when you learned how to drive. The roads weren’t safe for cycling, and when I’m home now, if I see a guy on a bike near my parents’ house—1. It’s often someone unable to afford a car // 2. I am very worried that the guy is going to get hit by a truck.
Here, I get passed too close from time to time, and I don’t like it, but I’d like to think I’m now a pretty average cyclist for Delft—which is to say, a good one. I transport my groceries, the cake I bring to a friend’s house, a BBQ grill, and small furniture from IKEA on my bike. I do this in bad weather, and in skirts, but usually in practical footwear.
The Dutch bike culture is real. It’s not just a cute image that works well on a postcard. It is still the preferred method of city transportation, by your grandmother and your father and your teenage friend. It rains? You bike. It’s cold? You bike. Put your kid’s hat on, and stick him in that bike seat.
Yes, the problem of abandoned bikes (mentioned in the video) is real, too. A lot of people own multiple bikes, and students usually have a “beater bike” (or two)– a barely-functional collection of metal that gets them from a to b on campus. Occasionally the bike rack on our street will have a bunch of notices put on the bikes (like parking tickets) warning that on a coming date, any bikes left will be taken away by the Gemeente (the city). This usually happens when there’s a bunch looking like they haven’t moved in months. Rusting into the pavement. Plants growing around them, etc.
Delft’s train station could use expanded bike parking. I’ve parked my bike there, only to be unable to extricate it later on because of how many bikes have parked it in. With a car, sometimes you get double-parked. With a bike… I think I’ve been about thirty-seven parked. Recently a very nice guy helped me by lifting my bike over his head to get it out of its log jam.
I used to be paranoid about bike theft, but knock on wood, we haven’t had a bike stolen in three years. Of course, we try to park them securely, locking them to objects and the like, and we mostly park in safe places. Tim’s work has an underground bike-parking garage that’s accessed with a swipe-card. He hangs his bike in our stairwell overnight, from a hook we installed. It’s a nicer bike than mine, bought with a specifically-designated stipend when he started his employment here.
My only regret about my bike after three years is that it sits in bad weather a lot, which means that over time it will go the way of all bikes. I wish our apartment building offered a sheltered space. I don’t regret not having handbrakes. I don’t regret getting a bike without gears.
I can understand that Amsterdam’s cycling culture is older than that of a city like New York. Each city has its own personality, which is why I love travel. I can see a lot of New Yorkers looking down their noses at the idea of cycling. But as one of the speakers in the video points out, in the 1950s even Dutch politicians were predicting that the bike would fall to the automobile. Delft’s Beestenmarkt, I always say on my tour, was used as a car park for a couple decades, before they made the city center car-free (except for taxis and some other business vehicles). (The Beestenmarkt is now a leafy-green bier garden in the summer, and an ice rink in the winter.) And as a Jersey girl who absolutely did not grow up with a bike culture, I’m proof that it can catch on if you give it a chance. And I’m willing to bet you’d like Amsterdam, too.