Biking in The Netherlands

A few days ago, Servetus wrote a post about a German government minister biking to his official installation as a minister and I found myself initially thinking, “Cool! But so what?” I then immediately chastised and corrected myself as I realized I live in a very bike-friendly country where riding a bike to, well, any occasion is very normal. Our prime minister lives in Den Haag and bikes to his work place (which I think may be about a 10 minute commute for him) very often.

He likes to eat an apple while he does so…

He even bikes to the king’s palace……

And yes, without a helmet, which is one of the things I most hear foreigners comment on when they see pictures of Dutch people on their bikes. Practically no one wears a helmet when biking in The Netherlands; I don’t think I know anyone who uses them and we certainly don’t own any here at my house. It was once suggested some years ago that maybe it would be a good idea but everyone just laughed it off. Biking here is not the same as in other countries (we have more bikes here than people!) and that had me thinking of the first and only urban planning YouTube channel that I got hooked on for a bit a few months ago. Mr Esther was fascinated as well.

The videos on the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes are made by a Canadian living in Amsterdam and he is fascinated by urban planning, urban transport infrastructure and by the Dutch bicycle infrastructure we have in place. It’s a compelling outsider’s view on how we live here in The Netherlands and he compares it to where he’s lived in Canada and the US. I never think much about urban planning and have never even considered watching videos on that but somehow I accidentally stumbled on this first video I’m sharing here. I’m not even sure anymore why I clicked on it but I did and got hooked on watching others as well. This video is about how in Amsterdam (and in The Netherlands) there are policies to disentangle routes for different modes of transport, i.e. we’ll have routes through a city just for bicycles where cars can’t be and vice versa.

I went down a rabbit hole on this guy’s YouTube channel after that. The cool thing is that not only did I see my country through a foreigner’s eyes, I also learned a lot about urban life in US and Canada. He comments on how high walkability is here and how that makes all the difference…

I never really thought about how normal walkability is here as opposed to many places abroad and it suddenly made so much sense to me.

As a parent, the most striking video for me was the one he made about not wanting to raise his kids in US or Canadian suburbia. The premise baffled me because I was always under the impression that raising kids in these suburbs must be great.

From this video I learned that kids walking and cycling to school and other activities all on their own is not as normal in the US and Canada as it is here. I mean, I have friends and family abroad with children but I never really thought of that before… until I remembered once, many years ago, my brother, his partner and my niece visiting from London.

My kids were maybe 6 – 8 years old and we were in my back garden when my kids decided they wanted to go to this playground and have my niece come with them. The playground was about a 3 minute walk away, in a very residential, traffic-calmed area, where pedestrians have right of way everywhere and my kids went there on their own with friends all the time. So, it was normal for us to say ‘sure, go ahead!’. My then sister-in-law, who was not Dutch and had never lived here, immediately panicked, fearing it was unsafe and we had to reassure her and show her that for kids here it’s a very normal thing to do, all on their own. Needless to say, my kids and my niece came back again an hour or two later, all elated and in once piece.

After watching that video I realized more than ever that kids are much more independent here in their own travel and movements from a young age than they seem to be in the US and Canada. He even speaks of a court case against a dad in Vancouver who let his kids go somewhere unsupervised and was ordered to not let that happen again, on penalty of having his kids taken away from him. In the end he won, but… wow. That really hit home with me. The video also brought home to me the soccer-mom concept in the US, which is very different from what I think a soccer-mom is here. Being a soccer-mom here is a choice, in the US and Canada there is no choice, you always have to drive until the kids are old enough to drive on their own.

Speaking of traffic calming earlier, this video explains how that works here…

Or how our traffic lights system is very efficient. I’ve noticed that before while driving abroad, how we’ll sometimes spend more time ‘needlessly’ waiting at traffic lights than we are used to in The Netherlands.

Another cool biking video was the one he made about Dutch bikes being different. It’s another thing I have noticed as well while abroad, although, for instance in Germany, I do see some more Dutch-style upright bikes. In most other countries bicycles are used primarily for sport and exercise, in The Netherlands they are used to get from A to B. He says somewhere that people on bikes here are dressed for their destination (i.e. in their work clothes like our Dutch prime minister in his suit, or sports clothes, or even fancier clothes when going out for an evening) and not dressed for the ride itself, which is very true…

Another interesting one was about him not being a “cyclist” but just a guy on a bike who wants to get from A to B. It shows how people on bikes are regarded differently and more negatively abroad than they are in The Netherlands. Here every car driver is also a bike rider, so there is no such overt resentment against cyclists.

I know I’ve gone off on a bicycle tangent here but I have to say, I have never been as interested in urban planning videos as I have been in these. There’s something very compelling about them. They make me realize that living in The Netherlands really isn’t so bad after all and that our biking and walkability culture is something we should treasure.

21 thoughts on “Biking in The Netherlands

  1. Servetus

    Thanks for the link love. I really only posted on that topic because seeing Cem Özdemir in the news made me laugh (really? no other minister has ever gone to their installation on a bike? But then, it is the country of premium car manufacturing) and reminded me of Daniel Miller’s bike.

    As to the rest: In general I agree that the US is not a pedestrian-friendly country (or rather: it is an actively anti-pedestrian country in many regions and communities). The whole question of how this problem affects senior citizens who lose driving privileges would fill an entire evening of youtube, not just ten minutes. Also, I agree that the whole “cyclist” culture thing is annoying.

    But I watched the vid on why he’s not raising his kids in North America. Some of this criticism is entirely justified, and some of it involves an axe he’s grinding. If his main reason for not letting his kids grow up in suburbia is that he doesn’t think kids have enough autonomy, he’s missing the mark imo. He kind of kills his argument for me when he says “this is a video about urban planning so I’m not going to get into this other stuff” — with which he completely skirts the issue of why people choose to live in suburbs in the first place. It’s weird to me that he has a problem with the power held by social workers but apparently he is totally okay with redrawing roads (which, fine, I roads in the US could be made more pedestrian friendly) which is also a highly intrusive activity of the state (and in the US, has a history of being racist, with roads rerouted specifically to split up certain ethnic neighborhoods).

    I live in a suburb now and for many reasons I don’t love it, but on this guy’s terms, it is so much better for kids than the way I grew up in the country. (Our school was 7 mi away and it would have taken a lot of work for us to get there on a bike, as it was a seriously hilly drive; we lived on an old farm road and it really wasn’t safe to bike, although we did it.) Kids in this suburb are *much* less isolated than we were as kids. Probably 3/4 of houses have kids living in them, they have big backyards and they migrate from one yard to another over the course of a summer afternoon. Nobody’s calling social workers out of concern for unsupervised kids (I would argue this is a class prejudice more than anything else — there are plenty of unsupervised kids in the US, they just live in cities and tend to be poor). There are “block parties” in the summer and people come up to you when you move in to introduce themselves. There are traffic bumps and signs reminding people in cars to slow down. There’s a new elementary school that’s about 3 mi from here and the kids who live on the same side of the highway as the school do bike there. At the school where I went to elementary, they now have a thing called “walking bus” for kids in the village where someone comes around every morning to houses within walking distance, and the kids walk in large groups to school. Can kids in this suburb bike to the town center? Not easily, but it’s not clear why they would want to. Do moms do a lot of driving? Yes, but so do all people in the country, which this suburb was twenty years ago.

    I guess I think this guy has a lot of unarticulated prejudices and while I agree with him that parents are more anxious about unsupervised children than they were fifty years ago, I still think he’s cherry-picking and he’s sure got his nose in the air about it. To me, the real problem in the suburbs is an unnatural homogeneity, and that gets back to “why people choose to live in them,” which he’s explicitly not interested in, apparently (although there are urban planners who are).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. aradaghast

      La Hollande fait partie du Royaume des Pays-Bas (bas= “flat”). L’altitude minimale serait – 6mètres et maximale 324m)…il n’y a donc pas trop de collines, ni de montagnes dans une grande majorité du royaume. Cela me rappelle les vacances en Vendée à Noirmoutier, où l’on troque volontiers la voiture pour le vélo.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Thank you for this perspective, Servetus! Interesting about the homogeneity. I’ve read that before too about suburbs in the US, but it’s not a topic I’ve ever immersed myself in.

      Yes, geographically we have some advantages to support bicycle culture here, like that this country is flat and winters are not so harsh with lots of snow. Also, I can argue, that people here tend to be more individualistic than I perceive Americans to be. Americans seem more community oriented in a way The Netherlands isn’t. Here you rarely have neighbours walking into each other’s backyards, there are no yard sales or children’s lemonade booths and in my experience there are no neighbourhood parties (although I do know there are neighbourhoods where this does happen and things are more cohesive). So, yeah, I never figured living in suburbs in the US was a bad thing and I do like the community aspect they seem to have, but I didn’t quite consciously realize how car dependent things are. I mean, sure, I do know distances are bigger in the US which makes cars more necessary but I didn’t quite zoom in on how car dependent things seem to be even for small trips.

      Here young kids don’t tend to bike into town on their own either but mine did start meeting friends on their own in town once they biked to secondary school on their own (which is farther away then elementary schools here – elementary schools are always close to where you live). So, that would be from ages 12/13. That is also the age they tend to bike to their own sports practices without a parent biking along. Kids do meet up in playgrounds close to home on their own at younger ages.

      Growing up in Israel, we lived in a village just outside Jerusalem and couldn’t go to school on our own either although I do remember riding the bus home alone from school when I was 9/10 (my dad always dropped us off in the mornings). Preferably with siblings but if they weren’t done with school at the same time I was, I’d take the bus on my own. Except for that, the independence and radius my kids had in their movements was very different from what I experienced as a child. Also, it didn’t help that we knew few kids in the village where we lived, so I mostly played with my siblings. Arranging a playdate with school friends was always a big planning thing with needing to be dropped off or picked up again by car.

      And yeah, this guy seems extremely pro NL. I was watching something about how driving on highways in NL is great and while yes, the quality of roads is good, the impression that there are few traffic jams only comes from someone who maybe doesn’t leave Amsterdam a lot. 😉 He also has a popular video on there being no garbage day as you can easily dispose your garbage near home. That too is only true for some bigger city centers or areas where there are a lot of apartment buildings (like where my mother lives). Not so true for where I live where we definitely still do have garbage days and Mr E has an app to keep track of what bin needs to go out when. Still, I do like his perspective on how things surprise him here because it’s so different from what he’s used to.

      Anyway, thanks for chiming in with such detail, it helps with forming more balanced views!


      1. Servetus

        There’s never a traffic jam in a suburb. Just sayin’. (LOL)

        By the time we were tweens we were allowed to go places where there was public transportation unsupervised. In practice this was limited to places the school bus went, i.e., we could go home with a friend, or there was a late “activity bus” so students who did after school activities and I took that to get from school to church for confirmation classes, and so on. The rule of thumb around here is that a 12 year old can be left alone unsupervised or as a babysitter to a healthy smaller child. I was babysitting when I was 13 after I took the Red Cross class for teens. When I am in large US cities I see unsupervised tweens on public transport, which is a mixed pleasure (and most of the smaller groceries in the larger town here have signs on the door that only 2-3 unaccompanied kids are allowed in a store at a time). But I think part of the problem with this discussion is that everyone only has their own perspective and cultures and communities are very different. I wouldn’t describe our parks and playgrounds as unused, but yes, upper middle class people drive to them (in the same way that the NYC upper middle classes have nannies take their kids to playgrounds by subway). And during the summer they are jumping — youth sports, family and community parties and picnics, summer rec groups, etc. Even during the winter they get used a lot for sledding and skating. And in a situation where a lot of people are driving, you also get used to asking people for a ride anyway. I could have walked to my best friend’s house in 4th and 5th grade — it was 4 miles round trip, and not an easy bike trip — but it was usually easy to figure out a way there by car (with someone I knew; we weren’t allowed to hitchhike).

        Which I suppose gets to how community oriented Americans are: I don’t know. There’s this weird thing where we won’t create a national health care / insurance system, but no one protests at being asked to pony up via GoFundMe when someone they know is seriously ill. In the suburbs there’s this informal tax where kids come to your house and ask you to buy things to support youth sports programs.

        I think that if there were something like a 4x a day bus from here to the larger town it would be heavily used. Part of the reason there isn’t is the tax question, and part of the reason is that people here are willing to sacrifice their own convenience to the goal of making the community less accessible to poorer people (read: non-whites). In practice it doesn’t matter much that you need a car to live here, because everyone here can afford one, and if you can’t afford to run a car, you’re implicitly “not wanted.” One of dad’s senior helpers lost her car and I ended up driving her home a lot. OTOH there’s a Black family on my street now (the father is a doctor originally from Ghana and the mother is a nurse) and I don’t sense active racism (although microaggression is always a thing) — after all as someone said to me last summer when mentioning them, “they can afford to live here.” [grimace]


  2. aradaghast

    Enfant puis adolescente, je me déplaçait:seule ou non – à pied vers l’école (1 kilomètre à travers les buttes des ardoisières: désert de collines artificielles construites par accumulation de résidu minier), – en vélo seule, dans la campagne à travers champs; sans qu’il n’y ait de soucis. En ce temps, les voitures n’étaient pas nombreuses, les agressions rares.
    Pratiquer “walking bus” avec nos enfants et leurs amis était une activité (écolo)-militante,. Cela développait les rapports sociaux, une grande convivialité, un soutien entre parents.
    Aujourd’hui, les routes sont moins sures. Le développement du vélo est favorisé, en plein développement. Mais les enfants et les jeunes se baladent moins seuls. Beaucoup d’années ont été perdues au profit de la voiture, du bus ou du tramway. Les pistes cyclables sont ici encore trop rares.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that walking bus idea that you and Servetus mentioned, we don’t have that here. I hope more bicycle infrastructure can be implemented in France although I do see some of that already there in cities when I visit there.


  3. Servetus

    one ps: I think it’s really easy to complain about lack of sidewalks in communities where they don’t have to be shoveled free of snow five months a year. Maybe if the government took care of that, too, I would feel differently about them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep! Here bike paths get cleared from ice and snow in winter but we don’t have to deal with nearly as much snow as you guys do! I remember quite some years back when I still worked in my home town there had been a lot of snow overnight and it literally stopped all traffic. I walked to my workplace near the town center that morning (about 45 minutes) as the roads weren’t clear, there were no buses, cars, trains and bikes! Walking was the safest thing. Here when it snows, our services are not so used to dealing with a lot of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Servetus

        A lot of the talk about biking relies on a much more stable weather situation than is common in North America (and given climate change now, who knows — I wonder what the East Coast people are thinking about their commutes right now, but they’re not used to such copious amounts of snow as a regular thing, either). And I got up today and it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill of -20. It’s not safe to be outside for long in that without special clothing, let alone biking in a 15 MPH wind. On days like this kids don’t even go outside at recess.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. suseengler

    I haven’t watched the videos yet but I can confirm one thing after having spent three holidays in the Netherlands in the last few years: although I actually live relatively close to the Dutch border and we do have cycle paths and thousands of cyclists here too, cycling in the Netherlands is entirely different.

    It is absolutely enjoyable and I actually stopped wearing my helmet there because I felt so safe. The main factor imo is indeed that cycle paths are kept separate from the car traffic. Durch traffic focusses on cyclists. I have also found that the motorists are far more considerate – probably because they are also cyclists. Everybody seemed much more relaxed. As soon as the pandemic is over I’ll return for another holiday.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experience. Good to hear you feel comfortable cycling here. 🙂

      Yes, separate paths and motorists who are also cyclists are indeed big factors. Also, when you take driving lessons, learning to deal with cyclists is an important part.


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