Netherlands Adventures!: Biking in the Netherlands
Several weeks ago, a neighbor of mine back home posted a video similar to (if not the same as) the one below on my mother's Facebook wall. Panic and surprise ensued over how chaotic the bikers and traffic were and how they were convinced that someone was going to be hit and die in the process.
I tried to do a little trouble-shooting in the comment section, but I figured that it would be a little more efficient to talk about the biking system in the Netherlands, according to my own experiences and observations (I guess that's a disclaimer. I'm not the goddess of bikes in the Netherlands-- I don't know absolutely everything) here on this blog.
Biking was terrifying. The roads are quite narrow, considering there's two-way motor vehicle traffic plus two bike lanes on each side of the road going different directions. Sometimes the road doesn't even look like a road until you see a car turning onto a very sidewalk-looking piece of concrete, then you know it's a road. The first time you're biking on the road and a bus passes by a handful of inches away from you, you're convinced that you're going to die, but you can't make any sudden movements because then you'll either take a swim in the canal or be crushed/hit by a bus or other moving vehicle.
So I guess what I'm saying is, your fears aren't totally unfounded. So now that I've been a biker her for five plus weeks now, it's time to debunk some (if not all of these fears).
Bikers Rule the Road
It's true, even though it's not something that's written down. Here, there's a sort of hierarchy of the road: the more exposed you are, the more people seem to look out for you. Now, that doesn't mean you should just dart out into the road or that you can walk in the street when you please, but if you're biking somewhere (to the laundromat, to class, to visit somewhere, etc.) and there's a car coming in the opposite direction of you plus there are cars and a bus behind you, they will move around you. Cars will stay in the one official car lane (unless you're in a particularly busy area or on a highway, you won't have lanes marked by paint on a road) until they have to move over to make room for another car. If you happen to be biking when they need to get over, they'll get behind you until it's safe for the car to make their way around you without getting hit by another car. The buses do the same thing. The only reason they're so close to you is because you're in Europe, where everything is small and close together.
There's a Lot of Biking Infrastructure, Making Biking Pretty Darn Safe
Usually you will bike on the same road as a car. But no matter what, there is always a signified lane for bikes. In Leiden, when there's a corner to turn because of a general curve in the road (as opposed to turning onto a residential street), there's a physical barrier. A raised concrete barrier will be put in place and you, as a biker, will be on the other side of this barrier or you will be on top of the barrier. The barrier prevents cars and buses from taking too sharp of a turn and running you down. If you're taking a longer journey, say, going to Katwijk to see the sea, you'll follow the general direction of the high way, but you'll have a completely separated road to follow. You'll only being sharing the road with other bikers and mopeds as you all travel by different transportation to see the same thing. There are also different lights for different forms of transportation: one for bikers/mopeds, one for walkers, and one for every other motor vehicle on the road. You won't be told to go until the cars have stopped.
Biking Isn't Just a Hobby or a Form of Exercise...
It's a way of life here. Occasionally I will see a biker wearing racing gear, but it's not like the bikers I remember seeing in Minneapolis. There are a TON of bikers wearing racing/triathlon gear there when they're biking on the street. A bike is a smaller and much more portable version of a car. Seriously, they have their own parking garages, just like a car in a busy part of town. Biking is by and far merely a form of transportation; a way to get from A to B. Because there are so many people using bikes like they might cars, there are laws put in place for bikes and people do know what they're doing. Each bike must have front and back lights and must have a bell to warn people that you're coming and they're in the way. Bikes may not ride on the sidewalk. What looks like chaos in the video above is really just a high volume of bikes. People who have biked here for years know what they're doing and for the people who haven't been here as long (whether they're studying here like I am for a short while or visiting for only a couple weeks) do as the Dutch do. To bike in a busy area here is to move as a school of fish does-- when they go, you go too. If you don't follow what everyone else is doing, you're going to be hit by a bus.
Sorry, that turned into a bit of a defense for cycling and also a public safety announcement. Didn't mean to get preachy, just hoping to mythbust.