how the dutch destroyed biking

October 26th, 2008

The Netherlands, a paradise for bikers. Twelve million bikes on seventeen thousand kilometers of dedicated bike paths. And a country so flat that you'll never be pushing your bike uphill because the hill is too steep - there is no hill. There's basically no corner of the country that isn't accessible to a biker, the place sometimes looks like a bike track with a country attached to it.

And yet, something is wrong. Very wrong.

You might think "Hey the Dutch are nuts about biking, I bet they have great bikes over there!". You'd be wrong. The bikes in use in this country are something out of an old Soviet factory. Single speed, pedal brake, black paint (or painted a bright color to conceal rampant corrosion), with a regular chain for locking. Often you can hear them coming, wheels spinning unevenly on the axle because the rims are slightly bent, lights fastened poorly and about to fall off, crank screeching against the panel that conceals the chain. Not surprisingly, bike repair is a thriving business in this country, repair shops are everywhere.

In fact, these old bikes are so dominant that it's difficult to find a bike that isn't one of these historical exhibits. Furthermore, bike theft is so widespread that people don't even want to own anything worth stealing. (A guy once told me he loses roughly one bike per year to theft.) Dutch people love to joke that the lock usually is worth more than the bike is. That's true, I just don't see why that is supposed to be funny. I wouldn't want to live in a house where the lock on the front door is worth more than the house itself.

Then there are the bike lanes. Yes, they are dedicated to bikes, and yes they are separate from motorized traffic. What you probably don't expect, however, is just how boring it is to ride on them. They are completely flat, they have their own traffic lights, and even indicators for traffic going in different directions. It's no wonder bikes don't have any gears, there's no way you could build up any speed before you have to stop at the next light. It is the experience of urban biking with the added bureaucracy of driving a car

Not only that, traffic regulations for bikers not only exist, they are enforced. That means you have tax collecting traffic cops just waiting to write you a ticket for any number of trivialities, like riding on the sidewalk (even when it's void of pedestrians), riding a light when there's no traffic, or riding without lights. Lights which, of course, will be stolen unless you obsessively remove them every time you park the bike. (Unless the whole bike gets stolen instead.) It's almost a wonder you don't have to fill in a form every time.

Then there is the terrain. When you're not biking in a town, which is about as much fun as driving a car in heavy traffic, you will find yourself somewhere on the grid of bike lanes that connect towns, out in the great outdoors. What fun! Well, at least until you realize that every slice of the country looks almost exactly the same, and the only thing there is to see anywhere is grasslands with canals crossing them. If you're lucky you might spot a forest, but they are very uncommon. And it's completely flat, so not only is there nothing to see here, you're well aware of the fact that 10km down the road there's also nothing. Scenery wise, this country is as close as you get to a desert.

The Dutch response to all of this? "Biking was never supposed to be fun, it's transport." Well, there you have it, it doesn't get more depressing than that. "Music an art form? We just needed a beat the soldiers could march to."

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21 Responses to "how the dutch destroyed biking"

  1. Brian says:

    Where I lived most of my life in the US, there are no bike lanes at all. The few people brave enough to bike through the city ride their bikes on the road down the side of busy highways. There are a lot of accidents. Most people are forced to drive or walk everywhere or take an over-crowded bus. And the city is all hills. Probably a lot of people there would appreciate flat streets and fields of grass.

    Weird about how old the bikes are though. Are newer ones not available for sale at all, or do people just not want to buy them because of theft concerns?

  2. numerodix says:

    By and large the bikes on sale are city bikes of this variety, just new. There's a huge used market as well. It's those that dominate the streets dramatically. Any other type of bike (like a mountain bike, which is more my thing) is incredibly rare. And despite all these bikes in circulation they aren't sold cheaply. For some reason, the cops have really nice mountain bikes.

  3. Rami Taibah says:

    Funny how you bemoan the scenery and that there is too much green, while I who lives in a desert, would kill for living in such environment. Over here it's too much yellow damn it!

    Oh and your last line, is an absolute howler!

  4. numerodix says:

    I'm not saying green is bad. I'm saying variety is good. Have you seen the flag of Libya?

  5. Erik says:

    It's a very simple case of cause and consequence. The country's landscape is dull, the weather is bad for cycling (windy, often rain as well). As such, cycling developed into a cheap form of transportation for the masses. Cycling was never going to develop into a fun sport in this corner of the world, was it? That would make no sense. It would've been a socio-historical mystery. Instead, fun activities in the Netherlands are focused predominantly on the water, which does make sense.

    The theft, now THAT is a serious bike-related problem.

  6. Michael says:

    Haha, that's great fun to read :) But seriously, they are hills in the netherlands:
    I rode some of them and the ones near Aachen are great!

  7. Febri says:

    In my country Indonesia, it is almost impossible for people to ride bike for transportation due to the weather.
    We have two seasons here, dry season and rainy season which are not friendly for bikers.
    Plus the air pollution in most cities makes it worse.

    Cars and motorcycles are the general transportation in here.
    We have car free day once a month but it doesn't help at all.

    So I think it's good for a country such Netherlands to have bike as transportation.

  8. holodri says:

    what should be so funny about commuting on a bike? it's like going by car just less annoying and expensive. and there are other advantages like health, pollution, parking space.
    fancy bikes get stolen everywhere not just in netherlands because it's so easy if not properly locked, they are worth a lot and dont weight much.
    i think the dutch have revolutionised cycling. i've seen old mums in amsterdam steering their bikes through crowds of pedestrians and traffic like bike messengers do in my hometown.

  9. Anneke says:

    Seriously, don't you understand anything about cycling? Or maybe you are in favour of cars, and believe that bikes should be discarded all together...

    Cycling is not a 'extreme sport' and that's the whole point! Instead of those 0.001 per cent of American cyclists (who also die by the thousands because of unsafe roads) we have 30 per cent of all journeys made by bike. Plus one of the lowest traffic accident rate to boot.

    If you like living in a car infested, noisy, poluted, dangerous and filthy city, be my guest and move to such a place. If you like the quiet, clean and safe streets of the Netherlands I suggest you make use of them and don't complain.

  10. Charadeur says:

    Name the place where your bicycle is safe without locking it? I know someone in Boulder who buys $50 bicycles and considers their theft as a tax he pays two or three times a year. So the bicycle theft issue does not make the Dutch different than any other place.

    The reason for older bicycles is because of a different mindset from wasteful Americans that if something can still be used it should. Unlike us they don't buy into that advertising propaganda that if you just buy the latest bike with more gears that you will ever need you will be able to pick up girls easier (or be happier or smell better or whatever.)

  11. numerodix says:

    If this is true, then why aren't we driving 30 year old cars?

  12. Willie says:

    You are full of shit.

  13. Rick says:

    There is much more to bicycling than riding out in the middle of the road on your $6000 bike that you bought because it matches your 7-colored lycra outfit that you and all of your high fiving fuck buddies jack off in. We all know you just wear it to pick up on the scene ho's at your local indie coffee shop. Most people like to ride their bikes for transportation, for exercise, to be ecologically friendly, or believe it or not, just for the hell of it.

  14. Steve says:

    I'd prefer to see loads of people on old bikes than only a few on new expensive ones.
    I reckon the Dutch have contributed to cycling in other ways - there are enough Dutch road racers. I do ride around on an expensive bike, but that's because I use it off-road & it's also my job (yes!). If I only needed a form of transport then I'd have something cheap - not rubbish, but a quality older bike. Not singlespeed though, bad for the knees! the UK anyway.
    Small point, well a big point really - cycling is ONLY beneficial to the environment if you use it to replace a car/public transport/other powered journey. Otherwise it's just neutral, which is fine! Cycle for the fun of it. Encourage other people to have fun by trying your brand of the sport, but you won't get far by telling them that theirs is rubbish! Anyway, IMO mountain biking rules, haven't owned a road bike in years, but I'm not going to tell anyone that my way is the only way! For me mountain biking has it all - adrenaline, if you want it, scenery, & you can get miles from nowhere in not much time at all...

  15. David says:

    Amazing claim. I'm still unsure if you're joking or serious. As you're living in the middle of The Netherlands and in the middle of one of the larger University towns of Holland you must undoubtly see the benefits of a bike. So that can't be the problem with you. As you're living in a large city full of students you also should be able to see both the benefits of owning a cheap and cheaply replaceable form of transport for students to use.
    Maybe you haven't been too far out of Utrecht to know that there are also towns with less than crappy old bikes. As the average number of bikes for the Dutch is 2.6 you must see only the "city-bike" one uses to get around in town. The nice Hybrid, mountainbikes, roadracers are use for what they are meant for. So during the weekends, vacations, exercise. We just have a couple of bikes to choose from. I certainly wouldnt go to the shop on my road racer (Were would you keep the groceries) or go to a friend on a mountainbike (I'd hate to come at the front door smeared from the mudspray on my trousers). No I'd rather use my city one-speed bike to get around town, do my groceries and go out to the café. (at least I don't have to worry about drunk driving a car).
    We see cycling not as a childs activity one stops doing as soon as one owns a driving license or put the bicycle on a pedestal. We cycle for both the practicality AND for the enjoyment. We just use different bikes for the different activities.
    Maybe you should move back to your lovely country, because that it certainly is.

  16. Brian Huntley says:

    I've got 3x8 gears on my bike, but haven't shifted in about 6 weeks due to the snowy weather (in fairly flat Toronto.) That's on my daily commuter.

    And yes, it has full fenders, flaps, lights, racks, and a bag over the seat - I think the only Fred points I'm missing out on are the kickstand and the milk carton.

  17. BAW says:

    Of course mountain bikes are rare. What use are they in a country without mountains?

  18. Duncan says:

    A lot of people are taking this blog seriously- I thought it was satire and pretty funny.

    For the record i do wide an expensive road bike, no lycra...

  19. Doh ouch says:

    Thought it very well written.

  20. oki says:

    just wanna say, tehres lots of other bikes in theNetherlands, its not all old and crappy. i have a mountain bike myslef, actually.
    and a lot of people have 2, one good and one old, to go shopping downtown, because the good one will get nicked.
    and if you think tehres no pretty landscape around Utrecht, you really need to look better. theres lots. go see the forts, theres some castles around, theres amelisweerd, theres sand dunes around soest, windmills to go see...

    and last but not least: we love our crappy bikes. we like the old models, and they are not all acient, they sell retro bikes everywhere.

  21. Rini says:

    uhn, you do know that aachen is Germany, not in the netherlands,