Another summer in cycling heaven

After another summer holiday spent cycling in the Netherlands (the fourth in as many years!) you might think I’d be feeling a bit jaded by now. Far from it. The more time I’ve spent there the more I’ve come to realise just how amazing – yet at the same time how utterly ordinary – the Dutch environment for cycling is.

Stand on pretty much any street corner and you’ll witness scenes some people apparently think so incredible they must have been set up for the camera.

Scenes like people cycling in ordinary clothes…

“Can we stop here?”

Families out for a ride…

“Don’t drop the suitcase!”

A trip into town with grandma…

“Oma, can I hold your hand?”

Women dressed for the destination, not the journey…

Heading into Leiden town centre

Couples holding hands…

Riding side-by-side in Rotterdam

Teenagers…

The fine art of “dinking”

Cargo bikes…

Supermum to the rescue!

Yet what makes all this possible?

One likely reason the Dutch cycle so much is they don’t have to consider the possibility of getting killed or seriously injured just to make a quick trip into town (to school, to the beach or whatever).

There are dangerous drivers in the Netherlands. We experienced a few ourselves. The big difference is that generally you don’t have to share the same space with them.

Mother and baby in Leiden

The Dutch have mastered the art of removing cars from town centres whilst not turning them into lifeless dead spaces. Delivery and service vehicles have access of course, but not through traffic. Only anyone who actually needs to be there is allowed to enter.

Shopping by bike in Gouda market square

The result is safe and attractive places where people walk and cycle everywhere (and where it’s quiet enough you can stop and chat).

Chatting on a street corner in Gouda

Spending time in Dutch towns you realise what makes them such pleasant places to be is the killer combination of restricting car access whilst allowing access for people on bikes. In the UK, after decades of continuing to build hollowed-out “pedestrianised” town centres (with bans on cars and bikes) we still don’t get this.

To make shopping by bike a viable choice you need to cycle direct into the town centre and park right outside the shop.

Outside the HEMA in Den Bosch

Outside the ubiquitous HEMA chain-store – or the Albert Heijn grocery store –  you’ll see rows of bikes, with people loading up with shopping all day long. Everybody does this: mums, dads, the young and elderly alike.

Cycle parking at the Albert Heijn in Den Bosch

Many Dutch towns have delightful shopping streets, where you find interesting independent shops and cafes. These streets naturally have lots of cycle parking and restricted car access.

Shopping street in Gouda

In the UK, even where there’s a half-decent off-road route between towns, when you arrive at the town centre the cycle route unceremoniously ends and you have to fend for yourself – either fighting your way across a busy one-way ring road or forced to dismount and walk. Dutch towns couldn’t be more different. You ride seamlessly into and out of the town centre.

Outside the HEMA

Even in the suburbs, Dutch housing developments have cut-throughs at the end to give people on bikes the shortest way out. This is the exact opposite of UK practice.

Cycle cut-through at the end of a housing development

The perfectly unremarkable is a joy to use. Wide, smooth cycle tracks, separate from motor traffic, with protected junctions and good signage. You feel they actually want you to be there.

Also, in stark contrast to the UK, as soon as you enter a built-up area traffic speeds are noticeably lower, making everything much calmer and quieter. At these speeds everyone has time to react. Walking around is much pleasanter too.

Perfectly ordinary kerb-separated cycle track outside Leiden

Cycling across the entire country is unbelievable easy. There is a national system of numbered waypoints with large map boards at each point (along with superb online and paper maps).

The tech-savvy can use their phones but even for a Luddite it’s incredibly easy: Step 1. Decide where you want to go. Step 2. Scribble the numbers of the waypoints on a piece of paper. Step 3. Follow the signs to the waypoints. Oh, and it’s all on top-notch cycle infrastructure!

Protected cycleway on the outskirts of Gouda

As we’ve come to expect, cycling in the national parks is a delight too, with separate networks of all-weather paths for both cyclists and walkers. In the Biesbosch National Park not far from Rotterdam the lovely wide, smooth cycle tracks were particularly impressive.

Feel the width! Dedicated cycle track in the Biesbosch National Park

This high quality of provision even continues on the many bridges.

Smooth, wide track on bridge for cycles only

The many leisure routes criss-crossing the country, such as the cycle path along the dunes north of Katwijk, are very popular in the summer.

This is where the e-bike revolution is really taking hold. It seems as if every other bike is an electric one. We kept hearing the whirr of an electric motor behind us as another white-haired couple came spinning past on their e-bikes!

Cycling along the dunes near Katwijk

Cutting back overhanging vegetation on cycle paths is taken seriously, unlike in the UK. This means the full width of the path can be used, avoiding unnecessary conflicts between users.

Well-maintained cycle path outside Gouda

I was extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity of riding an electric cargo bike for the first time. Electric assist really is a game-changer, enabling you to effortlessly travel on long journeys without breaking into a sweat. We even rode out one evening to the world-famous windmills at Kinderdijk.

E-cargo bikes really are a game-changer

We hired several different bikes on our trip. All were perfectly up to the task and the best were very impressive indeed, with modern lightweight frames, hub gears and brakes, mudguards, chainguard, rack with straps (“snelbinders”), and built-in lock and lights. Ideal for riding in all weathers – and perfectly at home on the superlative Dutch cycle infrastructure, whether in town or country.

Not the swankiest bikes we hired but still perfectly adequate

If you haven’t yet been to cycling heaven I can thoroughly recommend it!

Comments

  1. We cycled in Amsterdam and out into the countryside. It is almost entirely fear-free and easy, in fact down right enjoyable getting around. And Amsterdam is a very busy city, and nowhere near the best place to cycle in the Netherlands. Bicycles are complimented by trams, buses, trains, and free-for-bikes ferries. Sustainable transport in action!

    I noted that the Dutch highway maintenance people had marked some almost invisible cracks in the cycleway for repair. I suspect that early preventative maintenance saves money in the long term. As usual, sensible long-term evidence-based policy making.

    • Yes, we saw a similar high standard of maintenance on a cycleway outside Gouda, with areas marked for repair where you had to look hard to see what the problem was (tree roots starting to come through in this case). Very impressive and, as you say, cost-effective in the long run.
      Tree root on cycleway

  2. Jill Shuker says

    Just absolute heaven as you say.We spent a few days in Bruges and hired bikes and our experience was exactly the same as yours. Bicycles could go the wrong way down one way streets, cars and pedestrians – well most of them anyway – gave way to bicycles. The bicycle was king. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that here?

  3. Stuart Beadle says

    Dear Peter, Thanks for another interesting and uplifting article re riding in Holland. Thanks to the regular tweets from the cycling forum we have booked a 5 day trip to see a friend in Groningen – we shall hire bikes and hopefully experience some of the pleasure from riding there. We tried this previously In Copenhagen and then Bruges and both were fantastic so hoping for more if the same.

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