I had stopped my bike at an intersection. Both the light for bike traffic and the light for car traffic were red. Then both lights turned green and cars and bikes were free to go. I, however, had pulled out a map to check my route, so I wasn’t moving. There was a BMW in the regular traffic lane next to me (to my left) waiting to make a right turn. The driver leaned across the passenger seat of her car so she could make eye contact with me. “Was I going to go?” she was asking with her glance. With a wave, I got on my pedals and moved through the intersection. It was only after I passed thru the intersection that the BMW driver then made her right and went on her way. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore!
There are many things that tell you when you travel internationally that you’re in a new, unfamiliar place. The language. The landscape. The architecture. The cuisine. The currency. The look of the people (here they are TALL!!).
But perhaps nothing is such an immediate adjustment here as how people get around. You likely already knew that the Netherlands was famous for bike riding. We’re told that of all the cities in the Netherlands, Groningen is the epicenter of cycling! Actually it’s hard to overstate just how embedded this mode of transportation is in this society. From the youngest to the oldest, everyone is on bikes. Perhaps the analogy to the U.S. is the American love affair with the car. Could Americans (at least those living outside of NYC and DC!) imagine their lives without their cars?
We’re told that biking isn’t just a fair weather habit. Even in the raw, cold days of winter, people bundle up and head out on two wheels. We were told yesterday that when winter weather comes, teams of vehicles are out to treat both bike paths and regular roads alike, and bike riding continues unabated. Check us in November to see how that’s working out for us! Speaking of, the family member who will have the longest commute is Elyse since her school will actually be a 20 minute ride from the apartment we’re moving to on September 1st. We had wanted to find a place closer to her school, but Elyse is HAPPY with the commuting distance. Our teenager is spreading her wings.
One thing you notice immediately is that virtually no one wears bike helmets, not even the youngest children who are carried atop handle bars, or in the wheel barrow bikes that are so common for carrying children or other loads. Now I personally wouldn’t dream of getting on a bike in the U.S. without a helmet – but then U.S. roads and Dutch roads are a different scene. As the Dutch describe the ‘helmet/no-helmet’ debate, Americans promote bike safety by encouraging helmet use whereas the Dutch encourage bike safety by radically re-engineering their road systems to incorporate bike lanes and then enforcing a code of driving behavior that radically favors the bike over the car. That’s the reason that woman in the BMW waited on me to move before she would proceed thru the intersection. Maybe that would happen in the U.S. in your local neighborhood or small towns, but in a major city?
Of course Janet, Elyse and I are needing to unlearn our deference to cars! We realize that by our natural hesitations in the face of oncoming car or truck traffic, we are CREATING safety hazards with other bicyclists who have to brake or swerve to avoid us! And then there are the looks of annoyance from car drivers who don’t understand why we’re giving them the right away. JUST GO!!! their looks tell us!
Then there’s this business about intersections. The sign below indicates the ‘intended’ flow of bikes in counter-clockwise fashion when when the bike lights turns green — and ALL the bikes go all at once! The first time Janet, Elyse and I went through such an intersection, it was mayhem! (You can check it out in the video at the end of this post!)
So we’re learning.
In the midst of this bike-mania, there’s a surprising problem here: rampant bike theft. That’s why nearly every bike that you see here is automatically equipped with a built in lock which prevents your bike from being ridden away. But that’s little protection from theft as people will just carry the bike off. So many people also use a regular bike lock to secure their bike to a bicycle stand, fence or drainage pipe. Everywhere you go you see lines and lines of parked bikes. The main train station (pic below) has a supervised underground parking area with the capacity for 5,500 bikes. I haven’t see a car park — but I assume there is one!
The threat of bike theft is also why many people ride ‘beaters’ — drab black bikes that you wouldn’t overly miss if it’s stolen. It appears that people save their best bikes for a weekend excursion and then they park them inside.
This Dutch bike culture seems to have several impacts. First, the city is oddly quiet. The loudest noises come from the mopeds that scoot around. People still drive, to be sure, but it’s typical to see the main streets empty of any vehicular traffic for minutes at a time as streams of bicyclists go whizzing to and fro. The city is absent of honking and car stereos.
Another impact of all this biking is that people seem quite fit. Imagine riding to work, to school, to the supermarket, out to dinner — everywhere! It’s unusual to see people who appear overweight. But then oddly, in a society that favors such a healthy mode of transportation, we have noticed a higher incidence of smoking.
Finally – and perhaps this is just me – but life feels as though it’s less frenetic, as though the pace is slowed down a bit, simpler. Of course, that might also be a feature of my not having any job responsibilities at the moment (ya think??!).
We have gotten great enjoyment using our bikes to explore Groningen and have started visiting some of the nearby towns. There’s a tranquility to biking along a canal as the sun sets in the sky and a coolness settles on the land.
I’ll see what happens on the job and/or volunteering front and will update you on that as I go. What is clear though is that whatever I’m able to line up, I assume I’ll be getting to and fro on two wheels!
As I close out this post, here’s a video of a few scenes from our biking world!