Here’s the crazy thing. When my girlfriend Sara first told me that biking in the US was a living nightmare for her, I just didn’t get it. Biking isn’t BIG in the US overall, but it is gaining popularity in many American cities. How different could the Netherlands really be?
To be fair, this was coming from someone whose biking experiences are… well, limited to say the least.
So it turns out, there are a shit load of differences. As an American expat living the Netherlands who has a Dutch girlfriend, I am now in the know.
Until a few years ago, biking in the US was really not a thing. People take public transport in cities. I remember that when I was in Germany as a 18 year old on my first trip to Europe, I kept getting yelled at by very angry Germans for walking on their bike lanes.
That’s because we didn’t really have bike lanes in the US when I made that trip back in 2011. I think I just heard the collective gasp of a thousand Dutchies.
So that’s the first difference between biking in the Netherlands and the US. In the US, if there’s a bike lane, that’s a luxury. Even these days. In the Netherlands, bike lanes are your right and there are bike lanes EVERYWHERE. Even in tiny villages.
Yesterday, I went for a bike ride of about 22 kilometers each way. I rode on a bike lane THE WHOLE TIME. If you wanted to, you could ride from Utrecht, where I live, to Amsterdam, all on a bike lane. Are you listening, America?
But even other than the bike lanes, there are several differences in the biking culture that make it so much better to bike in cities like Amsterdam or Utrecht vs cities in the US like New York or Philadelphia.
For those of you who don’t know, EVERYONE bikes in the Netherlands. I mean literally EVERYONE. The Prime Minister bikes to work, the Dutch royal family bikes— there are more bikes than people in this country. The Dutch start learning how to bike pretty much around the same time as people learn how to walk. YES, LITERALLY EVERYONE BIKES!!! And I mean the literal meaning of literally.
Which means that people who drive cars are also bikers. And turns out, that leads to drivers who are actually aware of bicyclist and are even nice to them.
In Philadelphia, where I lived before moving to the Netherlands, people on bikes got yelled at all the time. For no reason. I once had a friend tell me he got yelled at by a car driver while he was just STANDING with his bike. Go figure.
Cars being aware of bikes on the road is, of course, great for bikers to avoid accidents. You might have heard of the “Dutch reach”. It’s where the car drivers open their car door with their right hand (as opposed to their left). This naturally allows them to look at the road for bikes! Apparently every Dutch person getting their license learns to do this. What fucking geniuses!
Another cultural difference is that bikers in the Netherlands are much better at communicating with other bikers on the road. In the US, I’d nearly crash into other bikers on a daily basis just because I was on a slower commuter bike and they were lazering past me on their mountain bikes.
Dutch people on the other hand, they’ll give you plenty of signs just in case you miss one. There’s eye contact when possible, they’ll yell from the back, ring their bells, or honestly, just be talking so loudly with their friend that you can hear them from a mile away.
And yes… Dutch people LOVE to bike together. They take up the whole lane, and that’s okay! Gezellig! Of course you want to bike with your friend and have a relaxing fun time.
In the US, I always felt like even commuters were trying to race to work. Dutch people on the other hand, even those in Amsterdam who are known for raging on the road, bike in a really relaxed way. You’ll see Dutch people on their phones, doing their make up on their bikes, and of course, chatting with fellow bikers.
Americans lack that kind of skill. In the US, we would all probably end up failing miserably if we tried to multitask on bikes like the Dutch. We cannot bike while holding a suitcase in one hand, an umbrella in another, and a friend hanging out at the back of the bike.
All of that while not wearing a helmet. As an American, this is insane to me, but not a single Dutch person will be seen wearing a helmet. I’ve asked Dutch people about this, and they insist that it’s completely unnecessary. Maybe they’re right… why would I want to protect my brain? Doesn’t seem important.
There is another weird thing that all Dutch people do, and it’s when they get on the back of a bike. I always thought you just kind of plopped yourself at the back, but no. That’s not how the Dutch do it. When Dutch people get on the back of someone’s bike, they run and jump on a moving bicycle. Apparently it’s better that way! No, we do not do such crazy things in the US. And definitely not in the middle of a busy intersection what the hell.
In spite of all of these seemingly unsafe things to be doing while on a bike, Dutch people don’t appear to get into any accidents. How are they doing this? My bet is that the bike lanes and their excellent communication skills does the trick. That and probably super-human-biker genes.
Although the Netherlands is paradise for bikers, biking in the Netherlands was not an easy transition for me. For two reasons. One is that the Dutch are so comfortable biking that it’s actually quite difficult to join in the bike traffic if you, like me, are only used to biking occasionally for fun.
The Dutch do not bike for fun. It is part of what they need to do to get from one place to another. And because everyone bikes and many people bike to work, it can be stressful to bike alongside twenty other bikers squeezed within twenty feet of each other. Well, it was stressful for me at least.
Especially because the bikes in the Netherlands are different. I learned how to use front brakes, but here, back brakes are more common. That and have you seen Dutch bikes? They’re beautiful, but so big and it takes some getting used to.
These Dutch bikes are called “omafietsen” (grandma bikes), but you’ll never see a grandma on them. Only hip Dutch women.
My first time riding a bike in Amsterdam, I rented out one of these bikes. I thought, “how hard could it be?” Very hard, it turns out. I landed flat on my ass in no time.
That was back in 2017 when I was visiting Amsterdam as a tourist. But since that experience, I really wanted to redeem myself and “fit in” with the rest of the people on these gorgeous bikes. So I challenged myself and bought an omafiets. There was no going back now.
Once I had this beauty, I had no choice but to ride it and get used to it. I’m happy to say it worked (after some more scratches and bruises).
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Loved your post! When living in the US as a Dutch person I totally missed my bike and I thought it was complete suicide to go on the road with a bike there so I get where you are coming from. Keep up the great writing!
Haha, right? And it’s really saying something when expert bikers like the Dutch don’t even feel safe biking in the US.
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“You’ll see Dutch people on their phones, doing their make up on their bikes”
Don’t let the police catch you with a phone in your hand while biking. Since July 1, 2019 that might cost you a fine of € 95 (plus administration costs?). And doing make-up? There is no specific law mentioning ‘doing make-up’ but there is Article 5 about endangering your fellow road users. This is a so-called ‘kapstokartikel’ literally: ‘coat hanger article’ with which the police can act against everything they deem dangerous and irresponsible. Fines can cost you up to €8,700 or 6 months prison.
But don’t let that take away the fun of riding your bike. It is a such a wonderful mode of transport, fast, cheap and good for health and environment. And especially in and around Utrecht, a wonderful bike-city! I love reading your posts!
Misschien ken je deze video op YouTube: Not Just Bikes. In de video wordt fietsverkeer in Kopenhagen met Amsterdam vergeleken. Zeer interessant.
Perhaps you know this video on YouTube: Not Just Bikes. The video compares cycling in Copenhagen with cycling in Amsterdam. Very interesting.
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Very interesting and illuminating article. Just one minor nit. Bikes in America typically have both front and rear brakes. Front brakes only is not a good idea as locking up front brakes only can send the rider over the handlebars. However, what I think you mean is that in America (and elsewhere) we use hand operated caliper style brakes whereas in the Netherlands most bikes use pedal activated coaster brakes.