Anyone who has spent 5 minutes in a Dutch city knows that bicycles are the undisputed transport king in The Netherlands.
The Netherlands is the perfect country for cycling. The landscapes are flat, cities and towns are close together, and there’s a stunning 35,000km (22,000 miles) of dedicated cycle lanes criss-crossing the country. And that doesn’t even include roads with an adjacent cycle lane!
Amazingly, bicycles are so widespread that they actually outnumber humans. There are 17 million people in the Netherlands, and an estimated 23 million bicycles!
It’s inspiring to see a country embracing green power so thoroughly. But the country wasn’t always filled with bikes; in fact, the bicycle was once teetering on the edge of being overtaken by cars. So where did this nationwide obsession with pedal power come from?
Why does The Netherlands have so many bicycles, anyway?
Bicycles far outnumbered cars in The Netherlands in the pre-war years. But during the post-war boom, like most countries around the world, the car saw a sharp rise in popularity. Cars became more affordable, and were seen as the future of transport.
Then, in the early seventies, a series of events changed attitudes. A spike in accidents occurred when, in 1971 alone, 3,300 traffic-related deaths were recorded (400 of which were children). It was nicknamed the kindermoord (child death), and protestors began successfully petitioning the government for change.
Compounding this was the 1973 Middle East oil crisis, which quadrupled the price of petrol. In addition, certain areas of historic cities were being demolished to make space for wider roads.
One by one, cities began experimenting with bike paths, and encouraging car-free Sundays. Other cities followed along, and before long, bicycles as local transport took a foothold, and the culture was in full swing.
The different kinds of bicycles in The Netherlands
When bicycle culture is so infused into society, it’s no surprise that there are different bicycles for different purposes. Let’s have a look at some of them!
The omafiets (grandma bicycle) is a trusty Dutch classic. It’s easy to ride, with a high seat, big wheels, a low frame which you don’t need to lift your leg very high to step into, and sometimes a basket or tray for storage (or, commonly, a pillion passenger).
The omafiets is the most popular bike in the Netherlands, and a national symbol of green power. Many people ride their workhorse omafiets bikes until they fall apart, and because of the risk of theft, they’re usually in pretty scrappy condition.
Even the Dutch royal family ride these bicycles!
The moederfiets (mum bicycle) is a variation of the omafiets, fitted with a child seat attached to the front or back (or both).
If you want to split hairs, there are minor variations that also include the men’s bike (herenfiets), ladies bike (damesfiets), and a grandpa bike (opafiets). It might be easier just to classify all of them into city bikes (stadfiets)!
For parents whose kids are older and need the extra legroom, there is no need to abandon the bike lifestyle for a big car.
Instead, there’s the versatile bakfiets, a long bicycle with a giant kid friendly bucket in the front. While a little extra balance is required, these are the best way to pedal the kids around town.
They work just as well for hauling groceries home, and a variant with two front wheels can make balancing even easier.
Dutch transport network NS owns this fleet of yellow and blue bicycles. They form part of a bike share program with pods close to transport hubs such as train stations and bus stops.
They’re perfect for anyone without a bike handy; tourists, expats and locals visiting a new city where they don’t have a second bike on the other end. And with half a million users, 15,000 OVfiets bikes, and 300 stations, they’re super popular.
They’re cheap, too – renting an OVfiets costs €3.85 per day, with penalties for keeping them more than 72 hours.
The folding bike
The most convenient type of bike out there are the great folding bikes, which unclip and fold in half to make them portable. They have small wheels, and are lightweight.
They even come with tiny suitcase-esque wheels so you can roll along the folded apparatus! Unlike other bikes, they’re allowed on trains, ideal for commuters who have to cycle on both ends of their journey.
The bicycles in the canal
According to Waternet, the city water services of Amsterdam, around 15,000 bicycles are fished out of the city’s canals every year.
It’s not surprising, considering the number of bikes, lack of guardrails, and the 100km (60 mile) network of canals. They might end up in the canal through accidental bumps, strong winds, to dispose of an old bike, or maybe even a thief hiding the evidence.
Luckily, there’s a dedicated salvage team on hand that trawls the canals on a barge, dredging the rusted wrecks from the bottom with a huge metal claw. All of the bikes lifted from the canals are melted down as scrap metal.
According to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 636,308 reported bike thefts in The Netherlands in 2015. And those are just the ones that were reported; it’s estimated that reported thefts are only about 30% of all thefts, making the true number more than three times higher than that.
Unfortunately, not even 5% of these bike thieves are ever caught. Bike thieves often re-sell their bikes on the street and in broad daylight to anybody who needs one.
The defence against bike thefts? It’s tricky. While bikes can be registered, it seems to be a culture of semi-acceptance that bike thieves are out there. Instead of buying expensive bikes, the Dutch usually ride beat-up second hand bikes, and invest their money in hefty chains to secure them.
Highly decorated bikes can often be seen chained up from time to time in Dutch cities. They’re wacky painted constructions, packed with fake flowers and plush toys. They might be in regular use, but seem to be most often just for decoration, usually advertising a nearby cafe or florist.
The spray painted bike
With so many bicycles in the country, it’s no surprise that many bikes get stolen, even with the best locks. For that reason, many Dutch people buy cheap, battered old bikes as a deterrent (who wants to steal a beat up bike?).
To either further reenforce how ugly they are, or to give an old bike some fresh life, sometimes the whole bike will be resprayed; tyres, gears, brake lines – the whole thing. Or maybe, they’re stolen, with a fresh paint job to hide the evidence!
The Amsterdam Beer Bike
If you’re looking to combine beer drinking at a bar with cycling, these weird creations are the way to go. The Beer Bike is essentially a dozen seats around a central bar-style table, with beer on tap and four chunky wheels to travel around the city.
Every passenger participates in the pedalling with pedals under each stool, and a designated driver sits on a small seat at the front to steer the drunken contraption around the narrow streets of Dutch cities. They are popular with bachelor and bachelorette parties as a daytime activity.
In 2017, they were deemed too much of a nuisance in central Amsterdam, so Beer Bike tours are now forbidden to enter the city centre, and usually operate out of Sloterdijk.
Racing bikes (racefiets)
There are, not surprisingly, plenty of people who take their cycling more seriously than just getting from A to B. These wielrenners (wheel runners) ride sporty racing bikes, just like the Tour de France style.
The bikes have extremely narrow tyres, an aerodynamic profile and curved handlebars so the rider can hunch down.
Electric bikes (elektrische fietsen)
Electric bikes are making a big appearance on the biking scene in The Netherlands, too. They are usually limited to 25km/h, even when riding downhill, and come in many variations, just like the bikes listed above.
Dangers, rules and pedestrians
When one rides a bike instead of travelling by car, there are no more speeding fines, parking fines, expired registration, or seatbelt fines.
But don’t get too comfortable – there are still rules to break on a bicycle, pedestrians to look out for, and penalties to pay for infractions! So, what road rules must Dutch cyclists be mindful of?
Dutch cyclist road rules
- No cycling on the footpath – the cycle lanes are in place to separate pedestrians from cyclists, and it makes sense that to stop crashes, cyclists need to stay in their designated lane.
- Failing to stop at red traffic lights – Just like cars, cyclists need to obey the rules of an intersection.
- Cycling while drunk – A blood alcohol level of 0.05% is considered over the limit on a bike. Bicycle crashes can be just as fatal as car crashes.
- Not indicating your turns – Holding your arm out to the right or left is mandatory for anybody making a turn.
- Cycling at night without headlights and/or reflectors – Because many crashes happen at night, a white or yellow forward light, and a red rear light is mandatory for all bicycles.
- Not having a bicycle bell – A bicycle bell needs to be audible from 25 metres away.
- Using a smartphone while cycling – A new and controversial rule, bikes and smartphones are not compatible according to Dutch law.
Do Dutch cyclists need helmets?
Helmets aren’t required by law, like they are in some countries.
Racing cyclists often wear them as a safety measure. But in general, instead of enforcing helmets, the cycling environment is made safer instead. Dutch cities are in a great position to prioritise safe cycling lanes, and ensure that cars are either separated or driving slowly when around bicycles.
Watch out, pedestrians!
Pedestrians need to look both ways when walking around a Dutch city – a lot. While bike lanes keep bicycles separate much of the time, accidents happen frequently, especially at intersections.
Amsterdam is the capital of bicycle accidents; according to the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV), accidents not involving motor vehicles doubled from 2000 to 2011.
But in general, things are pretty safe for Amsterdammers. Between 2000 and 2013, 274 road fatalities were recorded in Amsterdam. 77 were cyclists, and 74 pedestrians.
Bicycle-friendly countries around the world
The Netherlands is a cycling success story. But what other countries? Are there other places that have allowed bicycles to dominate polluting motor vehicles?
Of course! Let’s look at the Copenhagenize index, a measure of the most bicycle friendly cities around the world. An index is given based on implementation of bicycle infrastructure, policies, bike share programs, car restrictions, and so on.
Northern and western European cities take the cake for bicycle friendliness. And surprisingly, a Dutch city is not number one! Let’s look at the top 10 most bicycle friendly cities, as ranked by the index.
- Copenhagen – 90.2%
- Amsterdam – 89.3%
- Utrecht – 88.4%
- Antwerp – 73.2%
- Strasbourg – 70.5%
- Bordeaux – 68.8%
- Oslo – 62.5%
- Paris – 61.6%
- Vienna – 60.7%
- Helsinki – 59.8%
Looking further afield than Europe, the other continents also have some up-and-coming bicycle friendly cities:
- Bogotá – 58.1% (12th)
- Tokyo – 55.4% (16th)
- Montreal – 53.6% (18th)
Bikes are part of life
I once saw a Dutch cyclist riding down a bike lane, and blew my mind with a simple trick. He released both hands from the handlebars, and then one sleeve at a time, removed his sweater. He then folded it up, unzipped his backpack and placed it inside – all while riding a straight line!!
So there we have it, a look at one of the most bike-friendly countries on Earth. The Netherlands is synonymous with bike riding, and now we know where they came from, and how to classify them!
It’s an inspiring story of a nation embracing zero-carbon emission transport, and something that we can all aspire towards, as bike share programs and cycle lanes grow in popularity worldwide.