Dutch cycling utopia threatened by own success

The Netherlands has more bicycles than people, with 18 million bikes crammed into a country less than half the size of Maine, leading to gridlock, bike rage, lack of parking and accidents

By Jan Hennop  /  AFP, AMSTERDAM

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 - Page 9

Problems all-too familiar to car drivers the world over, from traffic jams to road-rage and lack of parking, are now also threatening to turn the Dutch dream of bicycling bliss into a daily hell.

In a small country where bicycles outnumber people by 1.2 million, the Dutch have run out of space to accommodate the 5 million cyclists who take to the road every day, turning commuting in major cities into a nightmare.

In Amsterdam alone, 490,000 freewheeling fietsers — cyclists — take to the road to bike a staggering 2 million kilometers every day, statistics released by the Amsterdam City Council last week showed.

“Bicycles are an integral mode of transport in our city,” the council said, but, in a worrying trend, “the busiest bicycle paths are too small for the growing stream of daily cyclists.”

“Cyclists have increased dramatically over the last few years,” Wim Bot of the Dutch Cycling Association (Fietsersbond) said.

“In a small country like the Netherlands, where almost every square meter is accounted for, we’ve run out of space,” added Bot, whose “cyclists’ union” was founded in 1975 and today represents 35,000 paid-up members.

“It has become a headache,” he said.

The Dutch first fell in love with cycling in the late 1880s, when the first two-wheeled contraptions appeared in big cities.

Two decades later, the first bicycle paths were laid in the country, which is so flat that it is often described as “specially created for cyclists.”

After a slump and brief love affair with cars following World War II — occupying Nazis confiscated bicycles to take back to Germany to be melted down to feed the war effort — cycling had come back into vogue by the mid-1970s.

Today there are about 18 million bikes — or 1.3 bicycles per citizen old enough to ride — in a country less than half the size of the US state of Maine. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is often seen cycling to work.

New bike sales topped 1.3 million last year, raking in an estimated 970 million euros (US$1.2 billion).

About 35,000km of bike paths now criss-cross the flat landscape. The trademark red tarmac roads are purpose-built, regularly maintained and come with their own set of road signs and traffic lights.

However, having invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure, the Dutch are now paying the price for pedal power’s rise in popularity.

The Dutch newspaper Trouw recently said that in places like Amsterdam and Utrecht, the increase in bicycles is giving rise to new phenomena such as bicycle traffic jams, pile-ups, parking problems and cycle rage.

Around major transport stations, such as Amsterdam and Utrecht Central, tens of thousands of bicycles parked legally and illegally hog public space and restrict pedestrian access, while leaving cyclists scratching their heads to try to remember where they parked their steeds.

More cyclists on the road means more congestion and bicycle rage often flies across the handlebars.

“Sometimes its a madhouse out there,” said Jan van der Tuin, 59, a bicycle shed parking attendant just outside Utrecht’s busy main station.

“There’s been no fist fights, but harsh words are often being spoken,” he said with a sigh.

“We have big problems,” said Marleen van der Wurff, 58, as she frantically looked for a bicycle parking spot in Utrecht before having to run for a train.

“It’s plainly becoming a dangerous situation,” said Wurff, who is solely reliant on her bicycle to get around the city.

The statistics show just how dangerous it has become: One-quarter of all deadly accidents in the Netherlands involve cyclists, the Cycling Association said.

About 200 cyclists died on Dutch roads last year, the majority of them elderly, the Dutch Central Statistics Office said, an increase of 28 from 2010.

The problem has been getting worse since the Dutch authorities decided to broaden bike path use to include more than 1 million mopeds, which are allowed to zoom past cyclists as long as they stay under a speed limit of 25kph.

“Cyclists and moped riders ride at different speeds in a small shared space — and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Bot said.

Bicycle overload has become such a problem that about 180 top city planners convened a conference recently in Utrecht to talk about the issue.

Proposed solutions were remarkably similar to those previously used to deal with car congestion, ranging from building multi-story underground “mega” bicycle sheds to impounding badly-parked bikes.

Municipal workers in The Hague alone have impounded 2,400 illegally parked bicycles since August.

In addition, Amsterdam last week announced a mega 120 million euro investment plan to provide 38,000 new bicycle parking spots and 15km of red bicycle path in the city.

However, “this is not something that will be solved next week,” Bot said. “It’s a medium to long-term problem.”

In the meantime, the best way of dealing with the bicycle bedlam is patience and not getting too flustered, he added.

“Sometimes it helps to just be Dutch and have a thick skin out there,” he said.