Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Bicycling in Holland

When I visit Amsterdam I rent a bike for much the same reason I rent a car when I travel to New Jersey. CWI is in the east part of the city and does not have great access via public transportation. A bicycle lets me get from the hotel to CWI quickly and also gives me easy access to the rest of the city.

Why does the Netherlands have such a strong biking culture? Most of the country is flat, the cities are compact (at least by Chicago standards) and the weather never gets too hot or too cold to bike. One can reliably commute by bike nearly every day of the year. The country has many dedicated bike paths and marked bike lanes on many major roads. Traffic laws greatly favor bikes over cars. This all gives positive reinforcement to bicycling in this country.

Bicycles here for the most part do not have hand brakes or multiple gears but are otherwise rather sturdy. Bicycle lights are required at night; a visiting complexity theorist got a ticket for not using his. Virtually no one wears a helmet. When we lived here on sabbatical we would put our one-year old daughter on a bike seat on the handlebars without a helmet—the norm for Holland but might have gotten us arrested back in the states.

Bicycle theft is a big problem especially in the cities. The general rule is to spend as much on the lock as you did on the bike. Locking up your bike requires knowing your topology; Get it wrong and you might lose a wheel or worse yet keep your wheel and lose the rest of the bike.

Most people in Holland don't bike for health or environmental reasons. Bicycling is often simply the easiest way to get from point A to point B.


  1. Once, there was an idea to have free bikes - the so-called "White bicycles" - in the streets of Amsterdam, so that anybody could use them to go anywhere. There were supposed to be many of them (20000) and that was supposed to make people realize that stealing them did't make sense. It never worked: people stole and repainted the bikes; some fellow Europeans would go to Amsterdam and return home with a new bike.
    The idea, of course, is so cool, that there is still an atepmt to implement a somewhat modified version of it. Look here for some details.

  2. When I was last in Amsterdam, I rented a bike for a day and rode out onto the polner (the reclaimed land). The polner is completely flat, so an easy ride. The problem was that the wind was so fierce that whenever I was riding into it, I had to get off and walk the bike. For some reason, it was ALWAYS a head wind.

    There is little as depressing as seeing a completely flat landscape, and having to walk your bike because it's too steep.

  3. I'll also assume that bicycling is more popular in Holland because: parking is scarce and expensive and gas is more expensive.

  4. The main reason why cycling is popular in the Netherlands is because it's pleasant.

    The infrastructure is designed to make cycling a convenient part of everyday life, so everyone does it.