WITNESS - Mastering Dutch life on two wheels


  • World
  • Sunday, 21 Jan 2007

By Emma Thomasson

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - There are more bicycles than people in the Netherlands, where each resident clocks up an average of 917 km a year on two wheels. 

Impressed by these figures, I calculated how far I cycle to work and back from my home on an Amsterdam canal. 

I surprised myself with at least 3,000 km in a year, not counting weekend excursions to the dykes and tulip fields ringing the city. 

In fact, the bike-friendly layout of the Dutch capital was one of the factors that drew me to the Netherlands as a correspondent for Reuters. 

Flat as a pancake and densely populated, the Netherlands has tried to mitigate traffic congestion by encouraging its 16 million people to travel on their 18 million bikes. 

Amsterdam's central station has a multi-storey parking house for bikes and there are racks on every street corner. 

Car parking is prohibitively expensive and you are likely to have to wait five or six years for a city centre resident's permit. 

Many politicians, bankers and even royalty use bikes, although the famous probably do so less since a radical Islamist shot dead filmmaker Theo van Gogh while he was cycling to work in 2004. 

The country is criss-crossed by mostly well-maintained cycle lanes and in many urban centres the bike is king. 

Cars crawl along Amsterdam's narrow, canal-lined streets and pedestrians need to be eagle-eyed as cyclists flock past at breakneck speed. 

ROAD RAGE AND THEFT 

On my commute from the centre of the city to the outskirts, tourists photographing the grand Rijksmuseum art gallery are often forced to jump out of the way, oblivious they are straying onto a bike highway. 

I try to avoid the pre-school rush-hour when bike lanes become clogged and even usually relaxed Dutch cyclists fall victim to road rage, jostling at traffic lights and ringing their bells aggressively when they want to overtake. 

The Dutch often seem to prefer bone-shaking and often pretty decrepit sit-up-and-beg machines -- perhaps to deter thieves who steal 800,000 bikes a year, 100,000 of them in Amsterdam alone. 

Many cyclists ride without lights at night, despite police fines of 30 euros ($40). Helmets and reflective clothing are rare. 

The Dutch are masters at cycling while holding an umbrella and frequently chat on their mobile phones or listen to portable music players. 

They balance bags or even boxes of shopping on their handle bars and I have seen cyclists transporting skis, chairs and televisions. 

Girls often ride sidesaddle on the back of their boyfriends' bikes, giggling and weaving drunkenly after nights on the town. 

Dutch statistics show 177 cyclists were killed in 2005 out of a total of 760 road deaths, but the European Cycling Federation says the risk of cycling in the Netherlands is relatively low. 

The Dutch Cyclists Association favours better standards for cars, including possible bumper airbags, rather than forcing cyclists to wear helmets, which it fears will discourage biking. 

"Where lots of people cycle there are fewer accidents because drivers watch out for cyclists and there are more cycle lanes," said the association's spokeswoman Arien de Jong. 

While many Dutch bikes look like old wrecks, the country has become a world leader in bicycle design. 

It produces more than one million bikes a year, including sturdy machines with wooden seating boxes built into the frame for up to four children that cost thousands of euros (dollars). 

Bikes fitted with small motors for the elderly are becoming increasingly popular as are collapsible models for train commuters. 

Even mountain bikes are gaining ground despite the lack of hills. 

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