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Fietsen : Cycling in the Netherlands Posted by on Feb 19, 2010 in Dutch Language

In the Netherlands, cycling is not just something fun to do on the weekends, but it is a way of life. For the Dutch, cycling is like breathing: you just do it. But what you may not know is that in the urban centers, cycling can become a real mess if you aren’t sure of what’s going on. Here are a few tips for cycling in the Netherlands that might make your cycling experience a little more fun and a little more safe.

Bicycle paths exist between in the space between the sidewalk and the road. Often times they are clearly marked by an extra white line, or are painted red, but sometimes they aren’t. When you are walking or crossing the road, assume that the area on the side of the road is for cyclists and look twice before walking. Please never step out into the street before checking for a cyclist.  This is really dangerous and annoys the locals. Don’t walk on the side of the road, walk on the sidewalk, unless you want to hear a lot of bicycle bells pinging and angry Dutch words.  In this photo, I was indeed standing in the middle of the bicycle path (fietspad) but I kept nervously looking over my shoulder:

Most traffic crossings have special lights designated for bicycles. They look like a small set of traffic lights that have a bicycle symbol and they hang on the right. Always follow those lights. Do not run red lights. I know, the Dutch people around you will be doing it, but it’s really dangerous and you can in theory get a fine for it if the police see you do it.  If a fine isn’t enough to deter you, bear in mind that your body is no match for a car or tram.

Bicycles have the right of way with cars, pedestrians have the right of way with everything. But I don’t recommend testing your right of way capabilities with taxis. Taxi drivers here are crazy. You know who they are by the blue license plate and if you see one of these speeding along the road, don’t test your luck with them. They don’t always stop, or slow down, and your right of way is not worth defending with your body.

If you’re not sure what to do at an intersection, just walk it. Seriously. There is this intersection I have to traverse frequently and the traffic is a mess, with 6 trams and buses, and crosswalks, and tons of cyclists, and taxis.  There is absolutely no shame in getting off the bicycle and walking, and at this intersection I see Dutch people do it too. Pedestrians have the ultimate right of way at a zebra crossing, and rather than trying to do something tricky and complicated, sometimes it really is best just to walk.

Avoid tram tracks at all costs.  Always cross a tram track so that your tires don’t fall into the tram rails.  This is one of the worst things that could happen to you on a bicycle because your bicycle will be stuck and you will get hurt.  Just remember to cross them at an angle, and you’ll be fine.

The standard Dutch bicycle has no gears and has back pedaling coaster brakes instead of handbrakes on the handlebars. This can be disconcerting at first, though I assure you there is a good reason. With my hands free from being designated to braking, I can carry a ton of stuff while cycling and still stop in time to avoid getting hit by a tram. Most of the rental companies have both styles for rent, so if you have a preference you can find a bicycle you are comfortable with.  Here are some pretty standard Dutch bicycles hanging out in front of the Universiteit van Amsterdam:

Definitely get on a bicycle if you are here. Not only is it great for your health, but it is the best way to see both the cities and the countryside. If you haven’t ridden a bicycle since you were a kid, there are lots of group tours run by professionals who can safely guide you about the city and give you some time to get reacquainted with the bicycle. An added bonus of traveling in a tourist pack is that the locals will know who you are and avoid you at all costs. If you’re a little more daring, just rent a bicycle and see what happens. There is absolutely no better way to see this country than on a bicycle.

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Comments:

  1. ellen:

    Hi Sara, this is such a great post. You are so ingeburgerd 🙂 I still ride my bike here in California. I do miss the bike paths so much. I mostly bike on the side walks. You write so well about the Dutch society. Is it okay if I use now and then parts of your stories for my blog and mention your blog as the source? If you do not want that, then I understand it completely. I’ve added your blog to my blog roll.
    Have a great weekend!

  2. Sarah:

    Hello again Ellen,

    Ha ha, inburgering! I’m currently undergoing inburgeringscursus…but that is a whole can of worms I won’t open here 😉

    I definitely don’t mind if you quote stuff and cite it back. What would be even better is if you can include a link back to the site.

    I love cycling in this country. I was a cyclist in the US, which made the transition much easier. I know a lot of expats here who are still very wary of the whole thing. And I can’t blame them. Amsterdam traffic is a mess!

    Warm regards!

    -Sarah

  3. Ronald:

    Lol yes here in Montreal I use my bike daily to go to work!
    Even in the winter………
    And for some reason they all call me weirdo Dutch, because I bike more then 10 km to go to work…..what kind of weather.!!
    grtz
    keep up the good work

  4. ellen:

    Hi Sarah, of course I will link to your blog when I quote stuff fro your site. I have recommended your site on my blog and you are in my blogroll/links.

    I do have to say, I prefer to bike in Amsterdam, with all his traffic lights and bike lanes. Here in CA it is not that bike friendly. Have a great week!

    warm regards to you too!

    -Ellen

  5. Sarah:

    Hi Ellen,

    Thanks a lot for linking to us! It’s greatly appreciated, and of course all your nice feedback as well.

    I have to agree that cycling in the Netherlands, even in crazy Amsterdam traffic, is much safer than in the US. Everyone here knows the rules (even if they don’t follow them) and everything happens at a reasonably slow speed, so even when there are accidents, they are rarely serious. On the other hand, I do miss the peace and quiet of cycling undisturbed in the US, but then again, I come from a very rural area. Amsterdam traffic will always make me nervous, although I’ve gotten significantly better at it.

    Till next time!

  6. Sarah:

    Ha ha Ronald! That’s great! I used to love cycling to school and work when I lived in the US, about 7 km both ways, but I have to admit, once the snow started I would give it up every year for the winter.

  7. Russian Sphinx:

    When I was a child I also went by bicycle to school, even in winter. Now I am a bit too lazy when it is cold or rains.

    • sarah:

      @Russian Sphinx Hi Russian Sphinx,

      Thanks for your reply! I have to admit, I didn’t cycle the whole winter here either. It was unusually cold but even more importantly: icy! But that certainly didn’t stop the Dutch people around me from cycling through the ice.

      Groetjes!

      -Sarah

  8. Andrew Robertson:

    Hi,

    I have cycled in the Netherlands along the coast and the infrastructure was incredible. The way forward, an example for other countries. I wrote a piece on the Dutch cycling vs the UK experience and reasons for the difference here –

    http://twowheelsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2010/05/dutch-are-streets-ahead.html

    Hurrah for the Dutch!

    • sarah:

      @Andrew Robertson Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment! I definitely agree that the infrastructure for cycling is fantastic. And to top it all off, the signs for cyclists are usually very clear, and there are a million bicycle routes you can choose from and follow to enjoy the country. It makes it harder to get lost.

  9. hector:

    Thanks for sharing these tips! It is a great experience to roam around the beautiful places in amsterdam but you also need to know the rules in the street to have a safe ride.

  10. Allun Vet:

    Cycling is good for health, for sure.

  11. Hugh:

    Hi Sarah,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. The Netherlands sound like “cyclists heaven” to me. I will look forward to reading you posts in the future. I will put your blog on my “bicycle related links” list on my blog. Keep up the good work (:
    Cheers, Hugh