A nation on two wheels!

The automobile is almost synonymous with American culture – along with bourbon, hamburgers and coke, I suppose! Does every culture evoke a cult images in my head? If they do, then cycling, tulips and windmills are what I associate with Holland – and as you can see none of these are food!!  Holland, is probably the flattest country in the world with almost half of it  at or below sea level. The highest elevation is all of 322 meters – over 5 buildings around the world are taller than this. So, it is kind of ideal for cycling – although it still does not say it all. Even the long, cold, winters,  the plentiful rainfall and the strong winds that blow off the Ocean on the North and West, does not dissuade the hardy Dutchman or woman….

I am not much up on the history of cycling in Holland, but it is much more than a sport there.    My brother has lived there for close to 4 decades, and  the extensive cycle paths in the city of  Amsterdam struck me even  on my first trip to Holland in 1978. People used the cycle to work, school and perform all daily chores. My sister-in-law, ran a lovely home and brought up 3 children without a driving license which she got in her mid 50s.  I have been visiting Holland fairly frequently since 1978, and on one of my visits in the early 80s, I remember her doing all the outdoor chores with her 5+ son sitting at the back and twin daughters (two-ish)  in  a double seat on the front of her cycle.

She told me that as a young girl she used to cycle every day from Lisse to attend high school at  Haarlem ( 25 km each way).  Those were the early post-war years, before the automobile culture crept over most of the world and reached Holland too. But while most of us went overboard and converted even existing cycle tracks (I remember in the 50 early 60s in Lutyen’s Delhi) into motorable roads, they were slower on that – and by the time many realized or are realizing that this route will not take us very far, they were in a happy position. They have been just expanding the existing infrastructure and are now in the a position when  two wheels can take anyone anywhere – or almost!!

It is impossible to even describe the infrastructure in place for  cycling and even more so the range of the  accessories available for cycles. I believe there are about 16 million cycles for a population of 16 million and they spend close to a billion Euros a year on bicycles. Dedicated cycling paths are ubiquitous, and if they don’t exist, the cyclist has precedence over everyone else.  You may drive on a country road at 10 kmh behind an elderly couple taking a leisurely afternoon outing on their cycle – and of course, you cannot honk!! ( I can already see some India readers, pulling out their hair!!). There are cyclist accessible buttons for the lights at every crossing and bicycle stands everywhere. They were always there in plenty at railway stations, and in the shopping streets as well as in parks and outside shops. But this time I saw new ones at the bus stops as well. And of course, all stations have cycle rentals and many of the larger parks have free cycles available.

Cycle accessible buttons for controlling signals
Cycle accessible buttons for controlling signals
Cycle stand by the bus stop
Cycle stand by the bus stop

Kids are in cycle seats (strapped in and buckled up) almost as soon as they can sit up. There are covered attachable carts (front or behind) to ferry 2, 3 0r more kids, for parents to take kids to school or elsewhere, daycare workers to take their wards to the playground….. Kids graduate to 2 wheels very early, and you can see them with the family on the roads from age 3-4 years.  Around 3rd/4th grade, schools teach traffic rules and cycling etiquette. On one of my visits I saw a number of kids cycling on the road, wearing fluorescent vests, and with a flag flying from their handle – I was told that it was a cycling test which they had to pass to be allowed to cycle independently on the roads.  Everyone attends school within cycling distance or you cycle to the railway station – for work, shopping, other outings.  All public transport allows you to carry your cycle on board, no extra charge. Leisure cycling is extremely popular and people go on cycling holidays. If one  partner is failing in health or has a handicap, there are tandems that allow both to cycle with a biased effort distribution. And on a recent trip, I even saw a kind of wheel chair mounted on the front of a cycle in which grandma was having an outing around the park.

So while the world is reeling under the cost escalation and environmental fall out of fossil fuels, and  struggling to resurrect the culture of self propelled locomotion (walking, cycling), the Dutch are ahead in the game. Those who are interested may like to see the short video of a 20-mile cycle ride from Assen to Groningen. This town of  190,000,  in the north of the country  has the highest cycling mode share of any city in the world at 50 percent of all trips being by cycle (60 percent in the city center and a surprising 30% even in the thinly populated surrounding province). The entire 20-mile route is a kind of protected cycle infrastructure where you can happily ride with your  young children.

We have a long way to go.  The health awareness of the benefits of self-locomotion is only starting. Although very nascent, efforts like the Raahgiri initiative in Gurgaon should be applauded. In Delhi, in spite of the almost absent infrastructure and a hostile official attitude, more than 0ne third of the work force walks or cycles to work. We cannot become a nation on two wheels, but should a lot more to support those who do cycle.

P1030633
Outside most Dutch homes
P1030594
A common scene on the road
P1030587
A cart to pull
IMG_0626
A smaller one  to push
  • People: 16,652,800
  • Bicycles: 16,500,000
  • Cyclists: ~99.1%

In the Netherlands 27% of all trips and 25% of trips to work are made by bike. The average distance cycled per person per day is 2.5 km. Holland and bicycles go together like bread and jam. Despite the recession the cycle-happy Dutch are still spending a lot of money on their bicycles – nearly 1 billion euros’ worth a year. About 1.3 million bicycles were sold in the Netherlands in 2009, at an average price of 713 euros ($1,008) each. Amsterdam (the capital and largest city of the Netherlands) is one of the most bicycle-friendly large cities in the world. It has 400 km of bike lanes and nearly 40% of all commutes in Amsterdam are done on bike. Strangely, most cyclists don’t wear helmets. And bike theft is a big problem, with about one of five (20%) bicycles being stolen each year. – See more at: http://top10hell.com/top-10-countries-with-most-bicycles-per-capita/#sthash.NPRd8wth.dpuf

  • People: 16,652,800
  • Bicycles: 16,500,000
  • Cyclists: ~99.1%

In the Netherlands 27% of all trips and 25% of trips to work are made by bike. The average distance cycled per person per day is 2.5 km. Holland and bicycles go together like bread and jam. Despite the recession the cycle-happy Dutch are still spending a lot of money on their bicycles – nearly 1 billion euros’ worth a year. About 1.3 million bicycles were sold in the Netherlands in 2009, at an average price of 713 euros ($1,008) each. Amsterdam (the capital and largest city of the Netherlands) is one of the most bicycle-friendly large cities in the world. It has 400 km of bike lanes and nearly 40% of all commutes in Amsterdam are done on bike. Strangely, most cyclists don’t wear helmets. And bike theft is a big problem, with about one of five (20%) bicycles being stolen each year. – See more at: http://top10hell.com/top-10-countries-with-most-bicycles-per-capita/#sthash.NPRd8wth.dpuf

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