My first two days in the Netherlands have been incredible and mind–opening. The difference in the cycling experience is so great that even after two days of riding, I still find myself following habits formed in the US that aren’t useful in the Netherlands. That isn’t to say that I’ve had difficulty with the Dutch system; I felt comfortable from the start and I had filled the gaps in my knowledge by the end of my first day of riding. Once I knew which signs meant I had to yield, everything straightforward. The most difficult piece of infrastructure understand is the signalized intersection, but there are fewer of these than I expected and every step is dictated. Understanding the full measure of these intersections isn’t necessary to cross them safely as long as I follow the signals.
The Dutch have solved most of the problems that plague bike in the US, as well as a whole other host of problems we don’t even need to contend with in most cities. I complained about several things in my past blogs, but the two problems that come to mind about Atlanta are the lack of connectivity and the danger cyclists face at intersections. In Atlanta, it is difficult to get from one side of the city to another without braving fast moving traffic, and I have never dared to bike from Georgia Tech to my 15 miles North. Despite having a bike available, there have many times when I have gone through huge trouble to get home by car. If I were making the same trip in the Netherlands, I wouldn’t be worrying about how to get a car. I would be deciding whether I want to ride my bike or ride the train. On my first day I had several hours of free time, and I spent it riding around aimlessly just for the fun of it. I found that I could go in any direction for as far as I wanted without any trouble. That level of freedom is intoxicating, and it makes me want to spend all day riding. The Dutch cycling infrastructure is simultaneously dense and ubiquitous. If I wanted to travel to a different city right now, all I would really need to know is what direction it is and about how far it is and I would be ready to go. I have enough faith in the cycling infrastructure to believe that I could get there efficiently by several independent routes.
The Dutch use public space more effectively than we do in many ways. Rotterdam feels so much more alive than downtown Atlanta because at street level, Atlanta is designed for cars to access parking decks and Rotterdam is designed for people walking and shopping. There are streets in downtown Atlanta that feel nothing short of oppressive to walk on. Blank concrete skyscrapers block the sky and garage entrances block the sidewalk every 10 feet. The streets of Rotterdam have space for cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, and there are stores lining the street.
I can’t wait to explore more of the Netherlands in the next two weeks. Despite the fact that we are touring important sites on bikes for hours each day, I expect to spend a few more hours each day riding just for fun.