On Dutch cycling culture

In the 20 or so years since I was last in Amsterdam, I have become a keen London cyclist. I commute a round trip of around 23 miles along various central London routes and cycle from one meeting to another when I'm in town. I love the hustle and bustle of London streets and the way the life of the city is played out by the actors in the daily travel drama. And I love the cycling culture, the cafes and clothes. But it’s a bit of a hairy occupation – two or three near misses every journey - and the death toll of cyclists in the capital pays testament to that. Sometimes I’m not sure if cycling in London brings me closer to life, or closer to death! Planning a weekend in Amsterdam, I was curious about what I would make of cycling in the city of Ajax and the land of totaalvoetbal. What we hear at home of Dutch cycling is how much safer it is, how much more cycle friendly the Dutch cities are and how town planning has incorporated segregated cycle lanes and other measures. In Ealing, where I live, there’s even a Dutch cycling plan that is spearheaded by our cycling leader of the local council. That’s all to the good. But I was shocked and disappointed with what I found in bike-friendly Amsterdam. The culture seems to have had an indirect impact that I hadn't anticipated. Many of the cyclists I saw were incompetent, inconsiderate and downright dangerous. Bikes have their own segregated lanes, but there are no physical barriers between those lane and the pedestrian paths. There is sometimes little to mark out the bike lane from the path. Bikes fly by with gay abandon very close to small children all the time, who can be unpredictable meanderers. And at lights and crossings, bikes consistently cut through crowds of pedestrians. At night time, few have lights, so you rely on streetlights to be able to see them. And no-one wears a helmet, but then they're safer than here because they're not cycling alongside cars, but are more likely to crash because they've hit a pedestrian. The old-fashioned Dutch bikes are not to my taste, but lots of people like them to be fair. Even the style is alien to me - it's dumbed down. In a city known for its cafes, where's the cycle-cafe-culture? They seem to think they're king of the road, much like motorists in London. But bikes are machines that pick-up speed and momentum, they should be giving way to pedestrians, to my mind.

21 April 2014