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Postcard from The Netherlands

It’s not just hype. Dutch cycling infrastructure really is amazing and here’s why.

After a year of blogging, tweeting and campaigning for better cycling infrastructure in Brighton and Hove, a summer holiday in The Netherlands seemed like the obvious choice. We were also keen to leave the car behind and try our first holiday by train now that our children are a good age for train travel (age 6 and 8).

To be clear, this wasn’t a cycling holiday. We are not a sporty or particularly adventurous family and a relaxing holiday with small children as far as I’m concerned involves keeping them happy and easily entertained whilst I read my book, sip a glass of wine and whizz down the odd waterslide to remind myself how to have fun. 

We stayed in a youth hostel in The Hague for 2 nights, hiring bikes for a ride around the city and out to the beach one day. My husband took the boys in an electric box-bike and I was on a standard Dutch bike. I put the children in charge of photographing the experience with some interesting results!

We then headed to Landal (like a Dutch Center Parcs) to the East of Eindhoven by the German border where we hired bikes from the park for a short ride to the nearest town. 

It’s not just hype. Dutch cycling infrastructure really is amazing and here’s why.

There are cycle lanes everywhere

As the train pulled out of Rotterdam it was like watching fireworks from our carriage. ‘Ooh! Look at that cycle lane. Aah! And that one!’. So many cycle lanes! Wide, smooth, segregated and all a gentle shade of brownish red. Until we realise they are everywhere and a better game would be to try to spot a road without one. I begin to wonder if the network of red cycle lanes is visible from space.

No more route planning

Every new journey on our bikes in the UK begins with a long study period. I pore over Google maps, look at Street View, even watch YouTube clips of people riding similar routes. I’m weighing up a reasonably direct route with fear for my life. My first choice is always a segregated cycle lane, second choice quiet back streets. Large junctions, big roundabouts, queuing traffic and potential for close passing buses are all to be avoided. If we’re riding with the kids in tow the stakes are even higher. It can be a long and tedious process for a new journey across our city of only 2 or 3 miles. 

On our day out in The Hague we put our journey into Google maps and that’s it! We set out knowing every road has a cycle lane. Bikes are everywhere and people in cars understand and respect people on bikes. 

You can ride on main roads 

The first journey I put into Google maps comes up with a route along a main road. My UK brain hesitates for a second but when in the Netherlands…. We set off and oh, the joy of cycling on a main road! I say on a main road but of course the cycle lane is segregated from the 4 lanes of traffic and feels more like its own road. It brings to mind a certain ‘arterial road’ in Hove with 2 lanes of traffic in either direction. There’s no reason we couldn’t do exactly the same in Brighton and Hove. Any arguments about The Netherlands being able to achieve these things thanks to their flat landscape were always dubious but with the advent of e-bikes to tackle our city’s hills they truly are now defunct.

Dutch roundabouts are the best. Whee!

I can see a roundabout coming up on Google Maps. The excitement builds. ‘Boys, try to get some photos of this!’.

Our carcentric UK brains struggle to imagine it but Dutch roundabouts are set up to allow people on bikes a continuous and separate path around the roundabout. Once you enter it on your bike, cars have to give way to you as they enter and exit. Because I’m a loser I have watched plenty of videos of Dutch roundabouts on Twitter but you have to see it to believe it! It’s really not that complicated and yet somehow unimaginable back home. You’ll have to find your own videos on social media I’m afraid as the request for a photo didn’t go that well…

You can ride on country roads too

We only managed a short ride out of the Landal where we were staying and into the nearby town for dinner. We hired a bike for each of us this time so the boys could have a chance to ride independently. Our youngest, recently turned 6, had only learnt to ride a few months ago. But the distance we managed was limited by his little legs on a heavy bike and not by any problem navigating the roads with him.

The section we did was a country road just outside a town of the sort I would never ride on in the UK, let alone with the kids. Cycle lanes here are just paint on the road but within the context of road culture in the Netherlands this works enough. I rode 2 abreast with our youngest as most people seemed to, enjoying a sociable chat on their way. When an HGV came along behind us it passed slowly and respectfully with plenty of distance. Perhaps crucially I had no sense that we weren’t supposed to be there. No one looking aghast at us for daring to take up space on the road, with our children making their way slowly on their bikes. No anger or aggression from other road users. Quite the opposite. 

Cars still exist and the world hasn’t stopped turning!

Bikes are everywhere – on the roads, parked up in huge numbers, on the train. But cars are very much still present too. Car ownership is still high in the Netherlands and people are in no way prevented from using them. Traffic flows freely and easily. Businesses are thriving. Amazingly enough, including a cycle lane on every Dutch road and connecting every Dutch town, city and village has not led to the end of the world as we know it.

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