Striving for the Flow: Dutch Cycling 101

Last week, I traveled to four cities in the Netherlands to learn about the bike system in the country where there are twice as many bicycles as people.

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Snapshot of parking for 4,500 bikes underneath Utrecht Centraal Station

The Dutch method of big-city cycling is much different from Copenhagen’s. Instead of the Danish system that all-but-guarantees complete cycling safety with abundant protected bike lanes separated from car and pedestrian lanes, a behavioral tendency to regularly do hand turn signals, and a general desire for peace among other cyclists, the Dutch prefer a much more chaotic norm. Holland is the home of woonerf roads, which roughly translates to “living roads.” Woonerf roads are shared roads where cars, bicycles, and pedestrians have equal priority and pass through unmarked streets at a reduced speed given the ever-changing traffic situations. Dutch cyclists are active bell-ringers and will wiggle through any crowd to continue on their way. Traffic signals at several major intersections in Amsterdam have been removed to increase interpersonal interaction between users of the street. And though separated bike lanes aren’t uncommon per se, electric scooters (like mopeds) are also permitted to travel in the bike lane, which makes bike travel a little more terrifying.

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All traffic lights at this commuter-heavy intersection have been completely removed
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Bike bells at the bike rental shop

I mention all these differences to attempt to explain my difficult transition to the Dutch system after being accustomed to the bike infrastructure in Copenhagen. I hopped on a single gear, impossibly heavy, classic Dutch bike two hours after arriving in The Netherlands and found myself at a loss of how to place myself in an intersection to wait for a green light, witnessed several near-misses as scooters overtook cyclists, and quickly learned that most bridges over the city’s picturesque canals are steep enough to desire a second gear. But over the course of the week, cycling became easier than walking around the city center.

There’s a theory circulating Dutch cycling academics called flow theory. With this paradigm, a cyclist can reach a serendipitous state of compartmentalization, where they can navigate their route and allow their mind to wander at the same time. In the theory, flow can be reached when the challenge of navigating the road matches a cyclist’s ability. Obviously, that level will be different for each cyclist, but the Dutch system of swarming and wiggling around is forgiving for many different cycling abilities, though this is hard to tell at first. I never experienced the flow in Amsterdam, for the streets were always more challenging than my ability, but during our six-mile ride from Utrecht to the small town of Houten, I started to get in the flow like I have while running around the Lakes in Copenhagen. It was also a really safe, isolated, rural road, with no major distractions beyond a torrential cloudburst.

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The bike tunnel that goes underneath the Rotterdam River

During the study tour, we visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Houten, which all have drastically different bicycle systems but share a widespread use of bikes. We met with academics and local government transportation officials who had fascinating and novel ideas to further encourage travel by bike. I loved looking at all the amazing bike infrastructure, and getting a feel for the lay of the land via bike. We also got to try out the best-functioning transportation method in the Netherlands, the bike-train combination. When we traveled to Rotterdam and Utrecht, we parked our bikes at Amsterdam Central Station, relaxed during the lovely train rides, and then rented bikes upon our arrival. It felt so natural I had to remember that’s not usually how it works in the U.S.

Overall, I had a great time being inspired by the Dutch art of transportation. Also, the stroopwafels were fantastic.

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All smiles at a small parklet on a residential street in Amsterdam

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