I had always wondered what it would be like to ride a bicycle in the Netherlands. Now I know: It's like driving a car in America. Most people do it, and the transportation system is designed to make it easy.
I spent last week biking around the Netherlands, from busy city streets to rural roads beside windmills and tulip fields. It was a lot of fun and a great chance to see what we can learn from the Netherlands about making Kentucky more bicycle-friendly.
My wife, Becky, and I were among a group of 18 cyclists organized by veteran bicycle tourists Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington. They have made this trip many times, and I can see why.
For seven days, guide Francien van der Lee led us in riding nearly 200 miles from Amsterdam to Haarlem, Leiden, the Hague, Delft, Rotterdam, Gouda and back to Amsterdam. We slept and ate breakfast and dinner on the passenger barge Feniks, which took canals from one city to the next while we biked there.
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We saw some Dutch people riding bikes for recreation and exercise. But there were thousands more using bicycles the way Americans use cars: to commute to work, take kids to school and run errands. We saw groups of children on school field trips, women in their 80s cycling home with groceries, businessmen in suits and women in high heels. They were all in better shape for it, and so were their wallets.
Travelers in the Netherlands have many options in addition to bicycles, automobiles and motorbikes. High-speed trains take people — and their bicycles — between cities, where they can then catch buses and trams. Boats are everywhere on the many canals and rivers, including personal rowboats and "waterbus" ferries.
It helps that the Netherlands is flat; the biggest "climb" a cyclist faces is over a canal bridge or dike. It is a small, compact country, less than half the size of Kentucky, with nearly four times as many people. Gasoline costs more than $9 a gallon. So average people wearing normal clothes ride practical bicycles everywhere.
Dutch bikes often have bags on both sides of the back wheel or a crate in front of the handlebars to carry things. Many bikes are equipped with child seats. There are cargo bikes that look like big wheelbarrows. Train stations and universities have huge bicycle parking lots and garages; still, bikes are chained up everywhere.
One thing surprised us: Except for young children learning to ride, or spandex-clad people on racing bikes, almost nobody wears a bicycle helmet. Studies show that helmets dramatically reduce cycling head injuries. Yet the Netherlands has a higher percentage of people who cycle and a lower percentage of cycling injuries than almost any other country. How can that be?
I suspect that the main reason is that Dutch roads are designed to handle bicycles as well as motor vehicles, and to keep them safely separated from each other and from pedestrians as much as possible, especially at intersections.
Every road of any size has a bicycle lane, often separated from cars and pedestrians by a slight difference in height. Bicycle lanes also are a different color than roads and sidewalks — usually light red.
Bicycles have their own traffic lights, just like cars and pedestrians. At intersections without lights, triangles painted on the pavement indicate who has the right-of-way; traffic coming from where the triangle points must yield.
Cars and bicycles mix on the narrow, centuries-old streets in city centers. But motorists and cyclists seem to pay more attention to each other and road rules than Americans do. Dutch law presumes the motorist to be at fault in a car-bike collision.
Country roads have white stripes on each side, marking bicycle/passing lanes, and a center lane for cars. It can get tricky when cars need to pass each other, but it forces everyone to slow down and pay attention.
Lexington's new Complete Streets design initiative is based on many of the ideas I saw working so well in the Netherlands. The state Transportation Cabinet is beginning to catch on, at least in Central Kentucky. Still, Kentuckians could learn a lot from the Dutch about designing roads for all kinds of travelers.
Bicycles make sense, especially for many short trips. Consider these statistics from a national study: 40 percent of all trips people make are less than two miles, and 28 percent are less than one mile. In the Netherlands? No, that is in this country.