Tot ziens Nederlands, ik zal je missen

Posted on Jan 26, 2020

Now that my time in the Netherlands is coming to an end after 6 years, I am thinking (oh the positive bias!) about all the good things that I will miss in the sunny southern side of Europe (of course I will forget about the lack of light during winters, the constant drizzle for weeks or the cultural differences among others). And the one that sticks the most out of anything is cycling. Back in Barcelona I was used to cycling for my daily commuting (except for a few years on a scooter, shhh), but Netherlands became paradise for someone who takes the bike for pretty much anything. Paradise is a big word, but oh las, how true it is. If I had lived in a different city the adaptation period would be easier, but coming from one of the top cycling cities in the world this is going to be a tough one.

The bike and togetherness

Many performance, music or theatre festivals fall within a 15km radius of the city, and cycling is part of the experience. Coming back home after a few hours out and about, despite you wishing a Star Trek sort of immediate transport system, it is quite a relief and definitely an enjoyable and fun experience going back home if a bunch of friends are cycling together. You feel safer, you discuss about the ins and outs of what you just saw and you call it a day, saying goodbye without even stepping out of the bike. Zie je morgen! I’ve used the metro for many years, and it’s definitely not the same. It’s not the same either when you are the only one cycling, and everybody looks at you like you are coming from Mars.

It’s also a different experience having to stick to a given area, when you could be moving all together from one place to another. The togetherness is not broken by a motorised vehicle (and yes, the metro or the bus still somewhat break it), instead cycling together adds to the entire experience. Sending a text to your friend: I come and ring your doorbell as it’s on my way, so we go together from there, yeah?

I can’t stop speaking about how social cycling is. And how it changes the experience of going from A to B: it is not just about transportation anymore, but it adds a social dimension and if you are making it on your own (and if it is not rainy, misty, windy or just damn cold) it adds a contemplation dimension with which you will enjoy the travel because slow speed makes for contemplating. Ask Jan Gehl !

Using a bike as a cargo van

In the photo above and the ones below you can see one of the best things about cycling in the Netherlands: the possibility of taking a friend or a partner with you. Or maybe you need to transport your cat, a krat of beers , a vacuum cleaner or a tomato plant (note: I’ve done it all). Coming from the airport with a heavy suitcase doesn’t mean you need to leave your bike home, just hope for the best for those tiny wheels!

Same if you go to a shop: I will not bring an entire couch on my own, but I will try the most ridiculous and over-complicated configuration so that I can bring with me that plank, the cutlery, the glasses and the tiny side table. This. Needs. To fit. Somehow. Let me try again. Ooops it all fell.

You sweat it, but you go for it. And people will not generally get upset because of it (unless it all falls apart and you make someone else fall too). Because that is a huge difference with motorised-focused cities: the anger level. In Netherlands you gaze at fellow cyclists, smile, give the bad look or talk to them. Sometimes you curse, but in 6 years I have done it mostly because of the damn wind which is confabulated to go against you no matter which direction you go, or the drizzle at 0 degrees when you have high fever but you need to go to the supermarket. At most people use the bell against each other. And sometimes you get a few pas op or kijk maar klootzak , but in over half a decade I haven’t really had that many bad experiences (a few falls here in there, some involving friends over bushes and the likes).

Now frame all of this in a motorised city. Would you compare a bell to honking? And what about calling names between drivers, pedestrians, cyclists.. The anger and stress levels are so high that moving is really not enjoyable. And let’s not talk about the experience of walking/cycling/having a coffee in a street filled with cars, where you need to actually shout so that your friends can hear what you are saying over all the noise while you inhale CO2 like it’s lachgas . Every time I go to Barcelona I realize the noise pressure its inhabitants have to endure. I was not aware of it at the time I was living there because I grew up with it, but once you discover that other realities are possible, there is no going back .

Weather, lovely weather

Every time I find myself in a discussion of why cycling is not popular in a city such as Barcelona, the usual response is that hills make it hard (it’s not uncommon to get 1% as slope steepness percentage in many parts of the city) and heat makes it unbearable, you would need showers everywhere! Let’s talk about weather then.

The average amount of annual rainy days in Amsterdam is 182 . That means that almost 50% of the time I am wet. One out of every 2 days. Like the vast majority of amsterdamers I didn’t usually wear rainy pants, but after spending entire days at work with wet pants and shoes I was done with it. Even my daily backpack needed to be sealed. Add to that an average of 10 knots of wind per year, which I find surprising because most days it feels like you are climbing the Col de Tourmalet, and 10 knots feels like a complete misnomer. Hell, the Netherlands is a kiteboarding paradise for a reason!

We also have had our bits and pieces of snow, and that does not stop the dutch from cycling. Even more so, it can be amazing. Or a torture. Depends on the moment and for whom.

So every time I find myself in a discussion of why cycling is not working in a given city my default answer is this: the cycling fallacies website . It’s same ol’ same ol’. Excuses, excuses everywhere! And while I agree that humidity in a city such as Barcelona is awful, climate change is making Amsterdam look more like its counterpart down south. We have had our fair share of 35+ degrees days in the last 2 summers, but still, you bike. Then you swim! So to prove that it is not always cold, drizzle, hail, rain, wind or fog, see below for a couple examples! I have been saying it for years, my life goal is to live during winter in Barcelona and summer in Amsterdam. You then get the best of both cities weather-wise.

A cultural difference

I will miss these experiences, although you can argue that I will enjoy different ones. And that is true, but the freedom that the combination of cycling and a quite good multimodal system brings to your daily life is a game changer. Changing CO2 and noise of scooters and cars for ringing bells is a game changer. It’s true that Amsterdam can improve in accessibility measures for physically disabled people (such as wheelchairs, in that regard Barcelona is probably ahead). We can also discuss that pedestrians take a second place (the car takes a third), and in many streets Amsterdam does not perform as a front runner as a walkable city. We can also discuss how mopeds and scooters in general disregard their hurting power by breaking rules, and how they are still a nuisance on a daily basis in many bike lanes (even though significantly less since the prohibition ). We can also discuss about 30 kmh-limited streets, in which the cars usually go way above the limit.

But all of it is a cultural difference as well. In Netherlands there is a certain degree of individual freedom in judgement when behaving in a social environment, which may involve breaking a small rule or doing something in a not normative way. Legislation exists but there is some space for interpretation and best-available-option pick in certain situations. There is what I ended up calling the individual buffer: you put up with situations that would make people angry, but because of pragmatism you decide to just ignore and go on. Barcelona on the other side is a very normative city, there is a need of regulation for absolutely everything, a fear feeling of giving too much space and freedom and legislation overflows every aspect of life (I have quite a few friends and family that would completely disagree with this, stating that the city is chaos and destruction, but I would argue that I would love to see some statistics comparing cities!). And when talking about cycling, that completely changes your experience. The Hofstede insights (check the long term orientation and uncertainty avoidance indices) just confirm what I have experienced in both cities as a cyclist (even though they might be wrong). Adding bike lanes to a city will add more cyclists but culture is a different beast, and you don’t change that in 10 years. And maybe it’s just fine and I have changed, which is also fine. And maybe changing cars for bikes brings with it a cultural change. Questions, questions.

This bridge represents how I feel about Barcelona when cycling: always up. But I will do my best to help construct a positive change for the city and bring the bridge down. A mixed crossover of cyclists, pedestrians and public transport surrounded by green space. Look at Paris, even look at London! It is possible to have more proto-Amsterdams. And if it is not, I will bring the Netherlands always in my heart. The only way to make a change is to embrace positivity and showcase why the alternative is better in all sorts of ways. And maybe we need to frame our thinking in theories like the 9x effect or the endowment effect if we want to effectively change people’s commuting habits (besides building bike infrastructure and changing legislation of course!).

For now…

Nu wil ik zeggen, tot ziens Amsterdam.