A Dutch woman's take on biking in the U.S.

Most anyone reading these words is well aware of The Netherlands’ reputation as a haven for biking. An estimated 30 percent of people in the country count the bicycle as their primary mode of transportation to work, a staggering figure compared to American standards, even amid recent bicycling gains. In this country, fewer than 1 percent of Americans commute on two wheels.

The first and only time I traveled to The Netherlands was a couple years ago, when my husband and I spent an idyllic and mind-blowing week biking the streets of Amsterdam. The experience left me inspired by the possibilities for other cities to follow suit and my husband threatening to pack up and move. Because many of us in this country would like to mimic our Dutch counterparts, I thought it could be instructive to talk to someone with lots of experience pedaling around both places.

Janneka van der Molen is a native of The Netherlands who moved to the U.S. in 1996 for work as an occupational therapist. She first arrived in Florida and is now living in New Orleans, where she works at a local hospital, serves on the board of the city’s bicycle advocacy organization, and hosts the bicycle-themed radio show Outspoken, which airs on the station WHIV, 102.3 FM.

Below, van der Molen weighs in on what her adopted country is getting right, what it’s still missing, and what it feels like as a Dutch person to bike in a place that is only starting to embrace the idea that the streets are not the exclusive domain of two-ton steel vessels.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

van der Molen. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.
van der Molen. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Groningen, a university town where the average age of people is very young. In the late 1960s and early 70s, they implemented a traffic circulation plan whereby if you needed to get to a place by car you had to leave essentially to get back in, unless you were traveling by bus, bike or walking. If you used those modes, you could get from place to place much more directly. Everybody hated it at first, but the whole idea was to stimulate biking in the inner city. It’s a small city and it really worked there. Within the city center now, trips done by bike are super high. Biking is the primary mode of transport.

The town of Groningen. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.
The town of Groningen. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

What’s your earliest memory of riding your bike alone?

I don’t really remember that at all. I have some pictures of me biking when I was maybe four. I remember that my aunt tried to teach me. I must have been even younger then. My sisters helped me out a little bit. We also did a lot of walking. I would walk to school because we lived really close. My mom didn’t drive, so if we had to go to the dentist and stuff like that, I would go on the back of my mom’s bike because I didn’t go fast enough.

In The Netherlands kids often get a new bike when they go to high school when they’re about 12. But I lived so close, I never really got a bike with gears. Growing up, high school was when people typically got a bike with gears because that’s when they might ride from the suburbs to the city for school.

What is your experience with car ownership and driving?

I didn’t get my drivers’ license until I was 22 to be able to go to the United States. I’m on my third car now. I got the first when I came to the U.S. My parents (who still live in The Netherlands) don’t have a car. And one of my sisters doesn’t have a car. Even when we did have a car, we would go to the grocery store and most other places on the bike with my parents. We never really used a car except to go on holiday.

In The Netherlands, before you go to high school that’s when you usually have to take the exam to ride your bike on the street. It makes sure you’re giving proper signals, right of way, making turns correctly. It’s part of schooling, part of the curriculum. They start teaching bicycling in elementary school.

What’s your daily commute like?

I bike 98 percent of the time. I sometimes take my car in when they have the car wash here at work (a service offered to employees) or if I have a meeting elsewhere. Normally it takes me like 8 minutes to get here. I have to cross (a major intersection) that can get complicated. I stand there quite a lot looking at cars driving by and I try to look to see who is on their phone in the mornings. I think the number of people on phones has decreased over the past year.

What are the biggest differences you experience riding a bike here as compared with back home?

The last time I went there, I realized I have never thought about getting doored in The Netherlands, or three feet passing space. So now because I’ve been here, riding in The Netherlands is almost kind of scary because I could reach out and touch the bus passing me by at high speed, but staying in its lane.

In the Netherlands, you have so many more bike paths (separated from motorized traffic) that you’re just away from everything. In certain areas, you’re just riding and people are zooming past. But they’re aware of you and you know as a cyclist cars are aware of you. Here nobody is even looking. I don’t think people are really aware and I think that’s the biggest difference. People are aware (of all types of traffic) in The Netherlands because they have to be aware. It also drives me nuts how many stop signs there are here.

In The Netherlands, very few people wear helmets. Do you wear one now that you’re in the U.S.?

No. Only when I go road racing. My sister like six months ago got into an accident where somebody nicked her on the back of her bike and she got a concussion. She wore a helmet because she used to live in Paris. That makes me think I probably should wear a helmet, but I’m just not there. People yell at me all the time, definitely here at work, for not wearing a helmet. I pointed out to my boyfriend that you often see cyclists at night here wearing a helmet but they don’t have lights on their bikes. I think that’s a lot more important for safety. I am much safer because I’m wearing lights. Also, I don’t get distracted; I use the same roads, so I know where big potholes are; and I went through the (League Cycling Instructor) training.

People here often worry that they can’t bike to work because they’ll get sweaty and disheveled and won’t look professional. Do you find this problematic?

I mainly wear scrubs for work, but when it gets really hot, I wear shorts and a tank top to go to work and freshen up a little bit when I get there. I work in an office in the hospital seeing patients so I never really wear a whole lot of makeup, and what I do wear doesn’t really get messed up biking. Hair is more of an issue. They’re redoing part of
my hospital and I hear they’re gonna put in employee showers. I’m hoping that’s the case.

Europeans tend to wear a lot less makeup than Americans. There’s a lot of people here that wear a lot of makeup and have their hair perfectly done up, and that can be an impediment to biking. I went to the Zoo to Do (a local charity event) two years ago on my bike, and I remember thinking, ‘I can only bike on this side of my boyfriend so the wind won’t mess up my hair.’

van der Molen and her boyfriend on their way to the Zoo to Do. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.
van der Molen and her boyfriend on their way to the Zoo to Do. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.

I noticed in Amsterdam that bikes don’t tend to be very fancy. In fact, they seem built to blend in and take a lot of wear and tear. What kind of bike do you ride?

I am using this hybrid bike, somebody’s old mountain bike that I got after my bike got stolen. It was a gift from my coworker’s brother. It’s a little too big for me, so I ride it mainly without my hands on the handlebars. I really should get something different. It’s black. It’s nothing fancy. I decorate it with some flowers. My boyfriend thinks that I should get another bike. Something that’s maybe more stylish, but I don’t want it to get stolen. I had a fancy bike, which was not really even that fancy, but it got stolen. I would be afraid if I got a really nice bike it would get stolen. I would be worried about it.

The first bike that I ever bought for myself was when I lived in Daytona, Florida and it got stolen in the same week. It was some kind of cruiser. I bought it for Spring Break. I went to the pawn shop. It was green.

Do you think transportation culture here is changing here in any measurable way?

There’s definitely more people riding. People don’t seem as surprised that I ride my bike. It seems it’s becoming more mainstream. Drivers are also more accepting (of bicyclists on the road). On the other hand, I’m looking at people (bicyclists and drivers) riding around town that I think are doing stuff that is so stupid and dangerous. We have a lot more cyclists and bike lanes than when I first got here. But ten years ago, you didn’t have to deal as much with distracted drivers.

What’s one thing U.S. cities could do to significantly improve conditions for cyclists?

Apply more traffic calming measures in neighborhoods so that cyclists are able to enjoy easy riding. A woonerf is a good example of this.

Emilie Bahr is a writer and urban planner who lives in New Orleans. She is the author of the book Urban Revolutions: A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation. Follow her on Twitter @EmilieBahr.

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