After years of reading about – and seeing pictures and videos of – Dutch cycle infrastructure, I’ve finally done what every cycle campaigner does sooner or later and turned up in the Netherlands in person. I’m writing this in the Hague (or den Haag, as they tend to call it around here).
The occasion is a Mummy and 10-year-old (aka the Cutester) weekend away. I’ve owed her one since her sister and I went all the way to Derbyshire. The chances of getting the whole family to the Netherlands were looking slim, and the Cutester shares my interest in infrastructure due to (or despite) my daily rants on the tandem with her. So it was an easy pitch. I was originally thinking Amsterdam, but a friend with a Dutch husband from these parts persuaded me that the Hague was less likely to see her run over by a bike on a crowded street and put off cycling for life.
The friend also raved about Scheveningen, the bit of the Hague with a beach and promenade and pier and that kind of thing. I looked on Google and to be honest, it looked pretty boring and flat and touristy (which happens to be Mr. Suburbanite’s opinion of the whole country) but I couldn’t care less so long as you can cycle to it, and then there are some nice-looking dune paths to the north. So I booked our trains and a room.
We’ve only been in the Hague for five and a half hours and my mind has already been blown. How to put this into words?
For the last few years of my life, it’s been gradually dawning on me how much public space in the UK is dominated by traffic. I say gradually because, you know, frog in boiling water** – it’s always been like that so it seems normal. It appears to be completely acceptable that motorised traffic should take priority over other street users in every conceivable situation. It seems normal that every shopping trip on a high street with a toddler should involve half a dozen moments where you think they might get killed. Or that crossing a road at any stage of life is a gamble with life itself. Or that having a family means (unless you are seriously impoverished) driving a car, because there are no other safe, convenient options for getting children around. Traffic cramps our movements, filling our ears with noise, our nostrils with fumes, and our public spaces with stress.
Then you step out of the station at Den Haag (at Holland Spoor station, in our case) and it’s quite some time before you see a car at all. The main street had I think three lanes for trams, then on the far side a single lane for cars, in one direction only – and added to that was a cycle track on each side to cater for both directions. The atmosphere was one of movement – pedestrians striding along and bikes swishing by – but quiet. Feet tapping, voices, the odd motorbike engine, the bell sounded by the tram. There was a really remarkable (to me) absence of stress.
(This, despite the fact that I was in a foreign country for the first time and had no idea how to e.g. buy a tram ticket or e.g. speak any Dutch at all. And while the Cutester is several levels above me on our Duolingo app, it turns out that knowing the phrase ‘My horse eats salt’ is not particularly helpful in navigating Dutch public transport.)
And it’s not that people don’t drive. On our tram journey we saw plenty of cars and plenty of driving. The difference is very simply that here, motor traffic does not dominate. An example follows.
We found the house we’re staying in, 15 minutes’ walk from the sea front, and having dumped our luggage went off to the nearest bike hire place. As we walked there, often misunderstanding the street completely and blocking the path of patient Dutch people on what turned out to be bike paths, I noticed that to cycle back we’d have to share one stretch of road with traffic. There’s a bike lane, then it stops and only reappears again just before the next junction. Meanwhile cyclists have to cycle right next to parked cars (the dreaded door zone) to avoid a tram track in the road.
‘This is like a street in London!” I said to the Cutester in horror.
“Mummy!” she said. “You’re not scared of cycling in Holland, are you?”
At the bike hire place the bike hire guy listened to my concerns with incredulity (and perfect English, like every other Dutch person we’ve met so far).
“Of course it’s safe,” he said.
“But in traffic,” I said weakly. “With a child…”
“It’s fine,” he shrugged. “There are more bikes than there are cars.”
And he was absolutely right. It was fine. On that particular stretch we trundled along, me gripping the handlebars very tightly and calling instructions to the Cutester over my shoulder at 3-second intervals. No drivers overtaking at speed, no punishment passes, no honking, not much traffic at all. Then after the Cutester’s first ever traffic lights experience on her own bike (guess what? It was fine) we were back on a lovely red path several metres away from the carriageway. (A path which stretched off into infinity, because these paths carry straight on across the entrance to side roads as if they don’t exist, and cars turning in or out just have to bump carefully over them.)
What a difference to cycling in the UK, where riding a bike is seen by some drivers as a declaration of war. Here a bike is a common, acceptable and normal form of transport that has as much right to be on the road as a car. So streets are designed accordingly, and where you do encounter traffic on your bike, drivers respect you as a road user.
It was bliss. We rode to Scheveningen too; in fact it’s at the end of the same street as the bike hire. We came up a slope and suddenly there was the sea on the other side. Google had not done it justice at all. The sky was clearing after a rainy day and the wide beach was almost deserted. The pier, ferris wheel and other intriguing structures beckoned from a distance. Car parks were conspicuous by their absence. We rode on the red path alongside it all, on our sit-up-and beg, back-pedal-brake, no-gear hire bikes with the wind in our hair and stupid grins on our faces. There can’t be a better feeling in the whole world.
* I know it looks like the pedestrian is going to get clobbered by that bike, but the bike is in fact stationary. Its rider had paused for a minute or two.
**As in that saying about a frog not jumping out of a pan of water if you heat it up gradually. Which, thinking about it, is a totally barbaric idea, and why would anyone want to boil a frog in the first place? And if you were going to boil one, why not just kill it first, rather than cruelly etc etc