Crawl, Walk, Ride

Kids here learn how to ride a bike pretty darn early. No surprises there. In a city with more than twice as many bikes as cars (550 000 bikes, as opposed to 215 000 cars), and in a country with a bike path network more comprehensive than their road network, it’s no wonder.

I thought I knew something about biking before I moved here. I’d been biking my whole life in a way extreme to most North Americans… I’d ridden my bike to school from the age of six, and continued to do so long after most of my classmates had bought cars. That lead to travelling on my bike in different parts of the world, which I’ve done for 25 years now. And while I’ve never counted how many kilometres I’ve put on my bikes, my uncle totaled it up one day on his own and told me it was somewhere in the 7 figures. Even when living in remote places, I’ve only ever had a bike to go places and get things done. In most of those places that involved a three hour ride (four in the winter) to the nearest city. I even couriered during a nasty Toronto winter once.

And so, when I moved to Amsterdam, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what biking was.

I did not.

You see, I’d never lived in a place that had embraced it as its primary form of transportation. In fact, there was a constant battle, both mentally and physically, with cars. I was often ridiculed for biking as much as I did, certainly in my teens, but also later in life. If you don’t have a car in Canada, no one takes you seriously. You are a lost cause. You do not deserve to be on the road.

But not here. Not here, where it’s considered extremely odd if you don’t bike. My in-laws are better cyclists than I am; they frequently head out for 60 kilometre a day jaunts, winter or summer. (They’ll both be turning 70 this year.) And the few friends of ours who do own cars feel a bit shameful about it. They verge on apologetic when they reveal that they’ve used their car in the recent past, even if it’s for a long trip.

Now, I live in rose-coloured Amsterdam, where the bike paths are wide, clearly marked and make sense, and where bicycles have their own traffic lights. It’s a city that has deliberately (for physical and philosophical reasons) decided to not adapt to the car. When I see cars manoeuvering their way through the narrow streets that line the canals, streams of cyclist buzzing past them on both sides, I wonder why anyone bothers driving in this city. It must be incredibly frustrating.

And yet, there is no road rage. Rarely is the honking of a horn heard. Collisions between cars and bikes are astonishingly few. It’s not uncommon to see men and women in black dress emerging from the opera or a black tie affair and stepping on a bicycle to ride home, chiffon and tails trailing in the wind after them.

The streets are so inaccessible to cars that the phenomenon of driving one’s kids to school has yet to hit (though part of that is prevented by the Dutch habit of bringing the child into the classroom and having a chat with the teacher – every morning).

The other day though, I read an article in the paper about a Dutch sociologist who’s mapped the progress of our dependence on cars. What’s happened, he said, is that the rise of the middle class has meant a change in how cars are used. People, he said, no longer use cars exclusively for getting from A to B, but also to avoid public spaces, to control their environments. Which is why parents would drive their kids to school even when it’s just around the corner. I remember staying with some friends in British Columbia about ten years ago, and bringing their teenage daughter to school. It was a private school about 25 kilometres away from where they lived, but the first morning I brought her there, we were stopped half a kilometre away from her school by rush hour traffic. Or what I thought was rush hour traffic. What it was was all the other parents bringing their kids to school in their cars, and for three quarters of an hour in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, they created traffic chaos, in part for the “convenience” and in part to avoid public spaces.

The sociologist went on to say that he foresees a splitting of society from the haves and have-nots to the have-cars and don’t-have-cars; that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to earn a decent living without a car (though a substantial portion of the increase in income from having a car would go immediately into the running and maintenance of said car, thus offsetting the increase of income), that those without will fall irrevocably behind, even here in Holland.

For a bike-lover from car-loving Canada, Holland is heaven. I hope the sociologist is wrong. I hope that by the time my 3 ½ year old (now bike-riding) son is old enough to get his driver’s license we still won’t have a car, and will never (especially him) have suffered for it.