Author: Janelle Bouman
Location: Utrect, Netherlands
Cycling in such a bicycle-friendly place has been one of my greatest joys of living in Utrecht, Netherlands. The Dutch are known for their bicycles, and not without good reason – there are more bicycles than there are people in this country! I bought my own bicycle (or “fiets” in Dutch) just a few days after arriving in Utrecht for the semester, because cycling is absolutely essential to life in the Netherlands. I ride my bike to the supermarket for groceries and to the train station when I travel places. For many destinations in town, it’s actually faster to cycle there than it would be to take a car! My Dutch friends used to cycle to high school every day, sometimes as far as an hour each way. In the Netherlands, bicycles are not just a means of transportation, they are a way of life.
In Utrecht, I’ve learned pretty quickly to always check for cyclists before crossing the bike paths – something that would never be a concern in my American hometown because we don’t have bike paths or cyclists. I’ve learned to carefully lock and unlock my bike without knocking over the one parked next to it and starting a domino effect with the hundred others nearby (a valuable skill). Most of all, I’ve learned that it is no exaggeration when you hear people say that there are bicycles everywhere in the Netherlands. You can’t step outside without someone cycling past you. In town, it seems parked bicycles take up every bit of available space lining the canals and in front of stores. I’ve even spotted one parked up on somebody’s 3rd floor balcony.
With so many bikes in town, you can imagine it often gets hard to find a parking spot. One of the bicycle garages at the central train station has space for 4,200 bicycles, packed closely together in double-decker rows. Another garage fits 6,000 and will be expanded to 12,500 by the end of next year, which will make it the world’s largest bicycle parking garage. Even with the space that is currently available, sometimes I have arrived at the station with my bicycle, only to be met with a “FULL” sign in front of one of these garages. That certainly gives you a sense of how ubiquitous bicycle travel is for the Dutch.
I enjoy cycling immensely as a form of both exercise and leisure, but I have to make a conscious effort to keep up the “leisure” part of this when the town is so crowded with bicycles. One crisp fall morning, I decided to take a bike ride to a castle west of Utrecht in order to get out of the city a little bit. It took around an hour (16 kilometers) to get there, but never once along the journey did I have to worry about there not being a bike path for a particular stretch of road. Sometimes the cyclists simply share a lane with the cars, sometimes the outside edge of the road forms a bicycle lane, and sometimes there are separate bicycle paths running parallel to the road. Anywhere it is possible to go at all, it is possible to go by bike – that’s the incredible bicycle-friendly infrastructure of the Netherlands.
My ride to the castle was incredibly beautiful, providing a scenic glimpse of so many aspects of the Netherlands. It started off through the old city center of Utrecht, onto the more modern part of town, then past canals, boats, and even a windmill. The ride was flat and easy; my Dutch friends were completely right when they advised me, “You won’t need a bicycle with gears. You’ll never encounter a hill here!” An impressive bicycle bridge that only opened a few months ago (a further testament to the bicycle infrastructure), deposited me across the river on the far side of town, where peaceful Dutch suburbs lead into idyllic countryside. Along the final stretch I had cows keeping me company, separated from the bike path by only a canal.
Kasteel de Haar, my destination, was so worth the trip! This beautiful castle was originally a medieval fortification, with the current buildings being a nineteenth-century reconstruction. It’s also completely awesome for a castle to have a bicycle parking lot, as though everyone rides their bicycles there on any regular day. I really enjoyed the museum inside the castle and the gardens surrounding it, but what will stick with me the most from this day is the bicycle ride I took to get there. You see the world at a different pace when you are riding a bicycle. You can get somewhere quicker than walking, but there is so much more to take in than when you drive. It’s easy to feel at peace in the regular rhythm of pedaling and the changing scenery. The Dutch know this, and I know that I will continue to learn a lot from their cycling ways.