The Netherlands isn’t really known for much. There’s no real famous export product, or food, or world star (save a few DJs and soccer players) that everyone knows and loves. I think it’s because the real gem of the Netherlands has to be experienced right here in the country: cycling. The country had adopted cycling as a favoured method in the early 1900s and today there are about 18 million bikes in the Netherlands (which has a population of 16.7 million).
One of the first things every exchange student is told here is to buy a bike. At first I was a little hesitant, I never really cycled at home and being on a tight budget I didn’t want to shell out big bucks for something I didn’t think I needed. But last night, as I was riding home from class on an empty street, wind blowing through my hair (romantic, I know), I realized it was the best decision I’ve made so far. Why, you ask?
Cycling is a Good Cardio Substitute
It’s always easy to tell ourselves we’re going to exercise. The hard part is actually doing it. It’s easy to come up with excuses not to, especially in a new country – I’m tired, it’s cold and raining, what if I get lost? But here I’m literally forced to do some cardio every day on my bike. Every day I cycle 15 minutes each way to school, so that’s a half hour right there I don’t even need to think about, anything I can do on top is great. Cycling with a destination also doesn’t make it seem so tough, even when you’re trying to go fast. Running on a treadmill or using the stationary bike in the gym can be very boring, but when you’re heading to school or the grocery store, the time passes in a flash.
It’s Cheaper than Public Transport (and Sometimes Quicker!)
I don’t know why I ever thought buying a bike was a huge cost. I bought the bike, a small light and lock (although it is on the low end of quality) for 50€. That’s less than a one-month metropass back home. Each time I ride the bus here it costs me 2.60€, which would add up to way more than the one time cost of my bike.
Cycling is also faster than public transport (for the most part). Obviously a bus can move faster than me when it gets going, but I’m not at the mercy of the bus’ schedule and route. I can hop on my bike anytime I want and take off, there’s no waiting around for the bus to come, which we all know can be brutal if the weather isn’t cooperating. I can also travel to destinations more easily, especially on the small streets of the city centre that buses can’t reach. I’m also thankful that for the next five months I won’t ever be stuck on a cramped subway car in the dark between two subway stations wondering if I’ll ever move again.
Great Way to Discover a Region
Want to head over to campus, go downtown, or take a short trip outside the city? All you need to do is hop on your bike. Cycling has been the best way to discover a city, because it forces you to remember streets and landmarks rather than just bus or subway stops. After just a few days of riding, I knew the best routes to get downtown, to the grocery store, to the best pubs, and of course, to school.
Cycling is also very versatile, you can go on roads, dirt paths, in forests, through tight alleyways – anywhere really! And it makes getting lost much less frightful, because rather than wandering around for hours to find my way back, I can simply bike for a few minutes until I recognize something.
Now I know what you’re thinking, cycling sounds like the best thing since sliced bread. And it is over here, but it might not be in Canada. That’s because you need three things to make cycling the best way to get around:
A Flat Landscape
Over my past few weeks of cycling (yes, I’m far from being an expert), I’ve only encountered two hills, and they were more like accessibility ramps you find outside buildings. The whole country here is basically one flat line aka the opposite of Toronto. If I tried to cycle to Ryerson, I’d hit so many hills I’d have to set up a campsite at one to rest.
Space to Park
With all those bikes going around, you need places to store them. Utrecht alone has underground lots and large “sheds” to store hundreds of thousands of bikes. But it’s still not enough, telephone poles, trees and fences all become parking places. And when in doubt, just lock your bike to itself and hope for the best! I don’t think there’s any space available in Toronto to store the millions of bikes that would be needed.
Cycling is so easy over here because the government invested in specified bike lanes all over the place. Outside the city centre, streets look like this: care lanes, barrier, bike lanes, barrier, sidewalk. And as you get into town and space is limited, there are smaller, painted lanes for bikes. In Toronto bike lanes are rare, and cars don’t usually care about cyclists, because the streets were built for the automobile, not bikes.