July 21, 2014

Travel Series - Cycling (and Vices) of the Netherlands

After visiting London, I took my first high speed train ride heading to Amsterdam. Not only do such trains travel at least 300 km/h, the ride is smooth and the trains stop at urban downtowns. This saves the need to travel to airports usually located at the edges of cities. Combined with their smaller ecological footprint, high speed trains make air travel unnecessary for trips of 500 km or less. Unfortunately, Canada is the only G8 country without high speed rail, which they should adopt as soon as possible. Especially along the Québec City – Windsor corridor, where roughly half of Canada’s population resides.
This TGV in Paris is similar to the trains I used to get to Amsterdam
When you think about Amsterdam, what comes to your mind? The Red Light District, with their sex shops and brothels? Coffee shops, where cannabis can be legally purchased in addition to coffee and other hot beverages? Windmills and tulips, which can be found along the countryside? For me, it’s bicycles, bicycles, bicycles! OK, maybe not just that, but Amsterdam is one of the world’s two cycling capitals; the other being Copenhagen. :)
The Yellow Bike Company near my hostel allows you to rent a bicycle for 24 hours at 15 Euros ($22.50 Canadian). The bikes they use – typical of Amsterdam – are utilitarian, but faster and lighter than the Barclays Cycle Hire (and Bike Share Toronto) bikes. They have a dual lock mechanism, in which one locks the rear wheels and the other secures the frame and front wheel to a pole with a chain. The key stays in place when the rear wheel is unlocked, so you can’t lose your keys when riding. Amsterdam is a city where there are more bicycles than cars, so most of their intersections have bicycle specific traffic signals and their cycle tracks are usually raised and can legally handle two abreast. Last, but not least, the Amsterdam Centraal train station has an entire parking garage just for bicycles, as is the case elsewhere in the Netherlands. Factor in these amenities, as well as the presence of car free streets, and you got one heck of a safe cycling city.
While on the bicycle, I stopped by three key attractions, the first of which was the Heineken Brewery for my first brewery tour. Not only did they go through the history and beer making process, the way they do their beer tasting is similar to a wine tasting, in which you smell the hops and swirl the liquid around the glass. In addition to showcasing their athletic and music promotional material, your 18 Euro ($27) admission includes two and a half beers plus a souvenir glass, which makes a trip there worthwhile.
Near the brewery lies the Rijksmuseum, which has the famous “I Amsterdam” sign and a cycling path right through the building! Inside the museum, you can spend hours looking at various paintings, war artifacts, jewelry, pottery, and even music instruments throughout the centuries. While not as large as Paris’ Louvre, it’s a world class heritage site. Could be a good place for a Royal Ontario Museum inspired Friday Night Live event?
Last, but not least, I biked through Vondelpark, which is a nice spot to relax. While they don’t have as much attention grabbing items such as totem poles in Vancouver’s Stanley Park or zoos in Toronto’s High Park and London’s Regents Park, they have some flower gardens, public art, and cafés. Tourist sites aside, it’s also cool to go by the canals and the alleyways.
Thanks to an unexpected cycling connection on the train to Amsterdam, I visited a transportation consulting company called Mobycon in Delft, an hour train ride south of Amsterdam. At Mobycon, I met Dick van veen and Simon Fessard, both of whom explained their cycle study tours and shared some insights on cycling in the Netherlands. A few themes came up.
A picture of Delft with an old fashioned windmill
1. Amsterdam has a medieval core, which is not necessarily ideal for other cities to emulate regarding cycling infrastructure. Rotterdam, which was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt during the rise of the automobile, is a better example.
2. Copenhagen uses bike boxes for turning (as do some Toronto intersections), but Dutch cities use curbs to facilitate turning for cyclists as explained in this video.
3. In the winter months, Dutch cycle tracks are salted, while Toronto’s Council recently approved snow clearing starting in Winter 2015/2016. 
4. Improved co-ordination, where cycling infrastructure design must be approved by the Dutch Cyclists’ Union (Fietsersbond), as well as police, fire, and traffic safety.
5. Pedelecs and e-scooters represent a more recent development in the Netherlands. As with Toronto, there is an issue of separating them according to speed.

After only two days in the Netherlands, it’s off to Paris to put my French to good use!

Happy cycling!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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