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Dutch customs

Bicycles in Holland

There are a lot of bicycles in The Netherlands. It's one of the first differences that a visitor will notice — and one of the most important.

The pre-eminence of bicycles is not just an intriguing fact. Bikes take precedence in traffic. Technically, a bicycle has penultimate right-of-way — only the authority of a tram supercedes it. Everybody else must yield.

It's not as easy as it sounds. It's almost inevitable that a visitor will step into a bike lane, in all innocence — and get a taste of that angry bell.

The typical Amsterdam street, bar those canal-side lanes that are only about thirteen feet wide, has a bicycle lane on each side (usually red or yellow.) Traffic on these flows quite smoothly. The interplay of bicycles in and out of laneways is a bit of poetry, really. The Dutch are good at it.

I had a bike when I lived in Amsterdam. I was staying in an apartment in Osdorp, a couple of miles west of downtown — through the long narrow Vondelpark and beyond. I rode this way frequently, alternately with taking the #1 tram.

My bicycle was typical of the Dutch model. A modest dark brown, it had a standard tubular frame, straight handlebars, full fenders; three gears in the rear hub switched by a cable attached to a lever on the right handlebar, and hand brakes. It had the simple, cheap lock that's built-on to the frame above the rear wheel, made only to keep somebody from just riding away. Of course, it had the rear luggage rack — a flat strong narrow plate held sturdily above the rear fender.

The luggage rack has two general functions; carrying luggage, and carrying a person. I use the term "luggage" broadly; I've seen a great range of goods transported around on bicycles. The standard form for carrying a larger piece is to reach back and hold it on the rack with one's left hand — the right being necessary for gear-switching and rear-wheel braking. For carrying a person in normal mode, the rider starts to pedal and the passenger hops up onto the rack, riding sidesaddle.

Immaculately flat, Holland is a natural bicycling country. Even so, the number of operable bikes is remarkable — greater than the population.