Differences in Cultural Practice

For my exchange I am staying in the heart of the Netherlands, namely in Utrecht. Thus, it is almost an obvious consequence that my first focus on cultural difference lies on the way that people get around. Utrecht is often found in the top 3 of lists covering the topic of “bicycle-friendliest cities of the world”, and rightfully so, in my opinion. Shortly after my arrival I felt a strong urge to cycle through the city. Maybe it was because of this that on my second day in Utrecht, I bought a slightly overpriced bike.

As in the widely known cliché, Dutch people, or ‘dutchies’, use their bike for everything and to go everywhere. Furthermore, I heard several times that there are more bikes in Utrecht than there are people, which means that there are 350’000+ bikes. One wouldn’t dare to doubt this fact when cycling during the rush hour through Utrecht. Not only can one see bicycles parked everywhere but one also gets the feeling of a being a fish in a swarm. This is because even though there are bike lanes separated from the street, it is not uncommon that dutchies use it in a highway like system. This means that there are three lines according to speed, going from slowest on the right to the fast lane line on the left. Consequently, one is surrounded by bicycles, and I started to get the feeling that bicycles rule the streets. Why that actually might be the case will be discussed in the following.

  • Most times, bicycles get the right of way. If a bike road crosses with one for cars there are either red lights or the cars have to wait. There are hardly any pedestrian crossings on bike roads so if pedestrians want to get to the other side they have to squeeze through the oncoming bikes. During rush hour this can be quite a struggle. What struck me most is that at big crossings with red lights for bike lanes, cars and public transport, bikes usually have the shortest waiting time. This is a strong contrast to Switzerland, where all busses are equipped with devices allowing them to turn red lights green sooner in their favour.
  • There are slacker rules for biking and they are not applied as strictly. Whereas most locals here drive without lights, in Switzerland you get fined for this on a daily basis. In Switzerland it is forbidden to take passengers on the carrier, but in Utrecht I found myself waiting at a bike red light with three bikes for 6 people.
  • A Dutch member of my volleyball association told me that for accidents with cars and bikes it is usually difficult for the car driver to evade the blame.

As I was thinking for reasons for this I found that not only the flatness of the country, the size of the country compared to the amount of people living here but also Dutch policy plays a huge role. Thanks to the government, cyclists benefit from parking spaces and bike storage everywhere; the bicycle is the quickest way around town and it costs a fortune to park a car close to the centre. Furthermore, many bike roads were integrated in the cities’ development. These are the size of a car road and cars can drive a maximum of 20 km/hour. Consequently, there are so many bikes driving there that cars will use this road only if they have to, which again makes it more pleasant for cyclists.

When I first noticed this bike dominance I got very excited. This is probably because I love biking through cities and I find it the best way to transport people without big baggage. I think this is accurate in terms of ecological footprint, health and quality of life (because the city is a lot quieter than a Swiss city of this size). When I was in the above-mentioned bike swarm I got goose bumps because I was not used to the number of bikes and to the feeling of being the majority on the road. In Switzerland I usually felt like a guest on the road. When watching the behaviour of cyclist and the road in general I noticed that people are nicer to each other and give others more space and the right of way (slowing down so that the others don’t have to stop) for the sake of making the traffic smoother. Also, people are less in a rush, which might be due to most bikes having only one gear. In my opinion this straightforwardness can be found in many other aspects of Dutch culture as well such as living, socialising and travelling (which according to another cliché usually is with a caravan). The direction of causality, however, is unclear to me.

What I am now very curious about is how Utrecht’s bike culture and people will deal with the approaching winter and its cold and rainy weather.

Niklas Kochsiek

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