Notice his confident stride, eyes beaming with pride and a heart bursting with wonder? This is my 21 month old son navigating his world (our neighborhood) on a bicycle path. The picture speaks volumes of the Dutch sentiment that the bike is simply a natural extension of the body. Watching my son reaffirms my suspicions as to why Dutch kids are the happiest kids in the world. Biking as an integral part of childrens’ daily lives, whether hitching a ride on the bikes of their parents, heading to school or where ever their little heart desires, ensures that they get regular exposure to the outdoors.
And who wouldn’t argue that biking is a form of outdoor play? American parents are constantly being inundated with messages of the importance of playing outside. Outdoor play, according to researchers, is essential for the growth and development of children, with benefits such as aiding in motor development, vision, cognition, Vitamin D levels and mental health. Not surprisingly, Dutch kids have indicated that their absolute favorite outside activity is biking and play outside 3.8 times a week on average.
What is it about the Dutch that has allowed biking to be universally embraced as an integral part of life? What can we Americans learn from our neighbors across the pond? Here’s my own insight as to why the Dutch have succeeded in creating a bike culture from the cradle to the grave:
Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Archives
Parent and Child Led Initiative
Behind the facade of an enviable biking lifestyle lurks a bittersweet, but truly inspirational history. Contrary to popular belief, the Netherlands was not always a bikecentric nation, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when cars were fast becoming the Dutch national obsession. The cultural paradigm shift away from cars to bikes can be attributed to a 1970s protest movement infamously known as “Stop De Kindermoord” (literally translated as “Stop the Child Murder” in Dutch).
According to the BBC Article “Why is Cycling so popular in the Netherlands“, the Stop De Kindermoord movement name was coined after an article written by journalist Vic Lagenhoff whose own child was a tragic victim of a senseless car accident. Dutch parents and children took to the streets demanding the rights of children to be able to play safely outside. The Stop De Kindermoord campaign is a testament that bicycle culture is made, one that stems at the very heart and soul of society – for the children. Perhaps by learning about the overwhelming success of the parent and child led initiative, American parents may be inspired to at least start wondering whether or not they also would like the freedom and versatility of a culture that embraces daily cycling.
A bike garage in Amersterdam. Photo courtesy of Melody Rae Lifestyle Photography
Innovative Dutch Infrastructure
From a policy perspective, the grass roots Stop De Kindermoord protest movement evolved into the establishment of laws implemented to give priority and respect to cyclists and pedestrians. The sympathetic ear of decision makers directly led to the introduction of specially designated bike lanes, the reduction of speed limits on residential streets and the creation of designated car-free zones (such as city centers and play streets). Today, the Netherlands bike paths consists of a network that consists of 35,000 kilometers with an annual investment of €400m. Urban planners continue to strive for creating areas around the principle of liveable cities and towns that are convenient and safe.
Not being keen to remain stagnant, the Dutch continue to innovate, introducing novel ways to encourage biking such as glow in the dark bike lanes, and heated bike paths to keep the cyclists safe and warm. Recent news also highlights a generous proposal for the implementation of free guarded bike garages at all the main train stations. The Dutch have ingeniously figured out that by providing an infrastructure for cycling, they’ve inadvertently encouraged the culture of cycling.
Notice the clever incorporation of a bike path (red lane) on a pier?
Dutch Stoicism and Thrift
Despite the erratic weather of the Netherlands, the stoic Dutch continue to embrace cycling as part of their daily routine. While the Dutch are notorious for complaining (weather being a popular topic), they are a hearty bunch who will simply bike on regardless of discouraging weather conditions such as rain, hail, snow, and gusty winds. Only when the weather is too horrendous and possibly life threatening will Dutch people opt to take public transportation (bus, trains and trams) or their cars (if they even own one). Perhaps this Dutch stoicism can be attributed to the fact that they built an entire country below sea level – after all, haven’t you heard the famous Dutch saying “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland“? Perhaps America’s love affair of bootstrapping might be the key to getting Americans to embrace cycling.
It is also worth mentioning the Dutch national pastime of being thrifty. Biking is a lot more economical than a car. Biking liberates one from the financial burden of fluctuating gas prices, car maintenance, and car insurance. For the thrifty Dutch, it’s also definitely not about your ride. In fact, the older the bike, the more accurate the reflection of the Dutchie’s relationship with their beloved companion and less likely a target for the notorious bike thieves loitering around major Dutch cities. Not to forget to mention, the oil crisis shortage of 1973 woke the Dutch up to their over reliance on gas and to seek other alternatives aside from a predominant car culture may be the more prudent direction. With the constant news of indebted Americans, perhaps it’s time to take into consideration biking as a practical alternative rather than the latest minority, alternative hipster trend.
One of my favorite things about living in the Netherlands is how biking is part of our daily life. I’ve definitely joined the Dutch parenting habit of introducing a bike from the moment my son could balance on his own two feet. Here’s to Finding Dutchland, preferably on a bike, where ever you may be.
Me and my son on the Maliebaan last winter 2013. No cyclists were around due to the snow and thus no one was harmed.
Do you want to know another amazing trivia about Utrecht, one of the happiest places in the world?
Utrecht was the first place in the entire Netherlands to establish a path designated specifically for bikes. Built in September 1885 by the ANWB (Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders Bond – ironically now a predominately car lobbying group), the Maliebaan was constructed for the use of cyclists. Even as far back as 129 years ago, Utrecht people had insight that biking (exercise) is part of having a happy life.
Side note: The picture with my son on his loopfiets without a bicycle helmet is also a clear example of a mommy fail moment. I am quite embarrassed about and serves as a good learning lesson to be more mindful for safety reasons.
The loopfiets (walking bicycle) that my son has is the Wishbone 3-1-bike. I highly recommend it and definitely consider it a worthy investment piece especially if you’re going to have more than one child!
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