What the Dutch can teach Australia about cycling

They were heading off into Saturday night by bicycle, as the fading sun threw long shadows across the street.

Smartly dressed in a jacket and jeans (for him) and a dress and heels (for her), with nothing but carefully arranged hair adorning their heads.

Conversation was lively but eye contact was limited, as she was sitting behind him on the bicycle rack, side-saddle, with one hand on his waist as an occasional balancing aid.

All around them were others riding in similar ways, some operating mobile phones. And no, none of it was illegal.

Welcome to bike riding, Dutch style. For any Australian cycling enthusiast, visiting the Netherlands is like falling through the rabbit hole in reverse – moving from the surreal to the sensible.

Rego ranting, lycra loathing and bizarre fury over bike lane construction are all forgotten, as two-wheeled transport becomes the norm.

Amsterdam has been my jumping-off point for a cycle tour to London via Utrecht, Bruges, and the Calais-Dover ferry, with various diversions along the way.

I haven't been to the Netherlands since cycling became a big thing in my life, and I've been excited to witness the workings of a place I've read and heard so much about.

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After several days of rolling around, I'm in no ways an expert (there are academic careers to be forged in the subject of Dutch cycling) but here are some of the many things that caught my eye.

Start them young

From tiny tots being transported fore-and-aft on their parents' bicycles, through small kids being shepherded by adults, to children heading off to school alone - it's the Dutch life cycle. I watched a bustling and lively scene as parents dropped their little ones at school, with not a 4WD to be seen. On a canal-side street in Amsterdam, I saw a father coaching his young son on how to cross a busier conduit road - later, he will no doubt pass his school traffic exam with ease. 

All together now

As with my visit to Copenhagen last year, one of the most striking things is that bike riding has no age or gender – in fact, women bike riders outnumber men. Meanwhile, studies show that Dutch cyclists live longer than their non-riding peers – and surely with a better quality of life.

Fully loaded

Earlier this year, the word "quaxing" – meaning, to shop by bicycle - was coined on social media, a new term for an old concept.

The "bakfiets", or cargo bike, is just one item in the armoury of the inventive Dutch cyclist - I've seen wheeled suitcases being towed, a cello being shouldered (above) and bulky boxes balanced on pannier racks.

Bog-standard beasts

Not a lot of bike bling here. The overwhelming favourite is the classic "sit-up" bike, with a chainguard and mudguards (ideal for protecting the trousers and rainy day riding). They're safe and stable, but you'd be wrong to think they're slow.

Riders reach a good clip on the straights and those going more slowly will be overtaken, sometimes with centimetres to spare in a bike lane. The cycling skills and collision avoidance abilities are admirable - as a dawdling tourist, I just concentrate on staying on the "slow" side and holding my line.

Special treatment

Roundabouts are a danger zone for Australian riders; some motorists will try to squeeze past you or fail to give way. Naturally, the Dutch "fietsers" get their own lane - and in some roundabouts I navigated, exiting cars had to give way to bikes (above). It took me a certain leap of faith to believe I wasn't going to get T-boned on the way through.

Laneways to heaven

Riding between two towns, on a separated cycle lane as smooth as a billiard table, it was a shock to glance at the busy road through the trees on my left and realise that back home I'd probably be mixing it with the cars, while hoping that drivers would see me and leave a safe gap when passing.

For days I'd been riding on all manner of bike paths, only ever sharing space with cars in 30km/h zones. It's been such a relief to rest the eyes in the back of my head.

So why not in Australia?

It's normally about now that people start to argue that a Dutch cycling culture would never work Down Under.

Firstly, there's the theory that places like Amsterdam have effortlessly acquired their bike-friendly spaces. The real story is far more complex and inspiring. Using an emotive campaign called "stop the child murder" – and the effects of a global fuel crisis – Amsterdam beat back the encroaching motor vehicle.

Secondly, there's a long list of arguments about population density, climate, topography, commuting distances, street widths, etc, that have been diligently tackled here, if you're interested.

It's unlikely we'll ever duplicate the Dutch system – but that doesn't mean we should just give up. There is so much more that we could, and should, be doing. 

The best way to improve cycling safety isn't through helmets and hi-viz – it's about creating safe systems. Separated infrastructure, traffic calming, lowered speed limits, increased education, and legal protections that are weighted in favour of the vulnerable road user.

Build it and they will come, to the benefit of all. Just ask the Dutch.

Have you cycled internationally? Let us know in the comments section. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2012. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

Follow Michael's tour on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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