Dutch cycling utopia fast becoming a daily nightmare

Country has run out of space to accommodate its five million cyclists, with getting to work a case of the survival of the fittest

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 3:00am

Problems all too familiar to car drivers the world over, from traffic jams to road rage and lack of parking, are now also threatening to turn the Dutch dream of cycling bliss into a daily hell.

In a small country where bicycles outnumber people by 1.2 million, the Dutch have simply run out of space to accommodate the 5 million cyclists who take to the road every day, turning commuting in major cities into a nightmare.

In Amsterdam alone, 490,000 freewheeling fietsers cycle two million kilometres every day, according to the city council.

"Bicycles are an integral mode of transport in our city," Amsterdam's council said, but, in a worrying trend, "the busiest bicycle paths are too small for the growing stream of daily cyclists".

"Cyclists have increased dramatically over the last few years," Wim Bot, of the Dutch Cycling Association said. "In a small country like the Netherlands where almost every square metre is accounted for, we've run out of space. It's become a headache."

The Dutch first fell in love with cycling in the late 1980s.

Two decades later the first bicycle paths were laid in this country so flat that it is often described as "specially created for cyclists".

Today there are 18 million bikes, or 1.3 bicycles per citizen old enough to ride. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is often seen cycling to work.

About 35,000 kilometres of bike path now criss-cross the landscape. These trademark red tarmac roads are purpose built, regularly maintained and come with their own set of road signs and traffic lights.

But having invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure, the Dutch are now paying the price for pedal-power's rise in popularity.

Dutch newspaper Trouw recently said that in places like Amsterdam and Utrecht, the increase in bicycles was giving rise to a host of unpleasant phenomena. Around major stations such as Amsterdam and Utrecht Central, tens of thousands of bicycles parked legally and illegally hog public space and restrict pedestrian access.

More cyclists on the road means more congestion, and "bicycle rage" has become commonplace.

"Sometimes it's a madhouse out there," said Jan van der Tuin, 59, a bicycle shed parking attendant just outside Utrecht's busy central station.

"There's been no fist-fights, but harsh words are often being spoken," he said with a sigh as he took a drag from his hand-rolled cigarette.

"We have big problems," agreed Marleen van der Wurff, 58, as she frantically looked for a bicycle parking spot in Utrecht before having to run for a train. "It's plainly becoming a dangerous situation."

Bicycle overload has become such a problem that 180 top city planners convened a conference recently in Utrecht on the issue.

Proposed solutions were remarkably similar to those previously used to deal with car congestion, ranging from building multi-storey underground "mega" bicycle sheds to impounding badly-parked bikes.

Municipal workers in The Hague alone have impounded 2,400 illegally parked bicycles since August.

And Amsterdam this week announced a US$150 million plan to provide 38,000 new bicycle parking spots and 15 extra kilometres of cycle path in the city.

But "this is not something that will be solved next week," Bot said. "It's a medium to long-term problem."