[as printed in Hollands Glorie Summer 2015]
DUTCH BIKE PATH ETIQUETTE
Yes, Nederland is a crowded country, and personal space is rather small. How small? Contrast Amsterdam with Chicago, where I grew up. In public, even if someone comes close to you with their shopping cart, they’ll stop and make sure you’re okay. People wonder why Americans talk so loud. It’s because our personal space is so big. We have to be loud, just to be heard. In America, my personal space is about a meter wide in every direction. In the Netherlands, it’s a few centimeters. I’ve heard Americans come over here and say ‘Dutch people are so rude! They bump into you on the street, and they don’t even say sorry.’ Let’s face it. There’s no time. In the Netherlands, if you’d stop to say sorry every time you bump someone, you’d never get anywhere.
When people talk about the famous Dutch tolerance, I don’t think of it as a virtue; I think it’s more of a coping mechanism. If you walk on the street, people will bump into you. If you ride a bike, you will be cut off by tourists. If you ride a scooter… well, maybe that’s the exception. Scooters don’t seem to slow down for anyone.
Now, you might expect me to go off on a rant about scooters here. And many of my friends would. But to me, the Dutch bike path is a real litmus test to see just how tolerant you are. Mostly I have no problem sharing the bike path with scooters. Clearly, there are worse things. Specifically, the things that block the path entirely. These are what I call ‘Double-Wide Chat-Rooms’: people biking next to each other so engrossed in conversation they become unaware anyone might want to pass them. Even if I’m biking next to someone, I don’t mind if I hear a scooter toot-toot from behind. In fact, anytime I’m biking ‘double wide,’ I’m half listening for the toot-toot – sometimes so much so that my Dutch conversation partner complains I’m not giving her my full attention. (Sorry, dear.)
On the Dutch bike path, you may come across a roller skater. You’ll have to be quite skillful to squeeze past those wild arm swings. You may find a fiets taxi, and there’s no passing them. And then, of course there’s the mini-car known as the ‘Canta.’ That’s Dutch innovation for you. Somewhere along the line, someone thought ‘Dutch bike paths aren’t crowded enough! Let’s build a car that’s just big enough to take up the whole bike path, and just slow enough to tie up everyone behind. …Except the scooters. They don’t slow down for anyone.’
In my neighborhood, however, scooters are not allowed on the bike path. The city of Amsterdam has set up a proefstreek in which all scooters are required to ride in the street, helmet or no.
Between Overtoom and Kinkerstraat, there are signs every few meters saying ‘Snorfietsen op straat.’ I don’t know how they chose this particular bit of street to try this new rule. But I do know what’s right in the middle of the street: a scooter shop. Delightful.
As soon as the signs went up along Jan Pieter Heijestraat, the bike riders cheered. And the scooters kept on riding on the bike paths, as if to say ‘We’re going too fast to read the signs!’
To this day, I’ve never seen a police controle. All they’d need is one speed camera (a Dutch invention), and they could make millions. One day, I decided to take matters into my own hands. As my son and I were riding – yes, side by side – I did not make room for a scooter to pass us. Instead I pointed at the signs, which only resulted in yelling. I fantasized about flagging down the scooter rider and making him stop. Then whacking him on the head and saying ‘You could have avoided that with a helmet, in the street.’
At one point, I actually organized a protest against scooters on the bike path. It wasn’t a huge protest. In fact, it was just me and my kid. I got a big sign saying ‘Bloem voor de goede scooter’ (flowers for the good scooter). And – instead of publicly shaming the bad scooters – I publicly rewarded the good ones. I gave out flowers to the scooters who actually followed the rules. (My kid took pictures.)
At one point, I even stopped a scooter on the bike path and explained why I couldn’t give him a flower. He said he had no idea there was a special rule in place for this street. But he thought it was a cool idea. I gave him a flower, and I watched as he switched into the street. That is my version of bike path etiquette.