A Report from Holland
by John Ciccarelli (~2000)

Bikepaths: generally you either love them or hate them, and the famed bikepaths of Holland seem to represent the archetype for both factions.

Well, I cycled in Holland and Belgium for several days last summer and experienced several elements of that much-discussed Dutch bikeway system, both in cities and towns (Haarlem, Amsterdam, Zaandam, Prumerend), and between them. I experienced fully-separated intercity sidepaths such as the marvelous, well-lit bike/moped expressway between Haarlem and Amsterdam (about 15 miles), which runs alongside a motorway ("freeway" to Americans). Good lights every 200 feet or so, wide and near-flawless pavement with centerline dashes, long sightlines, essentially zero non-wheeled traffic, no barriers to cycling at top speeds (which I did). Separate pushbutton-activated signals at cross streets, of which there were few between the cities. I found remarkable the way these "freeway paths" threaded through cloverleaf interchanges independently of the street traffic, like a pretzel interlaced with another pretzel, with barrier-free undercrossings and overcrossings that allowed full-speed cycling.

In towns and cities there were sometimes what looked like U.S. "bike lanes" and sometimes sidewalk-style 2-way sidepaths between street and pedestrian sidewalk. I found these a nuisance when the adjacent street was not jammed with cars, and often just used the street. Newer towns seem to use bike lanes rather than these 2-way paths.

As for speed and distance, I saw many inter-city cyclists covering distances of 5 to 10 miles between towns, including a family of 5 in full rain gear on the intercity paths beside one of Amsterdam's radial motorways. I was almost never out of sight of another cyclist when traveling between towns. The adults were traveling plenty fast on good touring-quality bikes (not just the heavy 1-speed city bikes). As for the compalint that people were bicycling only because car use was substantially more inconvenient: perhaps in fuel prices and downtown parking hassles it was, but not in inter-city access and speeds. Like their space-age electric train network, the Dutch freeways are top-notch.

Connecting Amsterdam's downtown and central rail station with northern districts and suburbs across the water is an automatic (operator-less) ferry for bikes and walkers. Everyone boards on the level (no ramps) and in parallel (several side doors open at once, like the inter-terminal trams in some U.S. airports). It was packed with cyclists and walkers at 11pm on a weekday evening.

Perhaps the lowest-tech but most impressive feature of the Dutch bike infrastructure is a comprehensive, countrywide network of way-finding signs specific for bicycles. It is literally possible to bike from one end of Holland to the other with little chance of missing a turn, just by following these red-text-on-white-background plates. No numbered routes (there would be far too many!), only distance (Km), name of the destination town or city, and a directional arrow. I followed these signs for 40 miles through 4 cities my first night in the country, starting near nightfall (a lesson in making advance hotel reservations, but that's another story). In terms of comprehensiveness, San Francisco's numbered bike route sign network is the only remotely comparable scheme I've seen in the U.S. (I think they followed Denver's scheme).

Regardless of what you think about how the Dutch accomodate bike travel, it's clear that for them, bikes are a first-class mode in transportation planning, funding, standards, and infrastructure. That's something worth emulating.

John Ciccarelli