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Bicycle baptism

We just wanted to get out of the car while it was stopped in traffic. The plan was to walk to the restaurant two blocks away while my husband went to park the car. It made sense.IMG_0937

I stepped out on the right side, but not before saying to the kids in the back seat, “Watch out for the bikes!” Actually, I said it twice. Getting out, I closed the car door, but stayed next to the car so I could look to the right and check the bicycle lane before crossing to the sidewalk on the far side of the bicycle lane.

My teenage son was next to exit, and did the same as I did: stood close to the car, waiting as the bikes passed by.

Our visitor, also a teenager, slid across from the left and got out of the car as well, but, despite my warning, as well as the additional word of warning from my husband as she slid across, did NOT wait.

Nor did she look. She stepped right out into the path of a bike, ridden by a young woman.

Fortunately, the woman saw her at the last minute and braked hard, slowing before the impact.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t swerve, since she was between our car and the curb of the sidewalk.

Fortunately, she didn’t fall over on impact; she was able to hold the bicycle upright once she stopped.

Unfortunately, our visitor stepped right into the side of the bike’s front wheel. That wouldn’t have hurt her too much, but she lost her balance and toppled to the left, pushed by the slowing bike.

She landed on a knee and an elbow. In the history of bike-pedestrian accidents, this wasn’t a bad one: a bruised elbow, a bruised knee, an achy back where she wrenched it as she went down.

But it was upsetting. She was, at first, shocked, as well as afraid that perhaps her injuries were worse than they ended up being.

I was shocked too. I was quick enough to shout “Watch out!” So why wasn’t I quick enough to stop her from taking that one single step into the bike lane?

I’m calling it her baptism into life in the Netherlands, but does it really have to be that way? We’re proud that our city—our whole country—cycles so much, but the relationship between bicycles and other modes of transportation leaves much to be desired.

BIKES v CARS

The general rule here is that if there is an accident between a bicycle and a car, the car is automatically at fault (I’ve heard that there is a mechanism for appealing this, and that the rule has been eased recently, but it still mostly stands.). What’s the result? Drivers do their damndest not to hit a bike.

IMG_0954That’s a good thing, right? It keeps us safe on our bikes. The problem is that it makes the bicyclists cocky. They do anything they please on their bikes, knowing full well that cars will just get out of the way.

I’ve seen some amazingly dangerous bicycling: swooping from a side street straight into the middle of a road without looking. Or, on the other hand, looking, seeing a car (me!) coming, but still choosing to swerve from the bike lane on the right straight in front of me without any warning at all in order to get to some building on the left. That’s a common one.

BIKES v BIKES

The same applies here: cocky bicyclists never can predict what other cocky bicyclists will do. They’re all over the place. For example, there are traffic lights on the bike paths, but many just ignore them.

And keep in mind that no one wears helmets, except the smallest children, visiting Germans, and Mormon missionaries from America.

BIKES v PEDESTRIANS

This one is even scarier, since neither side is being cautious in this scenario, and pedestrians can’t move as fast to get out of the way. Officially one or the other has the right of way in any given situation; if it’s a crosswalk (zebra path for my British readers), or if it’s a pedestrian shopping street or walking path, the pedestrians have the right of way. Otherwise, if it’s a street or bike lane, the bikes have the right of way.

The problem here is that both of them act like they have the right of way: all the time and anywhere. In other words, you could say our visitor is already acting like a native! I don’t know how many near-misses I’ve had on my bike when pedestrians, without bothering to look, stepped off sidewalks right in front of me.

It’s gotten to the point where, when I’m in an area with a lot of pedestrians, I will, just to keep myself entertained, simply choose a random pedestrian who’s on the sidewalk walking in the direction of the street. As I’m cycling along – on my guard, of course; hands ready to brake – I’ll watch that pedestrian to see if he or she will look before stepping down off the sidewalk. More often than not, it doesn’t happen. I’m forced to swerve, if there’s room, or brake hard. If I wasn’t already watching, both of us would have been hurt. And this happens a lot!

It works the other way around as well, with the bicyclist at fault. Many cities, including ours, have one or more main shopping street that’s officially off-limits to bicyclists. There are also many walking paths in the residential neighborhoods that are marked as pedestrian. Nevertheless, bikes use them when they want. They’re fairly cautious on pedestrian shopping streets, since they’re risking a fine, but on paths? Not so much.

Is there a way to change this? Probably not. In the last year of primary school, children are trained and tested for a “bicycle diploma.” They’re taught all the rules: no more than two next to each other, signaling, using your lights in the dark, etc. One year later, they turn into stroppy teenagers and all of those rules go out the window. I don’t think any of them consistently follows the rules again until they become parents who want to set an example for their children.

So is the Netherlands really such a utopia for bicyclists? Yes and no. We use bikes more than anywhere else. We accommodate bikes better than anywhere else, with bike paths and traffic lights for bikes and so on. That’s good for the environment and, if you disregard the accidents, it’s good for our health. I’m certainly not advocating switching to cars. Our city, Groningen, is especially and justifiably proud of how it is organized to encourage cycling, as you can see from this short documentary: Groningen: The World’s Cycling City.

But I do wish it would all be safer: that everyone would just follow the rules. Then all we’d have to worry about would be the occasional flat tire or lost bike key. And the rain: I hate biking in the rain. But you can’t have everything.

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6 Comments

  • Sue Kearney (@MagnoliasWest)

    April 12, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    I live in Oakland, California, and we have bike lanes. One day I didn’t look, and opened my car door in the path of an oncoming cyclist. Oh, it still hurts to think about it. He took a big fall, and luckily wasn’t badly hurt — or worse.

    I look and look again now. Every time.

    Thanks for your article… and for the reminder.

    Love and gratitude,
    Sue

    Reply
    • rachel75

      April 26, 2014 at 8:49 am

      I’m sorry I took so long to reply: your comment went to my spam folder! What you describe is exactly what scared me most when I lived in Berkeley and then San Francisco. People just don’t expect anything but other cars to be there when they open a car door after parking. Here, either they look, or they don’t have to because there’s a separate bike lane, often between the parked cars and the sidewalk. Thanks for posting!

      Reply
  • Ana

    April 13, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Great post! When we were first married we lived in NE Holland for three years and I remember being amazed at how geared up the place was for bikes and how people of all ages cycled everywhere and carried everything on their bicycles – grocery shopping, an umbrella in the rain, and a bunch of flowers – all at the same time. I had never learned to cycle as a child and so I tried to learn there but never really took to it. Thanks for refreshing my memory of our time there 🙂

    Reply
  • Dawn

    April 14, 2014 at 1:30 am

    I had no idea about any of this! I grew up in Maine where you only ride your bike a month out of the year and now we are in Florida where we have biking paths.
    Your title was was lured me in. I thought, “how do you get baptized on a bicycle exactly?” Now I get it! Great job! If I ever make it to the Netherlands I will definitely watch out for bikes!
    xo
    Dawn

    Reply
  • Delia @ Blog Formatting

    April 15, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Wow, this is definitely a big challenge added to the driving itself, Rachel!

    We don’t have nearly as many bikes on the streets here in Canada but I’m super careful when I drive around them 🙂

    Reply

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