“Where are our helmets?” my daughter Harper asked. We were standing outside a cycle shop in the Dutch city of Delft, along with Harper’s older sister, Lyra, and my wife, Alia.
“We didn’t buy any,” I replied. Along the dark green Wijnhaven canal, confident Dutchmen and Dutchwomen whizzed around, their blond heads exposed to the soft northern sun. “In the Netherlands, only tourists wear helmets.”
“What if we get in a crash?” Lyra asked.
“We won’t,” I said. “O.K., now, let’s line up—oop!” A Dutchman in a sleek blue suit, riding a sleek blue bike, was swerving around me from the south. Another rider, approaching from the north, rang her bell to remind me that I was blocking traffic. “Everyone, get on,” I commanded, but nobody did. Small traffic jams were developing on either side of our uncertain foursome. “Let’s maybe walk our bikes to a less busy street,” I said. We wheeled our way across a bridge into the Markt square, where the primary obstacle was an Italian tour group.
It was April of 2017. We were to live in Delft for three months, and our canalside apartment, on a street named Hippolytusbuurt, was within riding distance of the grocery, the bakery, the girls’ school, the library, the IKEA. Back home, in Virginia, our lives had been a blur of traffic, from drop-offs at soccer practice to hectic commutes. While our family was in Holland, Alia and I decided, we would take a break from driving cars. Cycling was the norm in the Netherlands, and fulfilled the dream of every American rider who wished she could rule the road. It was a country with more bikes than people, and we were eager to slip into the two-wheeled flow.
At the cycle shop, we’d bought used bikes for the adults and new but cheap ones for the kids. In the Dutch style, they weren’t mountain or racing bikes but city cruisers, meant to be ridden perfectly upright, your back as straight as a marching soldier’s. An employee had attached brightly colored milk crates to the back of each bike, so that we could carry baguettes, or whatever. I secured an agreement from the manager that he would buy back the bikes upon our departure, that July. I’d have been satisfied with a handshake, but the manager, being Dutch, had drafted a three-sentence contract, which we both signed in duplicate.
Alia took out her phone, opened Google Maps, and pointed to a lake just east of the city. “I thought we could ride out here and see what we see,” she said.
“Can we get a snack?” Harper asked.
“I am sure we will get a snack.”
And so we set off, with varying levels of feigned confidence, down the brick streets of Delft, the uneven surface making our wheels jostle. Every few turns of the pedals, I’d ride past a single brick that was painted the elegant blue-and-white of Delftware. As we crossed a canal on a high stone bridge, four boys zoomed past, each with a girlfriend perched sidesaddle atop his back wheel; they were followed, like a punch line, by a girl, pedalling hard, with a boyfriend sitting pertly atop hers.
We rode past the Oude Kerk, whose steeple, from the fourteenth century, leans at a pitch greater than that of Pisa’s tower. To our right was a wall of narrow three- and four-story apartment buildings, each with a business on the ground floor. To our left was the seven-hundred-year-old Oude Delft canal, its still surface covered with lily pads and floating trash. There was no protective guardrail or fence, not even a curb—just an unnerving, cliff-like drop. I kept imagining myself zooming off the edge, “Thelma & Louise”–style, and into the dark water.
Alia led the way, with Lyra, then eleven, and Harper, then nine, in the middle, and me covering our rear. “Try to stay to the right,” I called ahead, as faster bikers passed on our left. When a hatchback zipped past us, mere inches from our bikes, Lyra shouted, “That car almost hit me!” After another car came uncomfortably close, she cried, “I don’t like this! Why aren’t we wearing helmets?”
There’s a gesture I make when I’m biking in the United States that, to me, encapsulates the status cyclists have in this country. Whenever I reach an intersection with a car approaching, I slow down to make sure I won’t be hit, and, even when I have the legal right of way—on a bike path, or when the car has a yield sign—I acknowledge a driver’s stopping with a little half-wave. Thank you for obeying the law and not killing me, I am saying.
Even in optimistic American municipalities that have demarcated bike lanes on the street or paved a few bike paths, cars come first, and drivers rarely look out for cyclists. Drivers park and then swing their front doors wide; they make right turns without looking behind them; they pull out of parking lots and cut across bike lanes at full speed. Who can blame them? The system was built to maximize drivers’ efficiency, and anything that might slow them down is a glitch.
For cyclists used to being second-class citizens, watching bikes navigate the Netherlands is revelatory. It’s not just that Dutch train stations all house massive underground bicycle garages, with thousands of bicycles, or fietsen, locked up on tiered racks. It’s not just that every busy street has a handsome bike lane, paved in dark-red brick. It’s that on Dutch streets, bikes rule the road. They take priority in design and traffic flow. Traffic circles are laid out so that cyclists need never stop for cars. Busy intersections often have overpasses or underpasses, so that cyclists never have to slow down.
Most important, drivers look out for cyclists, cede the right of way, and are rarely surprised by them. After all, nearly all those drivers are cyclists themselves. The eighteen million residents of the Netherlands own, in total, more than twenty-two million bicycles. Dutch kids ride in child seats practically from birth, are on balance bikes by two, and are cycling unaided by four. Old people continue to cycle, too: when pedalling gets too difficult, they switch to battery-assisted e-bikes, which now outsell standard adult bikes in the Netherlands.
When you’re biking on a Dutch street, the person next to you in a Renault Clio is driving today only because she broke her arm or has to cart furniture home from the store. Most days, she’d be biking next to you, unprotected from cars except by custom, respect, and the forethought that comes from being able to think like a cyclist. In the Netherlands, drivers don’t turn right without checking their blind spots. They don’t park in bike lanes, not even just for a minute, to drop something off. And no Dutch cyclist ever half-waves at a driver for making a required stop—they assume that drivers will see them and obey the law.
Even if something goes wrong, a biker will still likely emerge unscathed. Dutch transportation designers strive to create what Wim Bot, an official in the Dutch cyclist’s union, calls “forgiving infrastructure”—systems that allow users to make errors without causing a crash. Studies have demonstrated that when a car hits a cyclist at speeds in excess of thirty kilometres per hour the cyclist is not likely to survive. Therefore, Bot told me, “thirty kilometres is the maximum speed in every living area in the Netherlands.” This consistent speed limit means that “it’s safe to have shared space between users of different forms of mobility.” Even though nobody wears bike helmets in the Netherlands, the fatality rate there is six times smaller than that of the United States.
I learned these statistics soon after arriving in Delft, but I couldn’t quite make myself believe them. I kept stopping for cars and, yes, half-waving at intersections, even as the gesture began to feel obsequious. I couldn’t shake my American cycling deference. Meanwhile, impatient Dutch riders stacked up behind me, screeching to a halt on their worn brakes when I slowed unexpectedly—and, in their view, unnecessarily. Once, as I cautiously picked my way through a roundabout, I was passed on the left by an exasperated preschool teacher pedalling a kind of bike bus—eight kids lined up ahead of her, in rows of two. Their little unhelmeted heads turned to watch me as they went by.
On busy modern streets with bike lanes, my family’s tentativeness was annoying but not catastrophic. But in the old city center, with its narrow brick streets, steep canal bridges, and crowds of pedestrians, we kept causing accidents. The girls failed to get out of the way of an oncoming university student, sending him, careening and cursing, into an alley. In front of our apartment, Lyra mounted her bike, wobbled, and collided with another cyclist, an elderly Dutchman. They both toppled slowly onto the bricks. Lyra looked outraged at first, then terrified when she saw how old the other party was, wool scarf and all. All four of us apologized over and over; the gentleman silently helped Lyra up, brushed himself off, and rode away.
But we kept at it. Harper and Lyra rode to school every day, three and a half kilometres each way. The first time that they had to make the journey on a cold, wet morning, their faces sagged when we held out their raincoats. It wasn’t as if we were punishing them or anything; we didn’t have a car! When they begged us to bike with them, Alia asked, “Why would we do that? We don’t want to get wet.”
“We don’t, either,” the girls protested.
“Oh, well!” Alia said, brightly.
After a few round trips, they mostly mastered their daily ride. But I struggled to navigate complicated traffic situations in the old city. Keeping track of all the other bikes, cars, mopeds, and pedestrians—all moving in different directions, at different speeds—seemed to exceed my processing power.
Why were the Dutch so much more comfortable on a street that I saw as filled with dangers? As with so many aspects of their society, it seemed to depend on subsuming the needs of the individual to the needs of the community. “If you are not able to anticipate what other people will do, you will have lots of small accidents, or near accidents,” Bot told me, in a café down the street from our apartment. “You must be communicating with your eyes to the other riders in the street. Your decisions must be based on what is best for the flow of traffic, not what is best for your trip in particular.”
Bot went on, “Think of it this way. Car drivers behave like a bunch of geese. They have the same distance from each other and fly at the same speed, and move almost in military formation.” He put down his tea and made a series of regimented gestures with his hands. Then he moved them around together, in an elegant dance. “Cyclists move like a swarm of sparrows,” he said. “There are thousands of them moving in chaos, but there are no collisions. They turn a little bit; they change their speed. You must do the same.”
Angela van der Kloof, a cycling expert and project leader with the Delft mobility consultancy Mobycon, told me, “From a young age in the Netherlands, we’re trained to take note of others. Not by a teacher but by the way we do things. I think we are very much used to physical negotiation.” Dutch people live in small houses, ride on crowded trains, and generally jostle against one another—the Netherlands has the sixteenth-highest population density in the world. Navigating complicated traffic situations, calmly and systematically, came naturally to our neighbors.
I had assumed that Dutch people’s adeptness at biking was the result of generations of incessant cycling. In fact, after the Second World War, the Netherlands had, like the U.S., become dominated by cars. Cycling paths were overtaken by roads, and neighborhoods in Amsterdam were razed to make room for highways. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of cars in the country exploded from about a hundred thousand to nearly two and a half million. During that same period, bike use plummeted; in Amsterdam, the percentage of trips made by bike fell from eighty to twenty.
With cars came carnage. In 1971 alone, thirty-three hundred people—including more than four hundred children—were killed on Dutch roads. A number of organizations, including a group named Stop de Kindermoord, or Stop the Child Murder, began agitating to take the streets back from automobiles. In one memorable protest, sixty riders on Dutch cargo bikes, or bakfiets, converged on Amsterdam’s city center at rush hour and pedalled as slowly as possible, in order to drive drivers crazy. As Pete Jordan chronicles in his book “In the City of Bikes,” from 2013, two drivers intentionally stuck protesters with their cars, and fights broke out. “To contain the conflict, riot police arrived in armored vans, and regular police arrived on motorcycles with sidecars,” he writes. “The demonstrators actually welcomed the presence of the police, since the additional vehicles helped to ensnarl traffic.”
While some of the activist organizations were led by young men, Stop de Kindermoord was the project of mothers, many of whom wished to use cycles in their daily life but felt that car traffic made doing so unsafe. “Women’s mobility and men’s mobility typically are different,” van der Kloof, the cycling expert, said. “Women have shorter trips, multiple trips, oftentimes accompanied by children. That’s why I think especially women were so interested in this.” As groups such as Stop de Kindermoord gained in prominence, local municipalities began experimenting with restricting cars on certain days or in certain areas. In the late seventies, the global energy crisis offered further justification for emphasizing cycling over driving.
Cycling activists successfully ran for office, and citizens pressured officials in Dutch cities to scrap plans for expanding automobile access. In Delft, a major bridge into town from the south had been built, and planners had approved the construction of a multilane road that would carve through the old city, all the way to the Markt square. “Just in time, those plans were abandoned,” Wim Bot said. Only the bridge remains. Instead, Delft was made more inhospitable to cars; these days, a driver can battle his way toward the center of the old city, creeping through narrow one-way streets and swarms of cyclists and pedestrians. But it is impossible to drive all the way from one side of Delft to the other: to cross the city, you must ride.
I did my best. I couldn’t be lean and blond, but I could bike as if I were. I could ride tall in the saddle, with the self-possession of a Dutchman with sharp, visible cheekbones. “The road was built for me, too,” I told myself, repeating it like a mantra.
After I picked a vector and owned it, made strong directional choices at intersections, and stopped riding in fear, I fit into the flow of Dutch traffic much better. Making eye contact with other riders and pedestrians, each of us using the other’s feedback to negotiate those individual interactions, solved encounters that previously would have paralyzed me.
I also stopped slowing down when cars approached, although I never quite got over the fear that this oncoming driver would be the one who didn’t see me. My mantra faltered. “In North America, if you want to bike, it’s like playing tennis,” van der Kloof mused. “You need a racquet, a ball, the right clothing, and a tennis court. Talking about biking, you need a bike, you need the right gear, and you need a bike lane.” But, as a Dutch person, she continued, she had never questioned her right to claim her share of public space. “In the Netherlands, we think of it as our space,” she said.
By the end of our stay in Holland, cycling had become something we did with the ease I’d dreamed of. Once, in a light rain, I biked ten kilometres to the Hague, with my phone strapped to my handlebars displaying Google Maps and five thousand dollars’ worth of my employer’s computer equipment in my basket. In a country where I’d once seen a guy riding one-handed while carrying a used television set in the other hand, I felt, at this moment, like I fit in.
Since returning home, I’ve made a conscious decision to ride differently on American streets. I pedal like a Dutchman: confidently, with no helmet, and taking up my fair share of the street. I’ve spent many an afternoon trundling along the quieter parts of my suburban neighborhood, a couple of cars lining up behind me as I approach an intersection. I enjoy playing big on the road, and making drivers recognize that I belong in that space just as much as they do. (If I’m lucky, none of them will hit me.)
I think a lot about the ride that I took with the girls to their school in Delft, on the last day before summer break. We biked out of the old city, past the train station and through the most magnificent traffic circle I’ve ever seen: a gigantic roundabout, at the Delflandplein, that capably handles bicycles, cars, express buses, and the tram to The Hague. It’s a masterpiece of boring urban design. Even though thousands of cars and bikes pass through the roundabout every day, there were zero crashes reported there between 2014 and 2017.
It was a beautiful, warm day, and we cruised confidently through the circle, my children in the lead. We had the right of way around the circle’s entire circumference. Cars waited patiently, reminded to be cautious by little painted triangles on the pavement and by their own roles as cyclists. As we completed the arc, we felt fleetingly assimilated—part of a smoothly operating machine that offers safety and satisfaction to each one of its cogs. We were fietsers.