Ineke Mules went from living in the sprawling southern suburbs of Adelaide to the Netherlands for 6 months. Her first purchase was an upright bicycle.
2015 will forever be remembered as the year I left Adelaide behind – for a little while anyway – and spent a semester in the Netherlands. I went there as part of an exchange programme with University College Maastricht. Of course, it’s impossible to spend a decent amount of time in a new place and not be influenced by the culture. In Holland, this means lots of windmills, tulips, stroopwafels and orange things. It also means bikes. Lots and lots of bikes.
Cycling has long been the most ubiquitous form of transport in the Netherlands and it’s easy to understand why. The streets are typically flat and the towns are densely populated, making it easy to get from point A to point B. Luckily, many of the cities are notoriously car-unfriendly, which make them great for exploring by bike.
One of the first things I did when I arrived was buy an old classic roadster bicycle, or omafiets. It was nothing fancy. In fact it would probably be considered borderline un-rideable by most Adelaide cyclists; the handlebars had to be straightened constantly, the lights were broken and it rattled uncontrollably whenever I rode over the cobblestoned streets. And mine was one of the better ones.
Despite its faults, I relied on my cheap, noisy bike every day for all my local transport needs. I cycled to uni, the shops, the pub, the train station and occasionally over the Belgian border. A helmet wasn’t necessary, which I’ll admit took some getting used to. The first few times I took to the streets I was a little apprehensive, although I soon learned my fear was unfounded. Turns out accidents are pretty rare – even if you’re a somewhat uncoordinated foreigner. Bluntly speaking, nobody can design a cycle-friendly city better than the Dutch (except maybe the Danish). Every bike lane is clearly marked and integrated seamlessly into busy roundabouts and intersections. Many streets cater exclusively to cyclists and pedestrians. In the Netherlands, the humble bicycle rules supreme over every other form of transport. In larger cities like Amsterdam, at least 70% of all journeys are made by bike.
The difference between the Dutch and the Australian cycling cultures is extraordinary. Since arriving home, I haven’t ridden much. Just watching other cyclists perilously navigate roads in the CBD and outer suburbs is enough to make me nervous. Drivers often seem unaware that they are sharing the road with fragile, un-motorised, two-wheeled contraptions. I’ve watched riders get cut-off countless times by inattentive drivers, only to then cop the blame for having the audacity to be in the way. One time in Maastricht, a bus gave way to me on a roundabout.
Something else I’ve noticed since I’ve been back is the lack of female cyclists on the roads. Multiple studies show that women in particular feel unsafe when riding. The Netherlands by contrast has one of the highest rates of female utilitarian cycling in the world thanks to its reputation as safe and convenient. The good news is this trend appears to be decreasing, as we see the rise of many women’s cycling clubs, events and advocacy groups.
In saying this though, it’s important to remember that our transport system has evolved this way for a reason. Unlike many European cities, Adelaide has been designed based on the principal of urban sprawl. Practically speaking, we need cars to get around. As a geographically-challenged resident of the southern suburbs, I am fully aware of my hypocrisy when I say there should be more cyclists on the roads when I drive or bus into the CBD nearly every day. But this doesn’t mean the notion of improving the city’s cycling networks should be dismissed; the CBD’s flat streets, compact layout and reliably good weather can easily be taken advantage of.
My temporary taste of Dutch cycling culture has probably left me a bit cynical of its Australian counterpart. But I also like to reflect on the ways in which we can learn from it and hopefully – one day – turn Adelaide into the cycle-friendly city it has the potential to be.
Ineke will be riding Gear Up Girl SA this year. Want to experience Adelaide without cars and amongst the company of other woman? Know of any other women that ride bicycles but are too afraid? Spread the word about Gear Up Girl SA – Adelaide’s biggest bike ride for women. There’s a beach ride, a river ride and a hills ride on safe marshalled roads supported by the Bicycle SA team.