Beyond the Automobile

How Dutch Biking Changed the Way I Ride

It took just one bike ride after I returned home from a three-week cycling course in the Netherlands to realize that I have been deeply and forever changed by the experience of Dutch biking.

The difference was startling as I mounted by 24-speed hybrid-style bike, feeling awkward and bent-over, on a bike catered much more to sport riding than urban cycling. As I proceeded to bike to work, I realized I’d forgotten my helmet – a strange concept after experiencing a cycling culture where less than 1% of riders wear helmets. Proceeding through the streets of downtown Toronto, another feeling crept up – loneliness. I realized I’d also gotten used to being constantly surrounded by other cyclists, and experiencing the constant negotiations and exchanges that go along with it.

Reflecting a bit later now, after two months of riding back home in Toronto (has it been that long already?), I’ve since been able to fully digest the changes that riding in the Netherlands has had on my cycling habits.

Perhaps the biggest change is my sense of urgency when I bike. It seemed like before Amsterdam, my bike ride to work was always a race against time. I even experimented with different routes, trying to find the one which minimized my commute time, even if it meant riding on unsafe roads. I would ask myself: should I grapple with aggressive drivers and cabs on the urban highway of University Avenue to shave a few minutes, or should I grumble slowly along Simcoe, pausing at each of the 13 traffic lights?

The Dutch know how to “enjoy the ride”, and yes sometimes even wearing flip-flops!

My Dutch cycling experience has taught me to enjoy the experience of the ride itself, and to take in my surroundings. As a result, I’m more patient and relaxed – I even measured my average commuting speed to be a full 4 km/h slower than previously (20 km/h before, 16 km/h after). This also means I exert myself less when I ride, which in turn means I sweat less – so it’s much easier to maintain a professional appearance!

Riding slower has not only made my cycling experience more satisfying, it’s also improved my sense of safety, so much so that I no longer feel the need to wear a helmet on my bike commute to work. Riding without a helmet contradicts almost everything we’ve been taught in North America on safe cycling, but I’ll be the first to confess – removing my helmet was a truly liberating experience.

Toronto cyclists riding without helmets – gasp!

Prior to cycling in Amsterdam, like most North Americans, I saw cycling without a helmet as irresponsible and dangerous. But after noticing that almost no one in Amsterdam rides with a helmet, I realize that helmets are not a means to an end, if we are truly in pursuit of safe cycling for everyone. Helmets are more of a temporary solution, that protect the early adopters of cycling while cities continue to build out safer infrastructure. And when people feel safe while riding, as I do on my commute, they may choose to exercise their freedom to forego wearing a helmet. Thinking about it this way, perhaps the goal of a true “cycling city” should be to create streets where no one feels the need to ride with a helmet!

Finally, the Dutch don’t just ride bikes, they ride bikes together, and to this extent I’ve also been able to share my Dutch experience with others. I immediately noticed when biking with friends in Toronto that they naturally ride single-file behind me, making conversations really challenging. In response, I now slow down and encourage them to ride next to me, so that the journey itself becomes a social experience. As the Cycling Professor Marco te Brommelstroet says,

“Mobility in part influences the sense of being connected to people and places through which an individual travels”.

To this end, I’ve begun initiating lunchtime bike rides with coworkers and friends, volunteered as a mentor teaching Toronto newcomers how to ride in the city, and I’m helping my roommate work up the confidence to bike to work – all through the power of social cycling!

Cycling with my group of Toronto newcomers at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto

In Toronto, the experience of travelling can often feel incredibly competitive. The perceived war on the car has drivers in outrage, congested streetcars lead to bursts of frustration from riders, and pedestrians feel underserved as they scramble around each other on painfully narrow stretches of sidewalks. My final learning from Amsterdam is that it doesn’t have to be this way. When you make human forms of travel, especially cycling, a more attractive way to get around, you allow our natural humanity and empathy to dominate the mobility landscape, rather than the alienated frustration that accompanies driving a car in traffic. The Dutch are fluent in the language of cycling, while Torontonians are just learning to speak it.