Travel Tales 5: Bikes rule in Utrecht

Bikes rule in Utrecht. The parking lot next to the train station is a bike lot, filled with hundreds of bikes. The streets have bike lanes, and people walking and on bikes clearly outnumber cars in the center of the city. Some streets are closed to cars, entirely or at certain hours. Parts of the street along the Oudegracht (Old Canal) are even closed to bikes during the times of heaviest pedestrian traffic. Well — theoretically, they are closed to bikes all the time, but, as our daughter has discovered during her semester in residence, the Dutch are very pragmatic, so when the foot traffic is light to non-existent, people ride instead of walking their bikes.

And those times would be early mornings — shops don’t open until 9 a.m. — and in the evenings. Almost everything closes by 6 p.m., except for restaurants. The Dutch work fewer hours than any other country in the European Union, and far fewer than in the United States. A good idea, I think, especially if that means more time for biking.

People bike everywhere and for everything, with bike carriers for children (sensibly in front of the bicycle, rather than following behind), dogs, extra passengers (riding sidesaddle on the flat carrier behind the bike seat. A variety of baskets and panniers hold everything — bags of groceries, books, bunches of flowers, baguettes. Some bike handles are adorned with ropes of synthetic flowers, which makes it much easier to spot your bike in the parking lot.

The omnipresence of bikes, buses, trams and trains in the Netherlands contrasts sharply with Minnesota’s barely-there transit. A typical trip: walk a couple of blocks to a bus stop, where an electronic sign tells what buses will stop there and how many minutes the wait is for the next bus. We have been in central cities, so I expect the bus service is better here than in areas farther from the center. We have never waited more than five minutes for a bus, even on the weekend. Our longest wait time was about ten minutes for a train from Utrecht to Amsterdam.

In the Twin Cities, I walk a little over half a mile to get to the nearest bus. The schedule posted at the bus stop is usually correct, but there’s no way to know whether there’s a traffic jam or slowdown. The Central Corridor, after it’s completed in 2014, will be another mode of public transportation, with the nearest stop at least 3/4 mile away, and no connecting bus line for us.

In comparison, the Netherlands seems like transportation paradise. Of course, biking is easier here, with completely flat land, contrasting with Minnesota’s hills. The weather is considerably more moderate, too, with freezing winters but not nearly our snowfall accumulation.

Bikes are not for everyone, at all ages and stages of life. My carpal tunnel syndrome came back a little, even with the easy, no-gears, no hand-brakes biking I did today, and that’s minor compared to the mobility problems that lots of other people deal with daily. I don’t believe that biking alone, or even biking and public transportation, are the only answers to transit. Traveling here, though, I realize how much better we could do.

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