- Language Tips
Problems familiar to car drivers the world over, from traffic jams to road-rage and lack of parking, are now also threatening to turn the Dutch dream of bicycling bliss into a daily hell.
In a small country where bicycles outnumber people by 1.2 million, the Dutch have simply run out of space to accommodate the 5 million cyclists who take to the road every day, turning commuting in major cities into a nightmare.
In Amsterdam alone, 490,000 cyclists take to the road to travel a staggering 2 million kilometers every day, according to statistics released by the city council this week.
"Bicycles are an integral mode of transport in our city," Amsterdam's council said. But, in a worrying trend, "the busiest bicycle paths are too small for the growing stream of daily cyclists".
"Cyclists have increased dramatically over the last few years," said Wim Bot of the Dutch Cycling Association (Fietsersbond).
"In a small country such as the Netherlands, where almost every square meter is accounted for, we've run out of space," said Bot, whose association was founded in 1975 and currently represents 35,000 paid members. "It has become a headache," he told AFP.
The Dutch first fell in love with cycling in the late 1880s, when the first two-wheeled contraptions appeared in big cities. Two decades later the first bicycle paths were laid in the country, which is so flat that it is often described as "specially created for cyclists".
After a slump in cycling - occupying Nazis melted down confiscated bicycles to feed the war effort - and a brief love affair with cars following World War II, cycling regained its popularity by the mid-1970s.
Today, there are around 18 million bicycles - or 1.3 bicycles per citizen old enough to ride - in a country less than half the size of the US state of Maine. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is often seen cycling to work.
New bicycle sales topped 1.3 million last year, raking in an estimated 970 million euros ($1.2 billion) in sales.
Some 35,000 kilometers of bike path now criss-cross the flat landscape. The red tarmac roads are purpose built, regularly maintained and come with their own set of road signs and traffic lights.
But having invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure, the Dutch are now paying the price for cycling's rise in popularity.
The Dutch newspaper Trouw recently said that in places such as Amsterdam and Utrecht, the increase in bicycles is giving rise to new phenomena that include bicycle traffic jams, pileups, parking problems and bicycle rage.
Around major stations such as Amsterdam and Utrecht Central, tens of thousands of bicycles are often illegally parked, hog public space and restrict pedestrian access, while leaving cyclists scratching their heads trying to remember where they parked.
More cyclists on the road means more congestion, and "bicycle rage" often flies across the handlebars.
"Sometimes its a madhouse out there," said Jan van der Tuin, a bicycle shed parking attendant just outside Utrecht's busy central station.
"There's been no fist-fights, but harsh words are often spoken," he said with a sigh as he took a drag from his hand-rolled cigarette.
"We have big problems," agreed Marleen van der Wurff, as she frantically looked for a bicycle parking spot in Utrecht before having to run for a train.
"It's plainly becoming a dangerous situation," said Wurff, who relies completely on her bicycle to get around the city.
The statistics show just how dangerous it has become. A quarter of all deadly accidents in the Netherlands involve cyclists, the Cycling Association said.
Some 200 cyclists died on Dutch roads last year, the majority of them elderly, the Dutch central statistics office said, an increase of 28 from 2010.
And the problem is getting worse since the Dutch authorities decided to broaden bicycle path use to include more than 1 million mopeds, which are allowed to pass cyclists as long as they stay under a speed limit of 25 km per hour.
"Cyclists and moped riders ride at different speeds in a small shared space, and that's a recipe for disaster," Bot said.
(China Daily 11/10/2012 page6)