Visitors and readers of Dutch cycling blogs might be getting the impression that the Netherlands is a sort of parallel, heavenly universe where every man, woman and child cycles around safely on perfect bike roads, blithefully tossing their rusty, black omafiets into a five story tall structure packed with thousands of other rusty, black omafietsen. And further that motor vehicle drivers are largely banished to inconvenient, circuitous routes around the cities and when actually allowed to drive near real, vulnerable humans they proceed cautiously and with the utmost courtesy.
That would be nice but alas the Dutch are human too. Like other members of this species they get impatient and angry, they sometimes have crazy opinions, they break rules, they can just be malicious asses for no apparent reason. Cycling really is usually quite fantastic here; The images you see on this blog and Amsterdamize really are representative of our daily travels. The extensive explanations of cycle infrastructure and cultural factors David Hembrow and Mark Wagenbuur write about in A view from the cycle path really are true. Nonetheless, a couple times a year I have an “incident” not entirely unlike the more frequent unpleasant or even dangerous encounters one has cycling in most other places. I’ll describe the most recent examples.
No, this isn’t the actual van but it is the same model, in the same neighborhood and it’s a nice picture so it will do nicely. Thanks “Roel”.
Incident 1: Mr. van Driver
Last summer I riding with my then 22 month old son between my arms after having picked him up from his daycare. Stopped at a red light behind other “commuting” cyclists on a narrow canal street (Singel for those who know A’dam) the driver of a small delivery van pulls up so closely that he’s actually touching my left calf with his bumper. Obviously somewhat perturbed I turn around to look at the driver and silently motion “back up a little”, though the expression on my face certainly said something more like “back the f__k up you psychotic asshole!” But silly me, that’s apparently just what he wanted me to think and I get nothing but pure aggression in return. There wasn’t much room but I made my way forward in the group of waiting cyclists to avoid a conflict. So I thought. The light turns green and ten or so cyclists push off across the intersection (Raadhuisstraat). As we’re funneling back into the Singel Mr. van Driver charges along to the left squeezing us off the road into the bollards and cafe tables there. I don’t know whether he was targeting me specifically but son and I ended up pressed between van and bollard. Acting instinctively I bang the side of his van with my fist or elbow. Mistake. Touching an Amsterdam car lover’s beloved vehicle is apparently the “wanna fight?!” signal. Don’t, for example, ever touch a taxi unless you want to take a ride in it or get into an argument with it’s driver.
So Mr. van Driver driver slams on the brakes trapping us, jumps out of his vehicle and begins the scene many friends have independently described. I’ll translate the obvious: “Don’t you ever (insert expletives) touch my car! I’ll (more expletives) kill you!” Of course I’m equally livid and tunnel visoned now and screaming at him that he already has tried to kill us, that I hit his van only after it hit us. Etc etc but it’s all pointless. Son is screaming his head off at the scene. Other cyclists and bystanders are disappearing as fast as possible to avoid having to help or be a witness (the Dutch are amazing at this). We’re at a standoff: He’s blocking our way and with a toddler laden bike I’m hardly maneuverable anyway. Finally after a couple minutes of this the driver of one of the waiting cars behind comes over to talk some sense and get things moving again. Fortunately he’s gigantic, commanding some respect from Mr. van Driver. He begrudgingly gets back into his van and drives away.
Why on earth, you ask, didn’t I call the police? Because I don’t think they would have helped. They might even have given me trouble for touching his vehicle, regardless of the circumstances that led to it. Well mayyybe it could have fallen in my favor just out of prejudice; Mr. van Driver was of a non-native ethnicity. The cycling conditions might be amazing here but the Amsterdam police often suck.
Incident 2: Four kids in a VW Golf against the older man
This Spring I was again riding home with son on bike and just a block before home we come across somebody else’s “incident”. A man of 60ish years old on a bike is being hassled by four twenty somethings in VW Golf. We’re behind the car watching the scene unfold. They’re honking and yelling at him to get out of the way, but really our neighborhood street isn’t wide enough for a car to pass a moving cyclist. Besides it has big speed bumps so cars don’t go much faster than cyclists anyway. Two blocks away on either side are wider through roads for car traffic. This is well engineered traffic calming but these guys are unclear on the concept. They’re just on the wrong road.
So after they lay on the horn a few times and yell several expletives the man on the bike stops, thus blocking the guys in the car. The yelling and threatening from within the car escalates while the man (at least outwardly) remains calm. Four on one doesn’t seem fair and given our location this is likely a neighbor. I ride next to the car and ask the guys through the open windows what the problem is. Obviously I already know what’s going on but you have to start somewhere. They bitch loudly that the man is taking up the whole road, that he should ride closer to the right. I reply that it might seem so from inside a car but it just doesn’t work that way. One cannot safely cycle centimeters from the parked cars. Sure it’s annoying that they have to drive slowly but that’s just what happens when you try to bypass car traffic on a neighborhood street. While they gradually calm down both the older man and I repeat this several times in various ways. They relax after a while and drive off with no apparent hard feelings.
Incident 3: The four scooter guys
Thursday is my papa day. Kyoko teaches art classes while I take the kids. After picking P1 up from his Montessori class we ride the Cargobike across town to a play date with friends. Riding down the bike path on the Spuistraat in the city center I get elbowed from behind by two young guys on a scooter. They shove me and bump the bakfiets, kids arms hanging out the sides. Two buddies on another scooter were just ahead. I guess they figured they’d be gone before I could possibly do anything. But 30m further they got stuck while a tram crossed. I rode up behind them, jammed my elbow into the guy’s back to get him to turn around… and then punched him as hard as I possibly could in his face. I was aiming for the nose but connected well with a cheek. I was so angry and confused that I would have kept hitting him had I not been straddling a Cargobike with two tots in it.
I can accept youthful stupidity; driving vehicles too fast, risking people’s lives. I did it too as did most of my friends. But now as a dad and with responsibility for more than a dozen employees I’m far more conscious of such risks. But deliberately trying to knock over a family with little kids on a bike? That’s pure evil, way beyond being young and dumb. I’m sure some will comment that punching the guy was the wrong approach for various reasons and perhaps they’re right. But it is what I did, right or wrong. It probably wasn’t the most practical thing to do but it sure was satisfying.
But before you go off talking, blogging and tweeting how bad cycling in the Netherlands is keep in mind that the above are the total of noteworthy incidents I’ve had or seen in the last few years of cycling every day in a major city. As much might happen within a couple weeks or even days riding in the US or UK.