Even in a Lockdown, the Netherlands Is Eminently Bikeable

A bike rack in the Netherlands teems with one the country’s most popular modes of transportation. (Courthouse News photo/Molly Quell)

(CN) — The joke about the Netherlands having more bikes than people isn’t a joke. The country has 17 million inhabitants and 23 million bikes. More than a quarter of trips taken every day in the country are taken by bike. 

Even still, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen an increase in cycling. Data released from Google Maps showed a 51% increase in the number of bike routes accessed during the height of the lockdown. The Dutch touring association ANWB saw traffic on their website’s bike portal double between April and July. The demand for e-bikes, bicycles with a built-in motor, has risen so much that bicycle sellers joke that e-bikes are the new toilet paper. 

For many, the switch was driven by a concern over health. Before Covid-19, some 4.5 million trips were taken by public transportation in the Netherlands each day. Some 26% of the country’s households do not own a car. During the first weeks of the lockdown, travel by public transport was limited to essential work trips. Even as the lockdown lifted, seating was limited and masks were mandatory. 

“Even though the numbers are better now, public transport doesn’t feel very safe,” says Sofia Magaria, who works for an NGO in The Hague. That sentiment was echoed by Suzanne Peet, who lives in Rotterdam and works about 12 miles away in Delft. “I have a lot of anxiety about being in the train,” she says. Directly after speaking to Courthouse News Service, Peet purchased a new electric bike that she plans to commute with.

There is much debate in the country over the safety of ventilation systems in buildings and in public transport. The Dutch railway company NS installed improved ventilation systems in their trains earlier this year, and the country’s health minister Hugo de Jonge has denied that ventilation systems spread the virus, but for some, being on a crowded train is an unacceptable risk. A survey conducted by the ANWB in June found that people were 28% more likely to say they would use their bike over public transportation. 

Between the increase in demand and a reduction in production because of the pandemic, some e-bike models are sold out through next year. Peet’s first choice for e-bike was the top pick from the Consumentenbond, the Dutch version of Consumer Reports. “The bike shop said they didn’t expect to get that model in until 2021,” she says. 

Concerns about the virus spreading in closed space is why the country shut its gyms for more than three months and left the country’s inhabitants shut in their houses. “Cycling feels safer than other forms of exercise,” says Gjalt Annega. Together with his girlfriend, Sara Hlobil, Annega began taking long rides around Amsterdam. 

(Photo via Courthouse News by Hollandse Hoogte for the Dutch touring association ANWB)

Aided by their new hobby, the couple even added to their family. While on a long ride in the western part of the city, they came across a domesticated baby rabbit. After a few hours of chasing, they managed to catch the white bunny and get him into a carrier, which they strapped to the back of one of the bikes. After an hour-long ride home, Tofu now lives in their apartment in the city’s Red Light District and they are currently searching for a suitable companion for him. 
Annega and Hlobil might have passed immigration lawyer Jeremy Bierbach on their rides. He bought a vintage 10-speed Peugeot and started riding 30 miles around the city. “It was two weeks into the lockdown when I was starting to go stir crazy from being at home with my husband all the time that I first thought, “You know what? I’m just going to go for a ride,” he said. 

It isn’t only the Dutch. Google Maps reported that Belgians requested 69% more cycling maps during the lockdown. The city of Paris created some 400 miles of bike lanes in the city to encourage cycling. The British government announced a £2 billion ($2.48 billion) plan to improve cycling and walking routes in the country. 

It’s unclear if the trend will continue. Bierbach says that since he’s been back in the office, he’s gone on fewer rides. “I just didn’t have those two or three extra hours a day anymore,” he said. Annega and Hlobil, who are now looking to purchase their first home, don’t see themselves going back. “We’re looking at houses that are a 20-minute cycle from the train station because it doesn’t seem that far now,” says Hlobil. 

As compared with other members of the 19-country eurozone, the Dutch economy suffered but not as badly from halted spending, exports and investments due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though the country’s Central Bureau for Statistics on Friday reported an unprecedented 8.5% contraction in the second quarter, the eurozone as a whole dropped by a quarterly 12.1% while the U.K. reported a 20.4% decline.

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