The importance of fietsen (bicycles) in Dutch culture is visible and tangible, but what is the symbolism underpinning this globally recognised phenomenon?
Spend any time hanging on a street corner at various times of the day and you will observe the many and varied uses of the humble two-wheeler. Actually, some are not so humble and may cost a small fortune if there is an electric motor and/or box for transporting children involved. It’s not uncommon to see a parent, usually a mother, on one of these machines carrying six bags of groceries, maybe a dog, a couple of kids up front in the box (bakfiets, or cargo bikes) and a little one snug in the baby seat at the back!
Pretty much everyone owns a bike and uses it regularly, to ride to work, do the shopping, go out at night, or just cruise through the dunes at the weekend. Forget the walking frames, Dutch grannies are more likely to be seen speeding along and bouncing up the kerb more adeptly than the average teenager! Teenage girls, who in other societies would die of embarrassment if seen on a bike, cruise around with their mates, calmly texting and chatting at speed. When I walk to work each morning I see children of all ages riding their bikes to school, the younger ones in the company of their parent, who is also on a bike. It may be my imagination, but there seems to be something about travelling to school that way that creates positive, ‘ready-to-go’ students – certainly no-one riding to school looks like they don’t really want to get there, and being out in the fresh air is bound to be invigorating, particularly in the winter*. Toddlers are often out on the pavement being encouraged by their parents to master their small-scale first bikes. The independence that comes with bike riding seems to emerge very early in life.
A traditional Dutch bike is an all-weather bike, built to last, good for getting you wherever you need to go comfortably and conveniently while wearing normal clothing and shoes and carrying whatever it is you need to carry. The riding position is upright, the brakes may be ‘pedal-back’, and there are usually only one or three gears – plenty for the flat Dutch landscape.
Anecdotally, there seem to be more women bike riders than men, usually on an omafiets, or “granny style” bike complete with wicker basket and pedal-back brakes. When shopping for clothes a Dutch woman will combine an eye for fashion with the question ‘can I wear this while riding my bike?’ Coats have zippers that also undo from the bottom, allowing leg movement while riding and, generally, choice of clothing suits comfortable riding. However, it’s not unusual in the summer months to see women riding in mini-skirts and high heels.
Of course, in comparison with the ‘take your life in your hands’ bike riding environment in a city like Sydney, where cyclists mostly compete on main roads with trucks, buses and cyclist-hating motorists, the Dutch have a very reassuring infrastructure of bike paths, lanes and parking facilities. The hierarchy on the road seems to be cyclists first, then trams and buses, then cars, then pedestrians. It wasn’t always that way though. After World War II, like in most western societies, humans’ love affair with the car increasingly dominating the way people moved about, and sadly a lot of the then Dutch cycling infrastructure made way for wider roads, car parks, motorways etc.
The Dutch population become increasingly unhappy about this, especially at the distressing number of child fatalities attributable to cars. A very effective protest movement developed in the early 1970s, adopting the name Stop de Kindermoord (‘Stop the Child Murder’) – the Dutch government listened and totally reversed their policies to once again support and accommodate cycling. The bike paths came back with a vengeance. This video tells the story nicely:
The Dutch connect with their bikes so smoothly and confidently it seems to the outsider that this assemblage of metal is actually a cyborg-like extension of the human form, responding telepathically to the wishes of the rider. This can be more than a little unnerving for the novice expat bike rider, endeavouring to remain safe among what sometimes seem to be a speed-crazed, swerving, kamikaze bike-pilots.
That brings us back to the question of symbolism. So, what do bicycles and cycling really mean to Dutch people? The eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a thought leader in symbolic anthropology, famously outlined culture as ‘a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life’ (Geertz 1973). He also explained this concept as humans being suspended in ‘webs of significance’ that they themselves have spun. Bikes and bike riding are surely a very significant thread of the web of Dutch culture. When asked what bikes and bike riding really mean to them, my Dutch friends and colleagues pause a moment, then speak at some length about the sense of independence and freedom that is embodied in one’s bike, the mobility, and of course the link to environmentalism, a concept the Dutch embrace on many levels. (Just the other day I read that Dutch trains are 100% wind-powered.) The idea of ‘family’ is strong in Netherlands culture too, and on weekends in particular a family group of various sized bike riders may be seen heading off to spend time together somewhere amenable.
Certainly, personal, cultural and social identity is not complete in Dutch society unless a bike is involved.
*the Dutch have a delightful word for describing walking in the fresh air to clear one’s head: uitwaaien