The Dutch Indifference

I doubt there was ever a time when the intelligentsia wasn’t forced to retreat in some way. We’re not to be pitied. No one says the Medicis weren’t happy in their confinement to the corridor they built for themselves between the town centre and their palazzo in Florence.

I like to think of my city’s cycleway network as something like the Vasari Corridor. It’s the kind of place where I am more likely to meet you than the plebeian scum, and if I do encounter someone low class I know at least he is noble of heart.

This rarified existence gives me no appetite for street level banter. I was bothered by police two weeks ago for not wearing a helmet and thought: what do I care about this hundred year war to have mandatory bike helmet laws dropped? I said “sorry sir” in a tone only my mother would recognise as sarcastic, and was given a pardon—even after all his palaver. I thought if that’s how they want to play it, then fine, I’ll acquiesce to their ignorance.

I have been feeling dear reader that my cycleway snobbery could be developing into what I would have known as its End State: “The Dutch Indifference”. The way our Dutch friends will speak at seminars in countries like ours about their bike path story as though all we need do, worthless Englishmen us, is adhere to their story like some kind of script… well I am acquiring the same smug manner myself, probably by spending way too much time in their dreary cold country.

But I do feel as though the secret corridors via which I go in Australia, and via which you go in Canada or Japan or wherever you are, have the Netherlands as the palazzo they lead to. Let’s think of our bike tracks that way, shall we, as tendrils leading to and back out from the Netherlands, the Motherland of bicycle transport.

Some crazies I keep company with in Amsterdam have had the idea (that knowing them, they will probably make happen) of a global bike path comprising all the world’s best bike infrastructure, joined up and uniformly signposted to make something symbolic. What the olympics is to obscure sporting disciplines, the global bike path will be to our community of urban bike transport believers.

May I remark though on the palatial splendour of the palazzo, the one to which our cycleways are hidden corridors? One doesn’t do so much cycling alone in the Netherlands as forced to elsewhere. It’s more common to ride with someone beside you. We had a mass riding event here in my home town last weekend. If it wasn’t for one person’s boom box and a few kids it would have sounded like a funeral procession. At 31 seconds in the following clip you will see and hear me riding by yacking at some random tandem in a big wig about the Object/Subject divide. But other than me, and the children, how many others do you hear talking? They’ve been trained by door zones to treat cycling as something one does on their own. Having spent my life riding shoulder-to-shoulder either with roadies in Australia or Dutchies who have never known any different, I get the heebie jeebies seeing so many of these people riding apart.

Next week though I’ll be back at the Amsterdam office, completely indifferent to Sue Abbott‘s work (that it is time we all funded!) But to the Dutch, bike helmets are anathema. They have no idea why an ad to encourage Australians to vitis their country had a helmet photoshopped onto a rider:

They can’t see anything wrong with this photo of my friend’s daughter on the front of my bike. Carelessly I let the local press have it, and now I am known to police.

But to wear a helmet in space geared to cycling in Holland, or even put one on your child, would be like wearing a bullet proof vest to a shooting range. People would question your intentions. Scooter scurges aside, cyclists are protected in the Netherlands by separate infrastructure and drivers who assume responsibility. Such is not even in the case in Copenhagen, thus helmet use, sadly, is on the rise there. Watch this and you will see more helmets in two minutes than you would in two years in the palazzo:

That is not to diminish Danish innovations and ways cycling there is better in some ways and more relevant to other countries, but it can’t be compared. With the exception of a handful of consultants, seventeen million people in Holland don’t even know how things are in the regions, how for those of us living in exile, the best we can do is create Holland as a cognitive construct that we see when we look down corridors. If you haven’t already, I wish you the opportunity to spend a good length of time at the end of your cycleway network. Just remember you will probably have to come home.



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