A New Take on New Amsterdam

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Our newest communications intern comes to us from the Netherlands, one of the most cycling friendly places on the planet. We asked her for her first impressions of New York cycling culture before she forgets what it’s like to ride in a city that puts bikes first.


My name is Sora Debbouz; I am a Dutch International Communications Student studying at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in Arnhem, the Netherlands, now working as a Communications Intern for Bike New York. It’s nice to meet you!


When I was first introduced to Bike New York, the organization immediately caught my attention for several reasons. I first off liked that Bike New York is an organization that puts together different types of events, enabling healthier and more active lifestyles, not to mention more sustainable lifestyles for entire communities. Beyond that, the educational programs offered to adults and children were what interested me most of all. I never realized that for a lot of people, cycling might not be a common skill. The idea of working at an organization that promotes biking through educational programs and cycling events is something that speaks to me and feels close to home. I hope that in my time here, I’ll get to experience the New York cycling culture, the stories and the habits that are present today, and perhaps exchange some of the similarities and differences between Dutch and American cycling cultures. In the short time that I’ve been here I’ve noticed that everyone working at Bike New York has a great passion for cycling and for what the organization stands for, which makes it something that I’d love to be part of.


Being Dutch basically means that you’ve been raised on a bike (whether you like it or not!). Around the age of 4 it is expected that you know how to ride a bike. As my country is small and flat, the entire country’s infrastructure is build around bicycles. The reason for this is actually quite interesting: After WWII, the country was rebuilt and cars started taking up a lot of space in the city streets, and because Dutch cities are quite small—even the biggest ones like Amsterdam—they couldn’t cope with the increasing amount of traffic. Motor vehicles killed many cyclists during the 50s, 60s and 70s. This caused a wave of outrage among the Dutch citizens, who started advocating for separate cycling paths in the 70s. The government soon supported this idea and the country’s infrastructure was adapted for cyclists, making sure they could travel safely wherever they were going. Nowadays, over 70 percent of the population uses a bike in their daily routine.


In the Netherlands, kids learn how to cycle in a playful manner; we try to catch up with our parents, who carried us on their bicycles when we were babies, and then we first get to discover our surroundings with our families. When we are about seven years old, we get to explore our neighborhoods with friends, feeling like we have all the freedom in the world. Cycling in the Netherlands is a really fun thing—especially when we all get new bikes from our parents to pass an exam so we can get a cycling license. This exam consists of a theoretical multiple-choice test and an on-bike test, which we take around the age of 10 at elementary school. We have to pass this test, so that when we go to high school we are familiar with all traffic rules. Anyhow, when we go to high school, we are about 12 years old and we have to cycle every day, everywhere, every time. While the bike rides to school are quite a nice way to chat with your friends, those of you who have been to the Netherlands know that it rains—a lot—and there are windstorms, snowstorms and hail in fall and wintertime. Regardless of the weather conditions, we cycle—so, as a result, after six years of high school, many people do not actually see the fun in cycling anymore. That is, until we realize that when we want to get home after a night out it is very convenient to have a bicycle. The same is true for going to University, to visit friends or to go shopping … everything we do, basically. Distances are relatively short, especially compared to the States, bike lanes are everywhere, and as a cyclist you are the most powerful person in traffic.


When I arrived in New York I got so many new impressions, that it took me a moment to soak it all in. At any time of day there’s something to do, people making music on the streets, people relaxing in parks, or people dancing in random places. A great difference is that here people will just start talking to you out of the blue; I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and ask me where I am from when I’m looking for directions. In the Netherlands people will never just chat with you when they don’t know you, nor will they come up to you to help you find your way. Those small things are the things that I think make New York one of the friendliest cities I know, filled with a diverse group of fun, eccentric, and interesting people. The second thing I noticed was that everything is huge, from the buildings to food and drink orders, especially when compared to the Netherlands. When I heard that New York had 8 million inhabitants, I realized the immensity of the city, considering that the entire Netherlands has only 17 million inhabitants. I also noticed that there are comparatively fewer bicycles and cyclists. In the Netherlands, bikes are to be found in every street, on every corner, every station, school… everywhere. Here, I think I am able to count the number of bikes I see in a day on my hands and feet (on the city streets, at least; I did see some more cyclists in the park and river areas).


All in all, I am sure I won’t have any problems enjoying my time here. I hope that over the next couple of months I’ll get to learn about New York’s cycling culture and experience what it means to ride a bike as a New Yorker.