Dutch cyclists caught up in the wheels of success
Despite a decrease in overall road traffic deaths, cycling deaths remain high.The Hague--Fatal accidents, gridlock at the traffic lights: cycling's popularity in the Netherlands, where the number of bicycles outnumber the country's population, has brought with it its own problems.
"Sometimes there are so many people at the traffic lights that there are jams: not everyone has time to cross the street in one go," Hugo van der Steenhoven, president of the Dutch Cyclists Federation, told AFP.
"We are victims of our own success," he added.
More than a quarter of journeys made by the Dutch are on bicycles.
But at rush-hour in the morning, between 8:00 and 9:00 am, that means some 1.75 million are jostling for position on the country's cycling paths.
And even if there are nearly 19,000 kilometres (11,800 miles) of such paths, that is still a lot of bicycles. In fact, in a country of 16.5 million people, there are 18 million bicycles.
"More people also mean less safe cycle paths," Frond De Kook of the Dutch Tourism Federation (ANWB) told AFP.
And if the more athletic cyclists travelling at up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) an hour are sharing the same lanes as elderly ladies out shopping or school kids wobbling their way to school, it is little wonder there are accidents.
One cyclist was in June sentenced to 80 hours of community work after the death of an 82-year-old he had jostled as he sped past her near Alkmaar, in the northwest of the country.
And the figures for 2009 make grim reading: 185 cyclists killed in road accidents according to the Central Office of Statistics (CBS).
More disturbing is that this figure has stayed more or less stable over several years -- in contrast with the overall figure for road traffic deaths, which has fallen steadily.
Adding to congestion on the cycle-paths are the mopeds, which are allowed to use them so long as they do not go faster than 25 km/hour. Increasingly popular, sales of mopeds increased nearly 64 per cent in 2009 from 2007 levels.
"The problem is that 69 per cent of moped users go too fast on the cycle paths," said van der Steenhoven. " And they take up more space than a bicycle -- they are larger."
Faced with growing numbers of complaints about the mopeds, the Dutch Cyclists Federation has commissioned an inquiry into the problems they cause on the cycle paths. The results are expected towards the end of the year.
"The ideal thing would be to widen the cycle paths," said de Kok. "But, well, that's not possible everywhere -- there are a lot of places where there is simply not enough space to do it."
Space is at a premium in the Netherlands, a heavily urbanised country that has 491 inhabitants per square kilometre (0.3 square mile), a population density that is among the highest in the world.
Another solution would be to let packs of sporting cyclists share the main highways with motorists, something Rianne Mudler, spokeswoman for the Dutch Sports Cycling Federation would like to see.
"I think that people also have to learn to respect each other on the cycling paths -- using bells, slowing down when necessary, not blocking the way by riding with several side by side," she said.
But that degree of conscientiousness went beyond simple issues of cycling etiquette, she added.
AFP / Nicolas Delaunay / Expatica