Usually, when I tell people that we visited Utrecht, they give me a weird look and kind of wrinkle their nose like, “Where is that?” Most people have never heard of this city, and it doesn’t help that to an American English speaker, the name sounds a little bit like a cat throwing up.
So it’s time to learn something new! Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. It’s right here.
And it’s pretty legit. It has structures from the Middle Ages, the tallest bell tower in the Netherlands, and several institutions of higher learning, including Utrecht University.
It’s also relatively small – roughly 40 square miles.
We purposely booked an Airbnb that was a few miles outside the city, mostly because it was crazy cheap, but also because our host was letting us borrow two bikes during our stay.
And Utrecht is alllll about biking. In fact, 60% of journeys within the city are made by bike (which is crazy and awesome). So I was stoked about biking around the city – just like a local!
Within about 2 minutes of our arrival, I was like, “Let’s go see the city! We have bikes!!! Let’s gooooooo!” I was already halfway out the door, reminiscing about how I used to pretend that my bike was a magnificent horse named Starlite, and trying to decide what I should name this bike for the 3 days we were in town.
Luckily, Michael exists. Having done the MS 150, generally knowing more things about bikes, and also being the person to think things through much more than I do, he suggested that we do some Googling first.
That was probably a good idea. We learned important things, like:
Lights, reflectors, and a bicycle bell are all required. The bell must be loud enough to be heard from 25 meters away. (Don’t worry, I tested mine repeatedly.)
Somewhat surprisingly, helmets are not required.
Several big, scientific groups have done research, and they found that since biking is so ridiculously safe in the Netherlands, helmets aren’t really necessary. Plus, a driver’s insurance is always responsible if there is a collision between a car and a bike (which means drivers are very cautious around bikes).
Another thing that makes biking safer in the Netherlands is that there are separate bike lanes pretty much everywhere you go. They can be optional or mandatory depending on the area.
Also, there is a picture of a bike stenciled on them, so as to not confuse any tiny clown cars that think they are allowed to drive in that lane. Nope! Bikes only, you clowns!
And in addition to separate lanes, bikers also get their very own traffic lights. (These ALSO have a picture of a bike on them, so it’s very obvious that the light is for cyclists only.)
Despite this seeming like a pretty simple system, you do need to brush up on your Dutch traffic signs a bit. Because otherwise you’ll have no idea what you’re doing and you’ll look like a total idiot.
Here’s a quick compare/contrast of signs in the Netherlands vs. the United States:
There are also some traffic signs that are written in Dutch. So you’ll need to memorize a few basic phrases.
This sign means: one-way street, except for (“uitgezonderd”) bikes and mopeds.
We also learned that you have to indicate when you’re going to turn. I didn’t take a picture of that, but it isn’t difficult. Stick your right arm out if you’re going to make a right turn. Stick your left arm out if you’re going to make a left turn.
Oh! And speaking of turning left, if you do that at a major intersection, it gets somewhat interesting. (This is actually genius, and another reason biking is so much safer here.)
Let’s say you’re a cyclist coming from the bottom of this picture. If you want to turn left, you have to go straight through the intersection and stop once you get across the street. Then you cross that intersection, when the new traffic light on that side of the street turns green. This way, you’re going with the flow of cars each time. (See arrows above.)
These types of regulations (as well as the road infrastructure) are what make biking so popular and safe in the Netherlands. And y’all. Bikes are everywhere.
It can get tricky to find a place to park, and unfortunately, bike theft is also pretty rampant.
The city has dealt with this problem by building underground bike garages throughout Utrecht. They are staffed by an employee who tracks each bike coming in & going out. (That way some rando can’t just walk in and steal your bike.)
These garages are also free for the first 24 hours, which is nice.
And the garages have grooved ramps along the staircase, so you can easily walk your bike up and down.
ANYWAY. You can see that we learned a lot with our Googling, and it was definitely for the best that we did a bit of research. I mean, just the traffic signs alone would have freaked me out, and I’m 100% positive that I would have caused a major accident trying to make a left turn through an intersection.
But, armed with our new knowledge, we were finally ready to go see the city! Woooo! We unchained our bikes, and Michael asked me if I needed to go to a less-busy side street to practice riding around before we got on the main road.
Ummmmm no? I was a little confused why he would even ask that, but I spared him the neuroscience lecture on procedural memory and how our brains are so cool that you can literally never forget how to ride a bike. Instead, I just assured him that I’d be fine.
Aaaaaaand about 10 seconds later, I ran into a parked car. Turns out, my brain still knows how to ride a bike, just not very gracefully.
But don’t worry, we did eventually make it to the city center that day.
And now if you hear about Utrecht again, instead of thinking about cat vomit, you can think about me slamming directly into a parked car. You’re welcome.
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