Over the past few months, we have explored many facets of daily life in The Netherlands, but I decided to save one of the most iconic for last-transportation (think the famous Dutch biking). It’s true, the Dutch have some pretty impressive biking skills such as transporting multiple children and carrying rolls of carpet while biking, but there is more to getting around The Netherlands than just biking. So, now it’s time to rev those engines and pump those legs as we dive into a few of the highlights of Dutch transportation.
- Transportation comes in many forms: feet, bicycles, mopeds and scooters, cars, buses, trams, trains and even boats.
- Sometimes it is easier to bike somewhere than to drive. Sure, you can move faster in a car, but if you have to navigate traffic, find a parking space which may be a distance from the location you are traveling to, then walk to said location plus pay for parking to boot, the bike makes more sense. Also, if you aren’t traveling very far, taking the bike can be a lot quicker and easier than having to find parking. Now, it’s true that the weather might discourage biking at times, but you will find that the Dutch will still ride regardless of the weather. Maybe it’s because they are just used to it or don’t have any other way to get around or maybe it’s because they have gear such as waterproof jackets and pants and bike seat and basket covers that help to keep them more comfortable.
- Biking and walking are easy thanks to a good infrastructure. There are sidewalks for pedestrians everywhere and numerous pedestrian crossings. Pedestrians have the right of way over cars unless it is at a light with a signal. There are multitudes of bike stands for parking and securing a bike as well as bike paths everywhere. Many times these paths runs alongside the road but are wide and easily distinguished from the road so cars can avoid bikes. Other times, the paths may be completely separated from the road by a grass median. Paths for bikes can also be found not just in the cities but in rural areas connecting cities as well.
- Getting a driver’s license in The Netherlands is an intensive process (luckily expats on the visa type that we have are able to simply exchange their American driver’s license rather than have to test). First off, you cannot drive a car alone until the age of 18 here (you can get a moped or scooter license sooner) but with all the other transportation options, it’s not that big of a deal. You can take the theory test once you are 16 and at 16 ½ you can begin taking driving lessons. At 17 you may take the road test. If you pass before you are 18, you are allowed to drive with an adult in the car. The theory exam takes about 1 hour and consists of 65 multiple choice questions. The road test also takes about an hour and includes a basic vision test. The tests can be quite difficult, so many people take driving lessons before testing. These lessons are extremely expensive and range from around 1000 Euro for experienced drivers who need to learn Dutch traffic laws or refresh themselves to 2500 Euro for new drivers. However, the process of obtaining a license is so involved that the roads here are generally very safe, and we honestly see very few traffic accidents.
- There are rules for bike and car interactions that everyone knows. Traffic lights have a separate signal for bikes so that they know when they have the right of way. If a car is crossing over a bike path such as to turn onto a residential street, the bike has the right of way and cars know to check for bikers and let them pass before turning in (many streets actually have a buffer zone that allows the car to get off of the main road but wait to cross over the bike path). There are lines drawn on bike paths and roads to indicate who has the right of way. There are also safety rules for bikers which are subject to citation if they are not followed such as no cell phones in your hands and headlights must be used in the dark.
- Stop signs don’t exist. Instead you will find roundabouts and a strange system in which the person to your right always has the right of way unless you are on a “hump” in which case the person not on the hump has the right of way. There are also occasions where lines drawn on the road indicate who has the preference. And yes, I know many Americans are not comfortable with roundabouts and thus detest them, but they are actually much faster than waiting in a line up at a stop sign. And with a little practice, you can learn to navigate some really large ones (though those often have traffic lights to help ensure that everyone stays safe).
- Parking a car can be a real chore. There are a few options for parking. Parking garages and parallel parking along the street (usually paid though in some residential areas it is free) are the two main ways that people park here. There are a few (and I mean a very few) parking lots and even fewer are free. But for the most part, if you don’t like parallel parking, you aren’t going to enjoy driving here. When you do park on the street, you can find a machine to pay for time on your parking space (and watch out because many spaces might have a time limit) or you can download a payment app on your phone. There is a small surcharge for using the app, but it is so convenient. You simply input your car’s tag number (it can be saved so that you just select from a list when you open the app) and then select the parking zone (zone numbers are clearly posted on signs near the spot). You start the app and stop it when you return (unless you forget and pay a bit extra for your parking!) and that way you don’t have to guess how much time you need up front and have to go back to the parking machine to add more time. And while most of my American friends enjoy driving a big, spacious car, that’s only going to cause you grief over here when it’s time to park (or navigate a street with tons of parked cars up and down it). I have a very small car and I can’t tell you how glad I usually am because not only does it make it easier to park, but I also can usually find a space much easier because sometimes those spaces are small, and a big car just can’t pull it off.
- That brings us to tickets. If you park illegally or don’t pay, you probably won’t return to your car to find a paper ticket. Instead, some months later, you will receive a ticket in the mail. This goes for speeding, running lights and other traffic violations as well. Now, it is possible that you might be pulled over by the police sometime, but it just doesn’t happen too often. Generally speaking, speeding and running lights is caught on camera and police use a hand scanning system to check the parking spaces. If you are pulled over, it’s typically not by a car with flashing lights in your rearview mirror. Generally, the unmarked car will get in front of you with a flashing sign in the back window indicating that you need to follow them to pull over.
- If you opt to have a car for transportation, it is not uncommon for it to be leased. Owning a car in The Netherlands can be very expensive thanks to the taxes that you have to pay on a vehicle. This makes leasing a car a more viable option for many. In addition, there are tax breaks for those who own hybrid or electric vehicles so having at least a hybrid is very common here. There are also parts of the city that are low emission zones so if you have an older vehicle that does not meet the new emission standards, you cannot drive in these areas. If you do, you will be fined.
- There are tons of tram, train and bus stops. Trams take you within a city and not all cities have them. They are found most readily in the larger cities. Buses can take you within a city and also from one city to a nearby city. Trains can take you within the city if it is a larger city (think subway type system), between cities or even between countries. The train is most likely what you will use to cover larger distances. If you are going to stay within the country, you can take a direct train (makes no stops between two cities) or an intercity which makes stops at various stations along the route from one city to another. You can buy individual ride tickets at a counter or machine at stations and from the worker on the tram, or you can buy a rail card. With the card, you can add money to your account to cover train and tram fare. When you enter the station or when you board the tram, you tap your card on the reader. You tap again when leaving the tram or station. In this way, the trip is recorded and the price is deducted from your account. Some cities have also begun testing readers on the trams that allow people to use their bank card to pay for the ride instead of having to buy a ticket or have a rail card. Finally, you can take a bike on the train as well as dogs (small dogs for free, large dogs with a leash and dog ticket).
- There are some very useful apps that can be downloaded to help with transportation in The Netherlands. I already mentioned the parking app. There are also apps to notify you of the speed limit and where speed cameras are located. There are apps for knowing the train and tram schedules and which train/tram you should take as well as what stops to use to get to a certain location. Finally, there are also apps detailing biking and walking paths.
So there you have it-Dutch transportation in a nutshell. The transportation options available in The Netherlands make it pretty easy to get around both within a city and between other cities in the country. In addition, it’s pretty easy to venture into other countries as well. And best of all, it’s not too hard to multitask and get some physical activity in while you are getting around. Coming from a place in the US that struggles to provide an adequate number of sidewalks and bike paths, I really love the infrastructure and choices for transportation in The Netherlands. It doesn’t hurt to be able to easily drive (pre-Covid) across a border to other European countries as well although paying for parking everywhere will probably always be a hard pill to swallow!