Tidy bikes on trains: a trip to Den Haag, and Thursday in the Netherlands

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Two WorkCycles bikes stand tucked out of anyone’s way in a Nederlands Spoorwegen (NS) train to Zandvoort aan Ze. See all photos from this set, and from Netherlands.

60% of people arrive to train stations on bicycles.
A third of the country commutes by train each weekday.
Passengers, in a departure from American transit policies, must pay a fee to bring a bike aboard trains. (Bikes are not allowed on buses or trams, though.)

In August, my friend Brandon Gobel and I took a trip to Copenhagen for 7 days and Amsterdam for a little less than 3 (when he returned to Chicago I kept going to Munich and Berlin). We arrived in Amsterdam on Wednesday, August 22, by overnight train, walked to the WorkCycles Jordaan shop and picked up our reserved rental bikes. Brandon got an opafiets and I a Fr8 (the same model I bought two days later).

Bicycles are accommodated at every point in a Dutch resident’s journey – and for visitors, too! I don’t know how it would have been possible for us to do so much in the Netherlands without the bicycles.

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In Latin: A wise man doesn’t piss against the wind. 

On Thursday we had breakfast at some place with a surly waiter that old pancakes near the Apple Store and this funny slogan written in Latin. We then ambled to Amsterdam Centraal Station to buy tickets for our short train trip to Zandvoort from where we’d then bike to Den Haag (The Hague; I just love pronouncing Den Haag). The station never stops bustling. We walked our bikes to the desk to buy one-way tickets, including all-day bike tickets. I never set a PIN on my credit card so the NS ticket vending machine wouldn’t accept it; I had no idea that you could set a PIN on credit cards, thinking that was something only debit cards had.

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The train station at Zandvoort. The train is a DD-AR.

A lot of people were traveling to Zandvoort: it’s a beach resort town less than an hour from Amsterdam and the weather was atypically wonderful, warm and sunny. We rode in the direction of the water until we found the infamous red and white bike wayfinding sign pointing to Den Haag. It hugs the sea for a short distance. Before deviating, though, I wanted to jump into the North Sea.

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There are no photos of me swimming in the North Sea, but here’s a photo of my rental bike on the beach. 

We got back on the route to Den Haag. I didn’t bring my GPS logging device so I can’t say for certain where we got off the route, but we kept going south and on the advice I got from a local, “kept the sea to our right”. We eventually drifted inland and started riding through towns and along highways (Americans: in the two-lane, rural sense of the word). There was separated infrastructure for most of the journey. When there wasn’t, the roads and laws were set up to prioritize bicycle traffic.

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Welcome to South Holland province. Holland ? Netherlands. Do not call the Netherlands “Holland”. 

At one point in our “off the route” cycling, the off-street path ended. That didn’t seem right. I didn’t notice a sign indicating that we should turn off prior. We backtracked a little an then found a different path (still no directional sign). But we kept moving south. Neither of us had a map, nor data connections on our iPhones. I was confident we wouldn’t need one. I have a pretty good sense of geography, even in a foreign country. This one’s so small and I memorized some of the names on a map before we left.

I will admit that I was getting nervous. I didn’t want to “get lost”, even though I completely disbelieved that “getting lost” in the Netherlands was really possible because of its small size and extremely well-connected towns, trains, and roads.

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One of the signs that eventually popped up along the bike path that pointed us towards Den Haag. 

“Huzzah!” A red and white sign saying Den Haag is 17 km thataway! After this sign, every proceeding junction had one pointing to Den Haag. It’s still weird that we got off the route for 30-45 minutes (it seems longer).

The last part of the route before entering Den Haag is along a motorway. This is kind of awkward. Think of biking along any interstate. The only separation between the bike path and the road was a strip of grass and some trees (I didn’t take a picture of it). This is the complete opposite of American motorway design (Americans: motorway is “European” for interstate): here, if there’s no concrete or metal barrier on the outside, then there’s a 50-feet wide cleared right-of-way, often with a ditch.  But we know that while clear areas mean less colliding into stuff, it means faster driving!

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Pretty much any city greater than 200,000 people in Europe has trams.

Anyway, back to the bike route. We arrive in Den Haag. We head toward the train station, in the center of town. We’re hungry but there’s nothing around here (which is unexpected, as this is the center of town). But the center of Den Haag is very modern and “business oriented”. Maybe the restaurants are inside the office buildings where the plebeians can’t find them.

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Expansive plaza outside the Den Haag train station. View of the opposite direction.

We bike north a little towards what looks like a residential area and find what could be a dive bar. Whatever, as they’ve got cheap beer and food. The menus in Dutch, neither of us read Dutch, and the proprietors don’t speak English, but we recognize the word “hambuger”. That’s what we order. I order mine “deluxe” – I can’t remember how it was described; it came with an egg on top! Hamburgers don’t automatically come with buns, apparently.

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We ate weird hamburgers at Café Locus. 

I turn on my iPhone and find that the restaurant has wifi. I’m having a hard time recalling how I asked for the wifi password. A patron (who seems like a regular) knows English and passes this along to the proprietor and tells me the wifi password. After a few attempts it works. I needed it to try and contact someone in Delft whom I wanted to meet but it wasn’t to be. We pay up and depart the restaurant for the Den Haag train station, saying thank you and goodbye to the owner and patrons.

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A low volume neighborhood street between Café Locus and the Den Haag train station. 

The bike ticket we bought (€6 each) is good for the day. We return to Amsterdam, tired. It was a smooth, fast train ride  on a VIRM (my favorite).

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The return train to Amsterdam (which leaves pretty much every 30 minutes) had seatbelts for bicycles. 

We return to the apartment on Bilderdijkstraat we rented through Airbnb. The lovely bakery across the street, Cake Loves Coffee, is still open so we talk to the owner and sole employee, Nicole. I get a slice of berry sponge mascarpone (photo). We can’t subsist on sweets and fill up on fast food pizza restaurant across the street while we gulp beers sitting outside on the sidewalk in front of the apartment, watching nearly a hundred people bike south after work.

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Beers in public. Yes, it’s allowed. Yes, it’s a very civil and normal thing to do. No, it doesn’t lead to the downfall of society. 

View Street View of apartment/bakery neighborhood larger. This image was taken over 3 years ago and the street has been redesigned. Instead of having door zone bike lanes, there’s now a proper cycle track. The bakery wasn’t built yet.

It eventually comes time to head out and visit the Red Light District. What a fun place to visit. If you don’t like seeing real live topless women, or stag parties (Americans: stag is British for bachelor), you should probably avoid it. On our way back to the apartment we stop at a nice bar down the street (between it and Vondelpark). I had noticed it the previous day and finding it reminded me of something peculiar: I never created a turn-by-turn route for any journey we took but I was able to get Brandon and I to any destination in Amsterdam, and “home”, without too many deviations (one of my goals is to never backtrack). I think half the money we spent that wasn’t on trains was spent on booze.

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Hash Marijuana and Hemp museum in the Red Light District. 

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A group of guys carry the bachelor in the Red Light District. Prostitution is legal in this area of the city. It’s impossible to photograph Amsterdam without a bike in the shot. 

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.
  • http://transitized.com/ Shaun Jacobsen

    “Beers in public. Yes, it’s allowed. Yes, it’s a very civil and normal thing to do. No, it doesn’t lead to the downfall of society.”
    Perfect.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      As a relatively new beer lover (since late 2010), this was a highlight of this trip and my last one to Europe (December 2010-January 2011).

      • http://transitized.com/ Shaun Jacobsen

        I won’t forget the first time I saw “beer” as a beverage option at a McDonald’s in Bordeaux.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1022217380 Kevin Nielsen

    Too bad you couldn’t plan your trip from the beach a bit more. There’s a wonderful cycle path (‘fietspad’ in Dutch), that takes you along the sea and then into Den Haag (http://goo.gl/maps/oes9b). -which by the way is technically called ‘s-Gravenhage!

    Seems like you ended up just missing the old center of Den Haag: http://goo.gl/maps/o39tk (directions from the cafe to the center square).

    Really like this blog, please keep it up! :-)

    -Kevin
    (A Chicagoan in Amsterdam)

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I was expecting to take a route the same or similar to the one you linked to. I’m not sure where we deviated from the route! I just remember coming to a junction and not seeing any more signs to Den Haag. I posted most of the photos from the route before reaching Den Haag (and the city prior to Den Haag) so those don’t help me find the problem turn.
      After eating, we were tired and anxious to return “home” so there was no more time for sight seeing.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1022217380 Kevin Nielsen

        Well it seems like you got the basic idea of Dutch Urban planning up until the last 15 years. A trip to some of the ‘vinex wijken’ and their sprawling realities might have shown you the flip side of this model.