Bike-friendly Groningen? An international’s perspective.

picture by Justin Thomas

19 jun Bike-friendly Groningen? An international’s perspective.

Dian Guo has been living in Groningen for a while now and found a job at the university after she got her master’s degree. She is fascinated about how internationals experience Groningen by bike and she noticed that there are a lot of misunderstandings. She is now researching the perspective from internationals and hopes to make the city more bike-friendly for them in the future. We asked her to write something about her views on Groningen Bicycle City:

Before coming to Groningen, my only biking experience was during the first two years of middle school, when I biked 20 minutes to school and back. But as Chinese cities expand, biking was no longer an option: you will never reach anywhere within half an hour, and the heavy traffic makes biking a dangerous endeavor. This is why when I first arrived at Station Groningen, seeing the thousands of bikes piling up and bikers zooming around, I was more than delighted at the prospect that I could bike everywhere. The city is not big, and there are special biking lanes, convenient and safe. What could be easier?

I soon realized how naive I was, the first time I was on my second-hand child bike (according to Dutch standard). It was night. But there were no bright street lights like in China. Bikes around me were going much faster than I was. And I had no idea where I could or could not bike. By the time I reached home, I was hugely relieved for being still alive. It was only after several uncertainties, frustrations and small incidents that I realized where the problem was: all my life, I’ve been thinking of biking as a purely technical practice, that it was all about paddling and keeping balance. But I gradually learned that biking is also a social practice about communicating and cooperation with other road-users.

For me, the most confusing social aspect of biking is the priority rule. For Dutch people, traffic from the right has priority at an unregulated crossing would probably be common sense. But this concept was completely new to me. Above all, I have never learned traffic rules at kindergarten or primary school (apart from “red stop green go”). I didn’t learn anything from practice either: in big Chinese cities, almost all roads open to bikes are roads WITH traffic lights. So there I was, biking through Noorderplantsoen every day, and rushing across any crossing without ever stopping… It was only when I started to learn driving that the priority rule became known to me.

Signalling is also a new habit I had to learn. Probably because roads are large in China, and distance between bikes are bigger, signalling is never a very common practice. Occasionally, people lazily extend a hand when turning: risk of people behind bumping into you is low anyway. I have always been signalling when turning since in Groningen. Good for me. But later when I start to bike to the Academia Gebouw every morning, where bikes stop abruptly in front of me all the time, it just came to me that I forgot to signal when I stop…

Now looking back at my 2-year biking adventure in Groningen, I am really grateful that I am still in good shape after all the errors and ignorance. But in the end, biking everyday through Noorderplantsoen has been one of the brightest thing for staying in the Netherlands: a feeling that your body is moving leisurely in nature, which one would definitely miss if living in a modern mega-city. Yet do remember, if you are Dutch, that the internationals around you are probably overwhelmed by the traffic rules here and that they would not be able to enjoy the biking experience as locals do. Even the smallest advice, such as white light in front and red behind, or which roads are closed to bikes, would already help a lot for newcomers in Groningen.

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