I would never be so rash as to say that the Netherlands is perfect. (Are perfect?) The stores close early, you can’t get a Big Gulp and far too many men wear red pants and brown shoes for it to be paradise. But the Dutch do a lot of things right, as I was reminded during a recent trip to visit My Lovely Wife, who now has a job in the Hague.
What the Dutch are particularly good at is getting from one place to another. And the infrastructure that makes that possible can seem very foreign to a foreigner.
First, of course, there are the bicycles, great herds of which ebb and flow across the cities and through the countryside every day. America’s capital is gaining a reputation as a bikeable city, but it has some ways to go to match the Dutch capital. Every sizeable road in the Hague has separate bike lanes — a set in each direction. Many bike lanes are protected from traffic with curbs.
I haven’t consulted actuarial tables, but the Dutch bike lanes certainly look safer than what we have here (usually nothing; occasionally a single stripe of white paint). One effect is to make bike commuting in the Netherlands appear leisurely. There isn’t the sense of daredevilry and desperation you often see in bikers here.
The effect is enhanced by the bikes themselves. They are — like the Dutch — tall and comfortable. Maybe one in a hundred riders wears a helmet, and that includes the toddlers strapped into cute bike seats or loaded into little trailers.
Just imagine how many problems we could solve — traffic, pollution, obesity — if cycling was as easy here as it is there. (Of course, it helps that the Netherlands is as flat as a billiard table.)
Then there’s the public transportation system in the Netherlands.
“Public transportation here is quite important,” Gerben Nelemans told me. “We are such a lot of people on such a small amount of land that we need public transport.”
Gerben is the director of Trans Link Systems, maker of the OV-Chipkaart, which is basically the SmarTrip of the Netherlands. I’ll get to the wondrous abilities of the OV-Chipkaart in a moment, but first there’s this: The streetcars of the Hague use the honor system.
When you get on a tram you pass your OV-Chipkaart over a reader. You do it again when you get off. The same process applies when you take an intercity train, where passengers are required to pass their cards over a reader on the platform. There’s no barrier or turnstile.
Inspectors travel the system, making spot checks. They carry a card reader and can fine a passenger 35 Euros (about $52) if he hasn’t checked in properly.
“If there is always a risk that you could be inspected on your journey and you know that the fine is 10 or 12 times the value of your trip, then you can’t take the risk,” Gerben said.
In the end, fare evaders are eventually caught. “I don’t think the Dutch are more honest than you,” Gerben said. “It’s the threat of being inspected.”
Maybe so, but I can’t see this working in Washington.
What’s especially neat about the OV-Chipkaart is how many places you can use it. Gerben said the Netherlands is the first — and so far the only — country to use a single card for bus, tram, subway, light rail and train, across multiple jurisdictions and companies.
“And we are broadening the use outside towards public transport-related services, such as bicycle rental and taxi,” he said.
Imagine taking VRE to Union Station, doing some sightseeing on the Red Line, then catching Amtrak to New York and riding the subway to Yankee Stadium, all with the same card.
Obviously, there are those in this country who would feel that coordinating intercity travel is a step toward socialism and the confiscation of firearms, but man does it make for a smooth trip.
Speaking of public transportation, Ron Rydstrom retired last Friday. Ron worked at WMATA for 41 years, most recently in the bigshot job of director of marketing. But Ron started lower down: His first job (after driving an Arlington County school bus — as a 16-year-old!) was with the AB&W bus line, one of Metro’s precursors.
I asked Ron what lesson he learned from operating a bus. “The biggest thing is you have to come to an understanding with yourself that you can’t go any faster than the car in front of you.”
Good advice for all of us.