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Going Dutch: Bicycling lessons to consider from area’s other ‘Old Country’

The Dutch are almost born on the bicycle. Parents willingly strap infants into miniature bike-seats on their handlebars, with toddlers in a second seat behind them. Photo by Jennifer Lenhart, The Urban Observer 1 / 3
Sophia Mera and her daughter, Mia, 7, pose for a photo at LuLu Beans in Willmar. After living in the Netherlands for two years, Mera, her husband, Luis Marin, and their four children considered bikes their transportation. Mera relayed those experiences recently during a Bicycle Willmar meeting. Tribune photo by Gary Miller 2 / 3
Bicycles in Amsterdam are attached to anything that won’t move — trees, canal bridges or to each other  — to prevent thefts. Still, there are enough bicycles thrown in the canals, that they must be regularly dredged. Photo by Jennifer Lenhart, The Urban Observer 3 / 3

In this part of the country we are known for our ties to Scandinavia as the scent (or, as many might say, stench) of lutefisk at many local festivals indicates. Then there’s the “you betchas” and “Uffdas” celebrated — and mocked — from here to Hollywood. Plenty of us, however, are Dutch too. Family names that include “Van” and the memory of a windmill at a nursery south of Willmar prove our connection to the Netherlands. But it’s an Ecuadorian who is trying to introduce some ideas from that “old country.”

By the time Sophia Mera and her family moved to Willmar, bicycling was more than a form of exercise.

After living in the Netherlands for two years, Mera, her husband, Luis Marin, and their four children considered bikes their transportation.

Streets in many Dutch cities are designed to gives bike priority over cars and pedestrians, Mera said.

There everyone bikes, Mera said, even the prince and princess.

In fact, Mera’s family didn’t own a car during their time in the Netherlands, which is often called Holland. Comparing bike riding in the Netherlands and in Willmar, Mera said she finds the experience here daunting.

“I wish I could feel comfortable,” she said of cycling here.

“In the United States, we’re very comfortable with our cars and we do biking for exercise,” she said.

Mera, who has lived elsewhere in the U.S. as well as overseas, shared some of her experiences in Holland during a Bicycle Willmar meeting in March. Bicycle Willmar is a group formed by cyclists who want to improve area cycling by encouraging communications between various government agencies and other organizations working on projects related to cycling.

“It’s wonderful that this town wants to do this,” Mera said of the meeting.

But she said that building new trails, which is often suggested, is expensive.

Creating bike lanes on existing streets and roads simply by marking them with paint and setting up bike crossings on busy thoroughfares, such as South First Street would be low-cost and should be considered too, she said.

There’s another issue that needs addressing to improve the bicycling in the area, Mera said during a later interview about Bicycle Willmar’s efforts — education. Mera said in the Netherlands, children in third grade have to pass a test.

First Dutch children’s bikes are checked to make sure they have basic equipment such as the proper lights.

Then they ride with an adult to demonstrate that they know how to signal and understand rules of the road.

By comparison, Mera said she sees “people riding down the middle of the road at night with no light, no reflectors.”

As a result of the bike training they receive in Holland, children transport themselves to such activities as soccer practice, Mera said. Youngsters use their bicycles to move about their communities on their own, often in groups.

But cycling is also a family activity in the Netherlands. And it can help family members communicate, Mera said.

“When you’re out riding, you can’t watch TV, you can’t talk on a phone. You have to talk to your kid,” she said.

And, on some bike trips, there was plenty of time for Mera’s family to talk. When it was time for their older kids to go to camp, they all went on their bikes to camps as far as 25 miles away.

By comparison, Mera is hesitant to ride her bike across town in Willmar.

And getting her children to the Glacial Lakes State Trail on the north side of town is something she doesn’t want to tackle.

“For moms with kids, for us it’s just not doable,” she said,

Mera says she finds motor vehicle traffic in Willmar daunting, particularly on South First Street.

She found it frightening and nearly impossible on a ride with her family to cross First Street to take them to Cherry Berry

Because traffic can be so intimidating, Mera says that, like some other women at the Bicycle Willmar meeting, she often rides her bike on sidewalk.

Because of her traffic concerns, Mera says taking her children on a bike ride to the trailhead at the Willmar Civic Center is out of the question.

And driving four children and five bicycles to the trail isn’t possible either.

Bicycle lanes and accommodations at busy intersections such as semaphores for cyclists are changes that would make a big difference for biking in Willmar and cost very little, Mera said.

There could be one-day classes on Saturdays to teach people bicycle safety, upkeep and what safety features a bike needs.

Events like farmers markets might offer an opportunity to provide information such as rules of the road for cyclists and motorists, she said.

More people need to understand how to ride bikes responsibly, Mera said

Bike riders need to understand the importance of safety features like helmets and lights that make it easier for motorists to see them.

“If you don’t see a bike, how can you prevent an accident?” she said.

“These little things will make a difference,” Mera said.

Cycling in the Netherlands

Here is some additional information about bicycling in the Netherlands provided by Sophia Mera and Jennifer Lenhart, author of the blog, The Urban Observer and a graduate student living in Amsterdam.

- Most cities other than Amsterdam are harder to navigate in a car than on a bicycle.

- Most Dutch bikes are designed with a low step over, fenders to protect riders from being splashed on and will accommodate racks to carry groceries and other items.

- Children start with bikes without pedals, which make the transition to pedal bikes easy.

- There are facilities at the main train station in Amsterdam to park thousands of bikes.

- The cycling lifestyle is so embedded in the Netherlands, that its status quo to take your bike — and yet remains the cooler option. — Jennifer Lenhart

- This societal norm towards cycling goes hand-in-hand with a thorough provision of infrastructure. Bicycle parking is offered throughout Amsterdam (or any Dutch city), but this is never enough. Bicycles can be seen attached to anything that won’t move — trees, canal bridges or to each other — all to prevent bicycle theft.

— Sources: Sophia Mera/Jennifer Lenhart

Gary Miller

Born and attended public schools in Willmar, Minn. Served 20 years in U.S. Navy as a photojournalist. Worked at West Central Tribune since retiring from the Navy in 1994.

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