So, the Dutch really seem to have their shit together.
There are many things that led me to this conclusion during my week in Amsterdam (for work, unfortunately, though I did manage to squeeze in some sightseeing). I’m going to outline a couple of the reasons here:
(1) Everyone cycles.
And cycling is a safe and straightforward means of transport, because there are wide cycle paths everywhere, and plenty of designated areas to store your bike. In London, cyclists have to fully suit-up before taking on the horror of the roads in the City; in the Netherlands, you’ll see businessmen in their suits, parents with their kids, all comfortably riding their bikes without helmets.
(You could question how wise that is, (1) but it illustrates the safety of cycling in the Netherlands. In London, it seems to be a rare week where the Metro doesn’t feature a bleak report on the latest cyclist death.) (2)
(2) The traffic is reasonable.
This must be due in large part to the use of bikes by a large proportion of the population, but it is also worth noting that there is a comprehensive public transport system available, including fast inter-city trains, as well as trams, which are one of the more environmentally friendly modes of transport.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the Netherlands often features highly on league tables for environmentally friendly countries. (3) Indeed, electric car sales are generally much higher in the Netherlands than most countries in Europe (the notable exception being Norway).(4)
(3) Still on the transport theme, something which really stood out for me, having spent the last 18 months living in London where people dash across roads on their way to work with such urgency that you might think they were dashing to the hospital to make it in time to see the birth of their first-born child: in the Netherlands, people (both cyclists and pedestrians) wait until the green man appears before crossing the road. Even when there is clearly no traffic coming.
Sure, there are exceptions to this, but generally people seemed content to wait to cross the road, and even those that crossed before the green man made an appearance only did so when there was obviously sufficient time for them to get to the other side. It seems to illustrate, to me at least, that people in the Netherlands don’t feel the same (generally absurd and unwarranted) need to constantly rush that you tend to see in some major cities.
(4) They have a reasonable and thoughtful drug policy.
The most obvious point to make is the availability of cannabis. Given the amount of research into the affects of cannabis (particularly in contrast to the affects of alcohol and tobacco), (6) it seems somewhat surprising that the Netherlands remains the exception rather than the rule on this. There are reasonable restrictions put in place, but the general emphasis is on the right of the individual to make their own choices regarding their health and recreation. (7)
The country often ranks highly on country comparisons by health and happiness, and it has a lower unemployment rate than many other European countries. As well as being general indicators of the Dutch being awesome, that also goes some way in illustrating the archaic quality of some of the reasons against the legalisation of cannabis (i.e. that it will turn society into depressed layabouts, or that it will lead to unemployment or the widespread deterioration of the nation’s health). (8)
By chance, I’d watched a Steve Hughes stand-up in Amsterdam prior to my trip, where he praised the country for treating you ‘like an adult’. I think that is a fair comment, though he (as you’d expect) gives far more amusing reasons than I have above. A shorter version from Live at the Apollo is worth a watch.
Aside from this, I ought to point out how fantastic the Netherlands is for a traveller.
Sadly I was only there for a week, and the vast majority of my time was spent working (boo!), so sightseeing possibilities were limited for me.
However, a couple of places I did have a chance to experience are worth noting:
(1) The Rijksmuseum: a fantastic collection of Renaissance paintings, as well as a treasure trove of Asian art inluding numerous statues of religious dieties and figures, all housed in a beautifully grand building.
Rembrandt’s Night Watch is one of the best known pieces in the collection. I can’t say I’m that blown away by the painting, but I enjoyed watching the crowds of people craning their necks and waiting for a turn to move in closer for a better look. Sometimes people watching at museums and galleries is even more fascinating than the collection itself, though I refer back to my original point here: the Rijksmuseum really does host an excellent range of work, with paintings and other relics from around 1100 to 1900.
(2) The Van Gogh Museum: a vast collection of well-known and lesser-known work by an artist who, in my opinion, is notable more for his character than his artistic talents.
Sunflowers is a case in point. Does anyone genuinely think this is an impressive piece of art? I tend to think that Irises is much lovelier for its colour and style, whereas Sunflowers seems almost child-like. However, while there was a constant crowd around Sunflowers, Irises seemed to attract comparatively little attention.
Again, I found watching the other visitors almost more interesting than some of the paintings themselves. This is not to say, of course, that the collection is not impressive: as well as an excellent range of paintings by the main man himself, there are also various other paintings from artists such as Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet and Émile Bernard.
(3) Vondelpark and Beatrixpark: Amsterdam seems an extraordinarily green city, which is why (aside from pure laziness) I am highlighting both of these parks at the same time.
Though they are two of the largest, and two that I spent the most time in, there are various little parks dotted around the city, and the amount of trees and flowers throughout the city adds to its beauty. (The canals which criss-cross through the city of course go far in themselves in making Amsterdam such a visual delight!) Vondelpark is conveniently close to Museumplein (where the two above-named museums are located, as well as various others), while Beatrixpark is close to Amsterdam Zuid station.
Notes and references:
(1) There is an interesting website dedicated to cycling called A View from the Cycle Path. One particular blog looks in detail at cycling safety in the Netherlands; if you are interested, you can find it here.
(2) The European Cyclists’ Federation, in its 2013 report, ranked the Netherlands joint first with Denmark for best cycling countries in Europe.
(3) The Netherlands ranked 11th on the 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranking of 178 countries. A 2013 report, Trends in Global co2 Emissions, also provides some useful information and country comparisons.
(4) A couple of articles illustrating the relative popularity of electric cars in the Netherlands (and Norway) can be found on CleanTechnica.com and BusinessGreen.com.
(5) Saferchoice.org has an excellent range of information and articles on this, though given that its self-proclaimed aim is to ‘educate the public about the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol’, this is obviously not an impartial resource. Other less biased research is widely available; the World Health Organisation website has plenty of information available. A rather illuminating report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime looking at global drug consumption seems to go some way in defying any claims that keeping cannabis illegal acts as a deterrant (if indeed anyone still makes such arguments).
(7) Further information on the drug laws and regulations in the Netherlands can be found at Amsterdam.info
(8) Inequalitywatch.com has a fairly detailed article on poverty in Europe, with the Netherlands comparing favourably. The European Commission’s Eurostat website has some illuminating statistics on unemployment where, again, the Netherlands shows up favourably. The Legatum Prosperity Index (which looks at wealth and wellbeing) ranked the Netherlands number 9.