Only a few days before Brexit, project manager Liam moved from County Durham in England to Denekamp in Twente. He writes a series of articles about what it is like to live and work in the Netherlands as an Englishman.
Part II: Transport
Geographically, the UK and the Netherlands are not worlds apart from each other. When I was a visiting buitenlander I could fly from Newcastle to Schiphol in about an hour, and after another couple of hours on the train I’d be on the other side of the country, enjoying a gezellig evening with my girlfriend and her family. Now a resident buitenlander, I can also take full advantage of the fact that the Netherlands is much smaller than the UK. For example, day trips out to Amsterdam, Utrecht and so on can be achieved without having to stay in a hotel the night before or get up at hideous o’clock in the morning. When I lived in Durham, a day out to any big city other than Newcastle would entail one of those options, with the added misery of either extremely heavy traffic en route or selling a kidney to fund the purchase of train tickets (unless you book about a month in advance).
In many ways, getting from place to place in the Netherlands is superior to in the UK. I mentioned the cost of train travel, which in the Netherlands is significantly more affordable. To this end, and to maintain an efficient flow of foot traffic through stations, travellers are encouraged to use their OV Chipkaarten, which can be ‘topped up’ and scanned before boarding and after alighting trains. This is preferred to buying train tickets at the station, which are usually priced a little higher than the cost of charging your card or buying online (though still lower than in the UK) as a means of light discouragement. This makes travelling by train much simpler, cheaper and more efficient than having to battle with one of those terrible ticket machines or wait in a queue to be served by a person, only to have to empty your pockets when you get there. If only the UK had a similar, tried-and-tested system that they could roll out across the country in the hope of achieving what the Dutch have.
The high cost of tickets isn’t the only reason that travelling by public transport in the UK can be a nightmare, especially compared to the Netherlands’ system. Trains and (to a slightly lesser extent) buses all over the country are routinely delayed or cancelled, often costing commuters part of their wages or even their jobs, and unless you drive or happen to know a good tasseographer, planning a journey to get around rural areas is an exercise in futility. Compare this to the Netherlands, where despite the fact that I live in one of the most rural parts of the country, I am yet to be stranded in the countryside, forced to call for a taxi because I was foolish enough to think that the bus stops were for more than just decoration. On the contrary: from the centre of the village I can hop on one of the regular buses and be in the city of Enschede in around half an hour, or Oldenzaal station – which is well connected to the rest of the region – within about 10 minutes. The convenience and simplicity are truly a breath of fresh air. Of course, like anywhere in the world, there are times when services are either delayed or cancelled – it’s just a lot less frequent than in Britain.
Regardless of all of this, though, by far the most well-known and admired mode of transport in the Netherlands is cycling. That the Dutch can reap the numerous benefits of this is down to both good luck with their famously flat terrain and good planning from the people that decided to put cycle lanes everywhere. In the UK, I typically made short journeys – to the doctor’s surgery, the local Café and such – on foot, but anything longer than that by car, bus or train. For most people in the UK – especially in hilly areas like County Durham – cycling simply isn’t a viable alternative for middle-length journeys due to the undulating terrain. Even in places that are flat enough to make good use of a bicycle, the vast majority of UK roads are just too dangerous because of the lack of segregated cycle lanes.
Strides are being made though, with dedicated routes materialising in various towns across the UK. I can only hope that this continues; if Britons can benefit from cycling in the same way that the Dutch do then it can go a long way to fixing the obesity and poverty crises that millions of UK citizens struggle with every day. It goes without saying that with more opportunities to cycle, people will in all likelihood drive less, as has proved to be the case before. By cycling instead of driving or using public transport, people will get a lot more exercise, leading – one would hope – to a decrease in obesity cases and therefore an increase in the nation’s health overall. Furthermore, the cost of purchasing and maintaining a bicycle is only a fraction of that for a car. Even for people like me, who would still need a car for longer journeys, the amount of petrol money saved by cycling on shorter trips would more than pay for a bike. And, of course, the environmental impact could be huge.
Hopefully, the UK can take a few leaves out of the Netherlands’ book on transport. In any case, this Englishman will continue to enjoy affordable, unplanned days out to new and interesting places across this fantastic country, and picking up groceries on his bike.