In the Netherlands, the bicycle has a new enemy to fight off: the moped. Thanks to a loophole in the law, certain scooters can be driven in the bike lane. What’s more, they can be legally taken on the road without a helmet, making them just as convenient as a bike. And, says bike blogger Martin Cleaver, there are now 35,000 of the things in Amsterdam.
In 1974, the moped was introduced into the Netherlands. The moped, or snorfiets, is a small motorbike that originally came with pedals. It differs from the bigger, more familiar motor-scooter (or bromfiets) in that it cannot travel at more than 25kmh (16mph). Up until 1999, says Cleaver, both snorfietsen and bromfietsen were allowed in bike lanes. “In 1999, the bromfiets (with helmet) was moved to the road and this immediately cut the number of accidents–often the result of cars turning right and not realizing that a scooter was driving just as fast along the bike path,” Cleaver tells Co.Exist.
Today, the differences are less clear. Some bromfiets manufacturers took their bigger, faster scooters and outfitted them with limiters–devices that restrict the top speed to a bike-lane-legal 16mph (without limiters, bromfiets can get up to 38 mph). Limiting the speed of the scooters made it possible for them to be used in bike lanes as well the main roads. “However,” says Cleaver, “the limiting proved easy to disable and the scooter became a very trendy, popular mode of transport.” Essentially, people were buying scooters, disabling the limiters, and taking to the bike lanes anyway–at much faster speeds than was safe.
Meanwhile, real snorfiets (the slow ones) evolved to look more like bromfiets; the larger scooters had become very cool and manufacturers wanted to capitalized on the appeal. From the outside, now, there is almost nothing to indicate the difference between these two vehicles other than the color of their license plates: The slow snorfiets get a special blue one; the faster bromfiets have a yellow plate. Because the limiter is so easy to disable, anyone can go speeding, helmet-less, through both bike lanes and regular roads. Cleaver took a video illustrating the problem from a bike’s-eye view. There’s barely enough space for the cyclists before the scooters start weaving in and out:
The effect of this moped incursion has been to discourage cycling. “Many old people have stopped cycling and parents are less willing to let their children loose on bike paths,” Cleaver says. That’s saying something for “a country where the vast majority of secondary-school children cycle to school on their own–often distances of up to 25km [15.5 miles],” he adds. Since 2011, he says, accidents involving scooters have risen 25%.
So far, the Dutch government has been unwilling to change the law country-wide, although some concessions have been made. For instance, cities are allowed to ban scooters from bike paths on narrow streets that have a speed limit of 30kmh (19mph).
Ideally, Cleaver says, he’d like to see all scooters banned from all bike lanes, but that would put lots of helmet-less snorfiets riders into regular traffic. The bike lane isn’t the place for these vehicles, but neither are the car lanes. “The obvious measure is to abolish the blue number plate. I’m convinced that this would also reduce the number of people on scooters,” says Cleaver. Bringing all scooters up to a speed that would enable them to ride in car traffic, and requiring all riders to wear a helmet, would do away with the ambiguity that’s stranding riders between bike and car lanes.
Currently, scooters are the fastest way to get around the Netherlands. They’re quicker than pedal bikes, and they can avoid gridlocked traffic by invading the bike lanes. Banning them from bike lanes likely upset a lot of people, but luckily, the Netherlands has a fantastic cycle infrastructure ready to accommodate all those folks who would have to switch from scooters to bicycles. Even better, anyone who switched from a scooter would already know all the best routes.