Students

Students are a menace on the road

‘Just a matter of time before someone dies’

In a city with the highest bicycle density in the world, students on bikes think they’re invulnerable. The rules are there only to be broken. But how does everyone else in traffic feel about that? ‘I don’t need the aggravation of cleaning blood off my car.’
By Igor Wijnker / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

I have a confession to make. When I’m driving in my car, I’m the perfect law-abiding citizen. But when I’m cycling, I don’t give a crap about the rules. I don’t have a light on the front of my bike; I pass slow cars on both the left and the right; when I’m biking to my favourite pub up a one-way street, I only make way for the bus by jumping the curb and zig-zagging around pedestrians. I never even consider getting off my bike and walking.

I happen to be a very good cyclist and I never get into any accidents, but Groningen is full of reckless students on two wheels. The fact that people don’t have serious accidents more often is mainly thanks to how careful motorised traffic is. I decided to have a chat with the people whose job is to deal with cyclists in traffic. What’s it like for them to face the terrifying traffic we create every day?

I used to own a pub in the Oosterstraat, and I would always bike against traffic

taxi van driver JANMARC

‘I used to own a pub in the Oosterstraat, and I would always bike against traffic’, taxi van driver Janmarc van ‘t Lindenhout admits. Four years ago, he started driving for Connexxion, and since then he’s gained a different perspective on the stunts cyclists pull. And he’s terrified. ‘It’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed.’

Thick skin

During an average eight-hour shift Van ‘t Lindenhout has approximately thirty-eight fares, many of which take him through the city centre, where he’s at the mercy of people on two wheels. ‘It’s annoying; most cyclists seem to have no knowledge of the traffic rules whatsoever’, he says.

He gives a few examples: foreign students who can barely stay upright, people biking next to each other in groups of three or four, British people biking on the left, cyclists looking down at their phone while going against traffic, ‘who get annoyed or even yell at you’. ‘I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years.’ He also runs into people cycling in the wrong direction on the Diepenring, the roads that border the canals in town.

‘One time, I even saw someone cycling on the ring road’, says Erik Jan Leusen, who has been transporting ill and handicapped people in his taxi van for the past twenty years. ‘She was very surprised when the police showed up to escort her off it.’

 

 Pedestrian crossing in the Gelkingestraat

Eye contact

Van ‘t Lindenhout says it’s not only foreign students who are struggling with how to behave in Groningen traffic. ‘Out-of-towners who aren’t used to how busy it gets here do really weird stuff as well. The other day this girl just turned around at a busy intersection for no discernible reason and crashed straight into another cyclist. Not a pretty sight.’

Electric bikes are basically mopeds, but they don’t seem to realise that

taxi van driver erik jan

He’s noticed the regular taxi drivers (‘the cowboys’) are increasingly annoyed by cyclists. ‘I’m paid by the hour, so I don’t let it get to me. But I’ve noticed how often regular taxi drivers avoid eye contact with cyclists. They’ll see one coming towards them in the Oosterstraat and they’ll move all the way to the curb on the left, pretend they’re looking for an address.’

Van ‘t Lindenhout is also annoyed by delivery drivers on electric bikes. ‘They just show up out of nowhere. And they’re so fast: they’ll pass you even as you’re passing another cyclist.’

Van Leusen agrees. ‘They’re basically on mopeds, but they don’t seem to realise that.’

Traffic circulation plan

In 1977, cyclists in Groningen were prioritised by a revolutionary traffic circulation plan introduced by the city council, which was aimed at discouraging the use of cars and stimulating cyclists. The plan worked, although not everyone was happy with it. ‘Some people feel cyclists are too domineering’, Jacques Wallage admitted to The Guardian. ‘There are complaints that they throw down their bikes virtually everywhere and that pedestrians occasionally get run over by cyclists.’

They  break every rule in the book. But when something does happen, it’s our fault.

taxi driver alie

Have cyclists become too privileged? Alie Wichers, with Taxi Noord, thinks so. ‘They think they own the town, break every rule in the book, and if you call them out on it, they flip you off or worse. And when something does happen, it’s our fault.’ That’s because in an accident involving a bike and a motorised vehicle, the driver of said vehicle is liable, unless they can prove force majeure.

That’s why Van Leusen tries his darnedest to prevent collisions. ‘I’ve got almost a million and a half kilometres under my belt, but nothing bad has ever happened to me. That’s mostly due to luck, but I also refuse to rush through traffic. I don’t need the aggravation of cleaning blood off my car.’

Van Leusen does occasionally get into a scrape or two. ‘I had to hit the brakes because of a bus in front of me and I heard this dull thump behind me. A cyclist whose brakes weren’t working properly crashed into my van. He even tried to blame me. I said: “Technically you hit me, so you’ll be paying for a new bumper.” He did, but it was a whole mess involving the cops and insurance companies.’

Cyclists weaving their way through the Folkingestraat

Brazen

Time to see what it’s like. On a Tuesday afternoon, we board Rob Olieve’s line 5 bus at the central train station. Olieve has been a bus driver for thirty-nine years, and he’s watched traffic change outside his windshield. ‘It’s become so much busier. Cyclists are more unpredictable, more brazen. They know we can’t hurt them. I used to try and hit the gas a little to make them move, but you can’t do that anymore.’

When they move aside and hit the slippery curb, they fall down right in front of me

bus driver rob

He still loves driving his bus, though. He manoeuvres his eighteen-metre vehicle around the corner into the Oosterstraat with ease, taking up practically the entire width of the road. Vans and containers are parked all over the sidewalk, as though the entire city is moving.

Cyclists coming towards Olieve’s bus dash aside at the last moment. ‘They don’t mess with this bus. But it gets tricky in winter, when they move aside, hit the slippery curb, and fall down right in front of me.’ His strategy is to take it easy on the road. It’s his secret to staying sane for thirty-nine years in the Groningen bicycle jungle.

Pedestrians

We leave the bus on the Oostersingel and turn left into the W.A. Scholtenstraat, an infamous intersection. Van Leusen no longer bikes in the city, himself. ‘Way too dangerous. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because I actually live in the city centre. I just go everywhere on foot.’

But even pedestrians risk their lives in town, especially at the tricky intersection on Vismarkt’s east side. This intersection is unsafe on a normal day, but today it’s even worse: half the Guldenstraat has been dug up and blocked off. Cyclists, moped drivers, and pedestrians are funnelled through a narrow section and spat out on the Vismarkt at another spot where labourers are digging and trucks drive to and fro. In between is the zebra crossing meant to safely guide pedestrians coming from and going to the Herestraat. On top of that, the market is open today.

The Groningen cyclists and pedestrians are just the worst. I’ll hold up my stop sign to them, but they just swerve around me.

traffic controller Mike

Traffic controller Mike Buis has his work cut out for him. He and a co-worker have to make sure that the trucks don’t hit any pedestrians or cyclists. ‘Honestly, I’m surprised everything is working out so well’, Buis says during a lull in traffic. ‘The Groningen cyclists and pedestrians are just the worst. I’ll hold up my stop sign to them, but they just swerve around me. Just now, a cyclist tried to push through even though a truck was backing up. When they hit you, the driver feels the same thing as when he hits a bunny. Just a little bump.’

Buis hasn’t witnessed any accidents yet today. ‘But this morning there was a girl with a bleeding head wound. She’d crashed into another cyclist. They don’t respect the right of way of a zebra crossing, either. You see that? … Did you see that?!’ Right in front of us, a crossing pedestrian is clipped by an annoyed cyclist who keeps biking, yelling a few choice words over their shoulder. ‘Unbelievable! I swear, this only happens in Groningen.’

Crowds in the Guldenstraat

Truck

Down at the Poelestraat, the workday is over for A. Kolkena Grond- & Straatwerk. They’re leaving before the afternoon rush, backing their truck into the Oosterstraat one final time. The truck is beeping, its lights are flashing, and a traffic controller in yellow is holding a stop sign. A veiled woman who clearly hasn’t been biking for very long ignores the sign, tries to pass the truck, is forced onto the sidewalk, and falls. Fortunately, she’s not hurt.

The traffic controller doesn’t bother checking on her, since he’s busy trying to stop another pushy cyclist who nearly hits him, and unsuccessfully tries to pass him first on the left and then on the right. ‘Let me pass, dude!’ the cyclist yells. ‘Take it easy’, the controller says above the noise. ‘You take it easy! Dickhead!’ the cyclist yells when he finally manages to slip by him.

The traffic controller couldn’t care less. He waves to the departing truck driver and rejoins his co-workers. ‘I get yelled at all day long. That woman who fell? What a sight. I’m never bored in this town.’

We need a change

What can we do to tackle this issue with cyclists? The people interviewed had an idea or two.

  • Stricter rule enforcement. ‘If no one punishes people for breaking the rules, they’ll just keep doing it’, says traffic controller Mike Buis. ‘So I’m going to be handing out tickets all day long. If you station a traffic cop here, he’ll basically pay for himself.’
  • A cycling course for international students. ‘During the introduction week, before they go out into traffic themselves’, says taxi van driver Janmarc van ‘t Lindenhout. ‘Honestly, all cyclists could use a refresher course when it comes to traffic rules; most of them don’t have a clue.’
  • Install cameras. Our camera appears to have a preventative effect. ‘Look how everyone’s behaving!’ Buis says gleefully. ‘Can you guys come back tomorrow?’

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