Surviving Groningen traffic
In his first week in Groningen, PhD philosophy student Vinicius Carvalho saw a girl get hit by a car. ‘The cyclist was supposed to give way, but she didn’t’, he says. Luckily the car wasn’t going too fast, but she still ended up on the bonnet. ‘In the end she was fine, but it could have been a big crash. It was quite scary.’
Over 8,500 international students studied in Groningen last year. It’s not clear how many there are right now, but one thing is clear: the numbers will have risen again. Internationals from 139 countries make up one quarter of all students at the university. All new students must learn to survive the cycling madness of Groningen, but it’s especially hard for internationals.
More often than not, this gives rise to dangerous situations. Students have been seen cycling on the freeway, tend to run more red lights, or even take a roundabout the wrong way. They commit more traffic violations than Dutch students, with dangerous, life-threatening traffic situations as a result.
People think that we just know how to bike, which is not the case
Courtney Rowan, a Dutch pre-master sociology student, recognises how chaotic and dangerous the city centre can be. ‘I often hear about cycling accidents in the city centre’, she says. According to Dick De Waard, who did a study on traffic psychology in 2019, international students display more risky behaviour while participating in traffic than the Dutch.
One of the problems is that international students, unlike Dutch students, have not grown up biking. But with biking being such an important part of the Dutch culture, they need to learn fast. ‘It’s critical to the lifestyle of a student’, says psychology student Daryian Soobiah.
However, biking is not common knowledge. ‘We come to the Netherlands as international students and people think that we just know how to bike, which is not the case’, says Wendy Razafindrabeza, who arrived in Groningen this year.
Sean Langdon-Down, who studies marine biology and is originally from the UK, recognises this disparity between internationals and Dutch students. ‘It’s some people’s first time ever on a bike’, he says. ‘It just takes some time to get used to traffic here.’
The result is often chaos. Umme Aiemun, an international security master student, decided to get on her bike when she had just a few drinks too many at the Vismarkt. She fell and broke her left arm. ‘It snapped because I used it to stop the fall’, she says. ‘I needed surgery to connect the top and bottom parts of my arm.’
Rite of passage
She has a big scar that she shows people when telling her story. ‘It felt almost like a rite of passage’, says Umme with a laugh. ‘I felt like I was living the full Groningen experience as a first-year student.’
I smacked my head on the pavement, luckily I was wearing a helmet
Sean smashed into a moped while biking near the Vismarkt because it was raining. ‘I tumbled over my bike, and smashed down on the ground’, he says. ‘I smacked my head on the pavement, and luckily I was wearing a helmet. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I wasn’t.’
And he has even had some experience with biking. Just like Daryian, who learned to ride a bike in his home country of Mauritius, making the transition in the Netherlands easier. But cycling in Groningen is just not the same as cycling in your home country.
One difference is the bicycles themselves. In most countries, for example, they only have hand brakes, so people from other places are not used to bikes that don’t pedal backwards. Another noticeable difference is safety precautions. In some countries people wear helmets when biking, but ‘if you wear a helmet in Groningen, people look at you funny’, says Vinicius.
The traffic lights in Groningen only add to the confusion. Groningen is the only city in the Netherlands where all lights for cyclists turn green at the same time. ‘When you arrive at an intersection, there are so many people all at the same time’, says Vinicius. ‘You have to make eye contact and predict what they’re going to do.’
The rules are different, the road signs are different. ‘There are so many people and I just don’t know all the rules’, says Vinicius. ‘I don’t want to be the one to cause an accident or even get hurt myself.’
The result is fear. When arriving in Groningen, Wendy saw the chaos and got anxious even thinking about getting on a bike. De Waard’s research supports this, as he recruited a group of first-year students to ride a four-kilometre track and ‘one of the internationals was scared witless’, he says.
Most people know how to get on a bike, but they just don’t know the rules of the road
This all adds to the disparity between experienced and inexperienced cyclists. Iza Valkema, Dutch media studies student, also gets annoyed with inexperienced cyclists. ‘Usually when I’m grumpy or in a hurry’, she says. She keeps it inside, but she has often seen others getting upset and yelling to people to watch where they’re going.
Courtney gets annoyed when people bike too slowly. She has been living in Groningen for six years now and knows the city inside out, but she can still imagine how hectic and unusual the city must seem to newcomers. ‘On the one hand it makes me annoyed’, she says, ‘but on the other hand I also feel sorry for them because I know how difficult it can be in the beginning.’
But now the first six weeks of the new academic year have passed, the situation seems to calm down a bit.
‘I would say that I’m definitely way better at biking now’, says Umme. ‘There’s always an adjustment period’, she adds. ‘Before I came, I was very aware that people would be biking, I just didn’t realise how hard it would actually be’. ‘Most people know how to get on a bike, but they just don’t know the rules of the road’, adds Sean.
It would be nice though, if the transition could be a little less frightening and dangerous. De Waard hopes to contribute to this biking apprehension by creating a bike simulation, ‘where people who are afraid of biking can try it in a safe and controlled environment’, he says.
Courtney thinks a biking course can help. ‘When Dutch kids are young, some elementary schools give bike exams so they can learn the rules’, she says. ‘Something like that would be handy for internationals and first-year students.’
Practice at night
Sean and Daryian think that these accidents and miscommunications could be spared by receiving more information about cycling. ‘The university should give out some brief information to students so that they know what to expect when coming to Groningen’, says Daryian.
Daryian thinks learning to navigate traffic from friends who live in Groningen might be helpful too. ‘It wouldn’t take much’, adds Sean. ‘What really helped me is going to practise with friends at night when there weren’t that many people on the road.’
In the end, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, because students do say that they eventually enjoy the fast-paced practical cycling environment. The traffic in Groningen is a sort of controlled chaos, says Sean. ‘There are bikes, buses, cars and somehow it all seems to work’. ‘I would definitely say I find biking fun’, adds Daryian. ‘It’s even better than driving a car.’