Dateline, Berlin, January 2017
I hear it’s been cold in Chicago, and maybe you are one of the hardy ones here who cycle all year, or maybe you are taking a breather and commuting by bus or “L”, on foot or by car. I hope you were able to take advantage of Winter Bike Challenge—the other WBC—and track your rides.
In the meantime, I have been traveling outside of Chicago—to Berlin, with stops in Bremen and Leipzig—visiting friends. I am here to personally report what it’s like to commute by bike.
Disclaimer: I am only reporting what I saw. If there are other experiences, I just didn’t see them.
First of all, yes, there are a LOT of people on bicycles, and yes, there is extended infrastructure, and yes, I did see cyclists from eight to eighty years old out there. Really. (And it's also winter in Berlin - temps are a few degrees below zero Celsius.)
Other things I observed:
In Bremen, in the western part of the country, only one cyclist I saw had a road bike. Ninety percent of everyone else has the upright commuter style, and 10 percent are hybrids. In Berlin, it’s more like 80-20 upright to hybrid.
The mountain bike I borrowed in Berlin came in handy because many side streets are cobblestone (Also better for erosion and flood control). On this side street, I was not exactly sure where to ride since the cobblestone was bumpy and the sidewalks were narrow. On one side street, I rode slowly on the sidewalk behind a couple of people on foot. Another woman called out to me in German that I was supposed to ride on the street (I believe that’s what she said—she spoke fast!). So that answered that.
Yes, it’s true, people don’t wear helmets here (generally; except children, the one road cyclist, and the food deliverers). The infrastructure is so good that it’s no more dangerous than walking. By that I mean, few potholes, and on major streets, there is a clear separation of where to ride, walk and drive.
The infrastructure includes specially marked parts of the sidewalk and painted streets. There are zero parts of the bike lane that just disappear into a motor vehicle lane. When there is no room on the street for the bike lane, it’s merged into the sidewalk, which is still wide enough for foot traffic. There is usually a separate bicycle traffic signal where there is a specific bike lane, at eye level of cyclists.
In Bremen’s city center, in the plaza in front of the city hall (“Fußgängerzone”), cyclists, walkers and motorists (I saw only delivery vehicles) all share the space with trams. You just gotta watch where you are going, go slow and wait.
According to my friend, there is no right turn on red ever. According to the internet, you may if there is a specific sign. This made me feel much safer because drivers never crowded me into the right lane.
I also want to note that it’s not perfect everywhere. Near the end of my trip, my friend and I borrowed bicycles from our B&B while visiting Leipzig, in southeast Germany. We rode from our B&B into the city center and also farther out into a neighborhood and a park. It was not easy cycling. I saw several of the Right Turn on Red signs mentioned above on a busy street shared with cars, trams, and bicycles. Here the bike lanes do disappear into motor traffic lanes. Drivers often park in bike lanes and I slipped on wet pavement as I rode around two of them. (Yes I am OK. We were going very slow.) Later, I was cut off by a driver turning right onto a side street. I saw a cyclist yell at a driver for being too far right at a stoplight, when there was plenty of room toward the middle of the street.
The cycling environment in Germany definitely varies among regions. Mostly it really is safe and convenient and fun, and something I know we in Chicago are working toward.