Ich bin ein Bicyclist

berliners.jpg

In a report for CBSnews.com on Berlin, Germany’s booming bike culture, Christine Lagorio expresses shock at the sheer number of bikes she saw in Berlin and the way in which motorists and cyclists share the road "gracefully." This, she says, is something she has never experienced in her home town of New York City.

In this city where less than half of residents own a car, bicycles are not only in vogue; over the past two decades it has become downright common to ride one every day. They are chained to every pole or knob on every major thoroughfare. They crowd apartment building lobbies. They dominate the flow of traffic in intersections. Bicyclists have power in numbers; a major fantasy of U.S. cyclists has come to pass in Berlin: cars yield to bikes.

Lagorio, who rides a bike in Brooklyn, thinks of Manhattan as a "death trap" for cyclists. She wonders what exactly makes Berlin and New York so different:

"The biggest difference riding in Berlin is that the drivers know what to look out for. There’s no right on red here, so the drivers wait for the pedestrians and the bicyclists to pass at every intersection before going, " says Wolf Schroen, an avid cyclist and expat who moved to Germany seven years ago from bike-friendly Austin, Texas.

“Some are just shocked at the amount of other bikers on the roads – that riding is so casual here,” he said.

In Berlin, the city has taken action and its philosophy seems to be "build it and they will come." Two years ago, city officials pledged to work toward bikes comprising 15 percent of the city’s traffic by the year 2010. After devoting 2.5 million Euros last year to expanding on the bike lane system, the goal isn’t far off. The city already has 80 kilometers of bike lanes in the streets and 50 kilometers of lanes on sidewalks. Recent numbers showed that cycling has doubled in the past decade, and now the city’s 400,000 riders each day account for 12 percent of total street traffic, according to the green-living blog Treehugger.

Photo: bisschenbissig/Flickr

  • Hans

    Not only in Berlin. The entire country is bicycle-friendly. I went to high-school in small town and every student and most of the teachers get to school by bike. All cities have bicycle lanes all through town.

    The police also makes sure that every bike is indeed street-ready. Every bike MUST have functioning bikes, working front and rear lights, fenders, etc. etc. When I was a teenager it happened quite often that a cop pulled me over because my lights didn’t work.

    Now I am here in good old NYC and would love to get around on a bike again. It is just so darn dangerous. Nobody on the streets (be it cars or pedestrians) gives a shit about getting along with each other: blocking the bike lanes, opening car doors w/o friggin’ looking if a bicycle is approaching, etc. etc.

    It’s a shame.

  • E Gore Stravinsky

    …and not a single cyclist in this picture wearing a helmet.

    I lived in Berlin back in 1993 / 94 and biked to school daily. I saw a few bikers but nothing similar to what has been written about Berlin recently. Makes me want to go back and have a look around. Also makes me realize what good public policy can do to change a community.

  • rex

    I love that picture, all those cyclists and only three styrofoam hats. Those wacky Germans and their devil may care attitude toward safety.

  • Steve

    As for the lack of helmets, it’s pretty clear that this an unusual, slow-mo procession, not an average morning commute scene. My guess is that the helmets are more common in everyday bike traffic, though I have heard it is less so so than in the U.S.

  • Gwin

    No one wears a helmet in Paris, either…

    Also, last time I checked, you can’t turn right on red in NYC.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Also, last time I checked, you can’t turn right on red in NYC.

    That’s true, Gwin, and that’s one of the great advantages of living here, something I forget until I go someplace else in the country. One of the few good things Pataki did for liveable streets was to veto a bill to allow right on red by default on Staten Island – the fact that the Assembly passed this bill should have tipped me off to the congestion pricing battle.

    As good as no-right-on-red is, it seems that Schroen is wrong about it being a significant factor in cycling culture. I guess it’s the bike lanes, then?

  • dood

    [5] please remind that to all those drivers with jersey plates.
    also, your not supposed to cross the intersection on red, yet pretty often you see a driver that creeps up to the intersection, and if there is no cops in sight just goes for it.

  • momos

    Several commenters have mentioned the lack of helmets in the photo.

    Urban bike culture in Europe, as the article describes, is not dominated by hardcore enthusiasts or the spandex fitness crowd. Europeans associate helmets with sport cycling, not utility cycling. This is a reflection of how vastly safer biking is in average European streets compared with American arterial roads, and also a reflection of how the spectrum of people who regularly ride bikes in Europe is far wider than in the US.

    After riding a bike in Berlin you’ll see that a helmet is usually unnecessary, and that Berliners are far more laid back about litigation and safety measures than Americans. Again, this is cultural difference reflecting fundamental differences in the basic safety of city streets.

  • Mitch

    If you’re riding in a bike path, physically-separated or not, the big danger is not from cars turning on red, but from the ones that turn on green.

    If the bikes have a green light to go cross the intersection, adjacent cars have a green light, too. Turning cars are required — in Berlin and here — to yield to bikes in the bike lane.

    I would not be surprised to find that this rule is obeyed strictly in Berlin, and not so strictly in New York. My experience in Germany is rather limited — a few days, mostly in an obscure town near Cologne, twenty years ago — but I was startled to see how carefully Germans, both pedestrians and motorists (there weren’t many bikes around) obeyed the traffic laws.

    Even my friends — Green antiauthoritarians living in a Wohngemeinschaft — waited for the light to change to cross an empty street at 9 pm. They were sheepish when I pointed this out, and it’s true that excessive obedience is not a good thing, but observance of traffic laws does keep bikers safer.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Even my friends — Green antiauthoritarians living in a Wohngemeinschaft — waited for the light to change to cross an empty street at 9 pm. They were sheepish when I pointed this out, and it’s true that excessive obedience is not a good thing, but observance of traffic laws does keep bikers safer.

    I noticed the same thing in my visits to Germany: pedestrians standing at a don’t-walk sign without a car in sight. Hey, I’d put up with that if it meant that turning cars were really going to yield to me in an intersection.

    Several of the pedestrian and cyclist deaths that I’ve read about in the past few years have been from turning cars and trucks whose drivers “didn’t see” (i.e. didn’t look for or didn’t care about) the victims. Does anyone have the figures for this cause of death vs. other causes in the U.S. vs. Germany?

  • Wouldn’t it be better to put the bike lanes closer to the sidewalk & the parked cars protecting the lane. This way when parked cars exit the space they won’t block the lane. & there will be less dooring. And also a lot of countries that have utility cycling (China though losing it, France, Germany, Netherlands) don’t wear helmets due to safeness. & also flat land.

  • xetere

    Would it were so that bikes and cars shared the road and got along, but as a pedestrian, I’d like bikes and peds to share the roads. Unfortunately, New York has the most aggressive and selfish bikers in the country. It is rare that a bike will not speed through a red light if there are no cars crossing, pedestrians or not and if you are a ped legally crossing but in the way,expect curses, spit, or fists, and it is a rare bike that will NOT stop in a crosswalk at red lights that they can’t run through, forcing pedestrians crossing at green lights into the street. I’m not talking just crazed bike messengers either, but pretty much 90% of bicyclists in NY. To a pedestrian, a cyclist *is* an SUV equivalent. Sorry bikers, the truth hurts. You must give respect to get respect.

  • Frank

    Oh, lord, not this discussion again.

    Xetere,

    Maybe you haven’t noticed by NYC also has the world’s most aggressive pedestrians, the vast majority of whom regularly jay-walk, stand out in the street (aka the bike lane) while waiting for the ped signal to change, and generally have zero regard for cyclists.

    Still, the real fight here isn’t between peds and cyclists. The fight is between motorists and everyone else. NYC could easily be the world’s best walking and biking city but we’ve given over most of our public right-of-way to motor vehicles.

    Xetere, if you want to see cyclists in a more orderly, Teutonic fashion, then advocate for NYC to start building better bike facilities.

  • Mitch

    Re 11:

    This is one of those eternal disputes that will probably never end in consensus. Personally, though, I get uncomfortable when I look at pictures of bike lines to the right of parked cars.

    The parked cars “protect” bikes against rear-end or sideswipe collisions in the middle of the block, but these kinds of crashes are rare in most cities (if it’s different in NYC that might weaken my argument…). Most crashes happen at intersections, where cars turn without checking for bikes. Putting bikes between parked cars and the sidewalk won’t prevent these crashes — if anything, they make them more likely, when bikes are out of motorists’ sight, except at the corner.

    I don’t know if sidewalk-side bike lane would make dooring less likely. Cars do have doors on both sides, and pedestrians are likely to wander across the bike paths (without looking) to get enter or leave their cars, so I don’t think shifting the bike lane would reduce these conflicts.

    I can’t deny that sidewalk-side bike lanes work quite well in places like Berlin and Copenhagen, but that doesn’t mean they are right for New York. But northern Europe is different.

    First of all, the culture is different, as a few of us have noted, and motorists, pedestrians and cyclists all obey the law — at least more than in American cities.

    Also, there are lots more bikes on the street. If there are bikes in the bike lane whenever a driver needs to make a turn or a pedestrian needs cross the street, eventually people get in the habit of looking for bikes, just as they look out for cars when they enter a crosswalk or an intersection. In a way, it’s like having a Critical Mass ride all day, every day.

    But if there are enough bikes on the street, they will find a way to assert their rights and stay safe, and these issues of street geometry won’t matter all that much.

  • Gretel

    There is no doubt that comparing New York City and Berlin is like comparing . . . apples and Berliners (sorry!), but one can still use the city as an inspiration. It’s another “international” city where millions have to share space (and Germany, with its population at what? 80 million, definitely has issues with Lebensraum). Rather than argue over cultural causation, I think it’s better to focus on what they are doing to make transportation.

    I spent a week in Berlin earlier this month, and most of my time was spent on bicycle. I have never had a more enjoyable or safer experience (well, I was on vacation, so my research is inherently biased). Firstly there are tons of bikes on the roads. There is power in numbers, definitely. Secondly, automobiles there are different: smaller and not (for the most part) blaring music or driven by people too interested to watch where they are driving. Basically, most drivers pay attention and take driving seriously as a skill and something that is inherently dangerous. I felt respected when I was on my bicycle. I didn’t feel that I was riding against automobiles, as is the feeling when I am in NYC, but rather that I was a part of traffic.

    So I think it’s not just infrastructure or culture but rather a combination of the two. I guess it could be framed as a chicken and egg argument: Which will influence which more? But as long as we are able to start somewhere, I think even small steps will make a big difference as long as we keep fighting for safe streets.

  • Dave

    I spent a lot of time in Frankfurt and Stockholm this summer, both of which are considerably smaller than New York but remarkably bicycle-friendly.

    As for the difference in drivers’ attitudes (i.e. they are much less aggressive in Europe than at least in New York), I wonder if this has to do with how incredibly hard it is to get a driver’s license in Europe. The tests require months of study and many people in Sweden do not pass.

    In Sweden last year only 44% of people taking the test for a license to drive a personal automobile passed.* Not giving out a license to anyone who can answer 7 of 10 pretty basic questions sends a much more serious signal about the responsibilities involved in driving an automobile.

    * http://www.vv.se/templates/page3____15003.aspx

  • Dave

    By the way, perhaps I should have said that drivers in ‘Northern’ Europe are much less aggressive, seeing I have no experience with Italy, Spain, Greece etc.

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