Germans and their beloved bike paths

2021-10-28

As a German-American born in Germany who later moved to the States for middle school, I have often found myself at the intersection between two cultures. One of those cultural intersections is biking.  

Yes, by European standards, Germany is a car country. But for someone from a country like the US with little biking infrastructure, Germany has bike lanes ”that seamlessly flow from the sidewalk to the road,” as my American partner recently said to me.  

My German family and friends, living in the capital, Berlin, or in that sleepy city on the Rhine, Bonn, regularly bike to work or social events. But I don’t know anyone who does the same in the US.

According to a 2020 survey sponsored by the German Ministry of Traffic, 30% of Germans regularly bike to work. That number was only 0.5% in the United States, according to 2019 data provided by the American League of Cyclists.  

This difference in approach, I think, boils down to a couple of things.  

Bike lanes and Germans 

Though not an exact science, I’ve noticed that many Germans seem to go to great lengths to defend their bike paths.

In the US, you’ll regularly see pedestrians ignore traffic intersection signals such as “Don’t Walk,” or even witness people zig-zag across lanes on the highway. But bike paths, for their part, don’t play a big role in many cities.

In Germany, on the other hand, bike paths often appear to be sacred territory.

Some years ago, my sister, only 8 at the time, was nearly run over by a bike in Berlin because she was cluelessly standing in the bike lane. The cyclist didn’t bother to apologize and raced off, leaving the impression that he considered himself to be right and my sister wrong.  

Cycling is taken so seriously in Germany that there are laws in place to regulate it, such as having to obey signals like traffic lights, or not being legally permitted to ride a bike while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The regulations go so far, for example, that a co-worker of mine was fined for not stopping at a stop sign while biking on her way to work in Bonn.

Sticking to the rules

Often, when I forget my German pedestrian etiquette, I find myself getting admonished for having some part of my body taking up space in the bike path.

At times, I also feel the urge to go up to tourists or other non-Germans aimlessly walking on a bike path and let them know that they could very well get yelled at.

Few could relate to such anecdotes in the United States. Still, I like biking in Germany. If you are in the bike lane and actually biking, you know you’re in a good place.  

The importance of biking 

There has been a marked biking boom of late, in Germany and Europe. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, pressing climate issues and new ways of using urban spaces have all increased the interest in the environmentally-friendly bicycle. Around a million more bikes were sold in Germany in 2020 than the year before, an increase of around 35%, according to the German Bicycle Association.

Although the United States has plenty of catching up to do with Germany when it comes to biking infrastructure and general biking culture, even Germany is falling short of its potential.  

“The bicycle is quite popular throughout Europe right now because it provides answers to pressing problems of our time,” the German Cyclist’s Association (ADFC) told me. But there are big differences within Europe.  

“Compared to the Netherlands and Denmark, Germany is still difficult terrain for cyclists. While our neighbors started fighting car traffic and making room for wide bike lanes as early as the 1970s, Germany has continued to pay homage to car traffic and marginalized cycling,” said the ADFC.    

The political climate

Both the US and Germany largely identify as car countries. Given the political sway that car manufacturers have, the car is still king of the road. But there is more pressure now than ever to find new modes of clean transportation.  

To some extent, the US and German governments have recognized this and regard biking as one of the many parts of a solution to reduce emissions.

In the massive $1 trillion (€853.4 billion) Infrastructure Bill on the verge of passing in the US, there are a handful of issues that address the need to improve biking culture in the country. 

One way the bill tackles the concerns of cyclists is by increasing transportation alternative funding by 60%, while making several policy changes that enable easier access to alternative transportation funding for local government.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is good for people who bike and walk. Is it perfect? No. But it is a great step forward …,” the League of American Bicyclists said in a statement. 

With a national election having just occurred in Germany, it remains to be seen what the new government will do in terms of climate protection and mobility policies.

Surely, improving biking infrastructure is a key to addressing transportation and mobility challenges and offering cleaner solutions.

Meanwhile, as the political gears slowly turn, the American in me just hopes that one day it will be the norm for people in countries like the US to enjoy a more positive biking culture and not be surprised when I tell them that I bike to work every day. 

dw.com, 28 October 2021
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