Riding a bike in Germany means being on the bleeding edge of social change
Does this headline sound a bit extreme to start a fun topic like cycling? Yes and no. It is a very German way to start it. Germany has a strong tradition as an automobile country, and most infrastructure is built and maintained to support cars and individual mobility. But Germany also is a very reasonable nation in many ways, so public transport has not been treated as badly as in many other places around the world – and bikes saw a huge revival in the last decades.
Today, 80 per cent of German households own a bicycle – as opposed to 77 per cent of households owning a car. Bicycle ownership spreads throughout every age group. Nearly 100 per cent of German kids and teens own a bike, and it is still more than 70 per cent at age 60. 44 percent of elderly Germans aged 75 or older still own a bike– and they also use it.
Germany sports an extremely well developed network of cycle paths and even a system of “Radfernwege” (long distance bike paths) that are akin to the famous Autobahn: Cyclists can go long distances on their bikes, undisturbed by cars and other traffic, in proper safety. This turns cycling into a common method of commuting: My father used his bike to travel to work, more than 20 miles every day. He is now well over 70 and retired, but being a proper German that doesn’t keep him from holding a job or two, and he still uses the bike to get there.
Tourists who want to experience this cycle culture first hand might want to make a trip to Münster, the cycle capital of Germany, where cars are banned from huge areas of the city. The centre of Münster is full of cyclists, and where other cities feature ugly car parks, they have a full blown multi storey bike parking garage.
Germany even issues a driver’s license to cyclists – although, to be honest, that is not a serious document, but a fun event that police officers embark on with primary school kids. The police trains kids to be safe riding their bikes in traffic and hands out a neat diploma at the end. “Verkehrserziehung”, the education for traffic, is an important task for primary schools and nurseries, and it has shown great success in reducing numbers of accidents and injuries.
Cycling is fun for the whole family – and political statement
So why the gloomy headline for a jolly article like this? Because cycling is on the one hand a wonderful family pastime, a great activity for bank holidays, a lovely sport and makes for memorable holiday trips.On the other hand it is the bleeding edge of political arguments. A bike is a tool in the fight against climate change – and many a cyclist on German roads makes that pretty clear whenever they can. Being on the back of your bicycle is a political statement. The argument who owns the road is a common one in Germany (where people tend to be a wee bit stubborn and opinionated, sometimes).
Ironically it is pedestrians who are often treated worst by cyclists. As a tourist in Germany, stay clear of cycle paths by all means. You don’t have the right to be there, and you will be reminded of this fact. On the other side of the argument, drivers of cars often complain that cyclists feel they are above general traffic rules. It’s common for bikes to run red traffic lights, and that is risky in Germany where the same rules
apply for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. If you are being caught by the police, you might lose your driver’s license (for a car) because you ran a redlight with your bike… or even just walking.
Now this is not a very common incident, but many motorists demand that it should. The matter who is right – the cyclist, the motorist or maybe even a pedestrian – can be a tough argument, and this seems especially funny knowing that most people on German roads tend to belong to all three of these groups, just at different times.
The seriousness of the conflict is documented by the size of the two lobby groups that fight the corners of motorists and cyclist. The (older) ADAC (the “Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobilclub”) is the equivalent of AA or RAC in Britain). Cyclists find their interests covered by the ADFC (“Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrradclub”), and the similarity in name is no coincidence. The membership numbers tell the whole story: The ADFC organizes 170,000 cyclists. The ADAC has 20.8 million (!) members – and there you have the reason why there won’t ever be a speed limit on the German motorway.
All this aside: Cycling in Germany is safe, most cycle paths are well respected by other traffic participants and well built and maintained. There’s only one thing to keep in mind: Drive on the right. And don’t run red traffic lights.