A little bit of Germany

Today Germany celebrates its 1990 reunification with a national holiday: the Day of German Unity (Tag der deutschen Einheit). For some mysterious reason Germany is (and has always been) very dear to me. I speak German fluently and unlike in English I don’t have a Dutch accent in German. I have fond memories of living in Berlin for some months during the Summer of 1992 and I cycled there every day. Even then Berlin felt great for cycling. Although the bumpy cobble stone paving, particularly in the former East part where I lived, was eventually too much for my Dutch bike’s spokes. They broke and in all of Berlin there wasn’t a bike shop that sold spokes as thick as the Dutch spokes normally are. So my mother had to send me some spokes from the Netherlands. These spokes got the Berlin bike mechanic all excited when he had to put them in the wheel!

I still visit Berlin several times a year and since Germany is only 60 kilometres from my home, I am in the country very often. Sometimes unintentionally: when I was cycling around Nijmegen recently, I took a wrong turn. When suddenly the houses looked a bit different and when I saw the car number plates were white, I knew I was in Germany. On the smaller roads the border is not always marked.

Some cycling impressions of Germany

When you look at cycling from a Dutch perspective some things stand out.

  • The demographic of people cycling seems to be a healthy mix of men and woman of different ages and backgrounds. The number of children is a bit on the lower side.
  • There is a lot of cycling infrastructure although sometimes it is a bit narrow and it is not always maintained well enough.
  • The volume of motor traffic is very high and speeds are also very high.
  • Many people choose to cycle on the side-walk, sometimes because the cycle track is narrow and there is hardly any marked difference between the two.
  • In some shared spaces there are far too many pedestrians to make cycling there possible in a normal way. (As visible in the video in Cologne along the river Rhine.) The high number of shared spaces (bike/pedestrians) make that people cycle on the side-walk more too (also where it is not allowed).
  • There are specific bicycle traffic lights (sometimes combined with pedestrian lights) and sometimes cyclists get an advanced green light (but only a second which is a bit too short).
  • There is a lot of filtered permeability in residential streets. These streets are 30km/h zones, they are closed to through traffic and there are shortcuts for cycling. That makes cycling there very convenient.
Junction design in the centre of Cologne. Note there are no kerbs (curbs) between the pavement (side walk) and the cycle path.

Germany has a national cycle plan, something the Dutch Cyclist’s Union would really like for the Netherlands as well. So even the Netherlands can learn from Germany.

Berlin also has a city cycling strategy. It reveals how the city sees cycling:

“Cycling is part of a transport system that links all means of transport and guarantees mobility in the city.”

Berlin’s modal share of cycling for all trips was 13% in 2008. Every day Berliners make 1.5 million cycle journeys. The city wants to get the share to 18-20% by 2025. For that the share would have to increase by 3-4% per year. Traffic counts show that this is a realistic growth rate. Also because almost half of Berlin’s journeys are under 5 kilometres: a distance that could easily be cycled.

Berlin has 1000 kilometres of cycle paths. But a lot of it has aged and is not up to the latest standards regarding width, safe distances (from road, side-walk or parked cars) and the quality of the surface. Visibility of cyclists from motor traffic is also a problem. So investments in updating the network are necessary.

But there are more than enough reasons to do that as the Berlin Cycle Plan states:



  • creates mobility. Citizens of (almost) any age can travel short and medium-length distances by bike quickly and inexpensively. In combination with public transport the bicycle can also compete with the car on longer journeys.
  • improves the quality of life in a city. It is quiet; it doesn’t create air pollution and other gases which harm the climate; and it doesn’t take up much space.
  • can replace part of motorised transport. Almost half of the journeys undertaken in Berlin are less than 5 km. long, but a third of these journeys are undertaken by car. Many of these motorised journeys could also be undertaken by bicycle.
  • is fun and healthy. It has been shown that just half an hour’s cycling a day is good for one’s health.
  • contributes to traffic safety. The more that bicycles are visible on the roads, the more all road users adjust to this.
  • is easy on the public purse. Cycling infrastructure is comparatively inexpensive and investments in this infrastructure are quickly repaid by intensive use.
  • Supports the economic development of Berlin. A city with a good quality of life and with an attractive public road design is attractive for established and new inhabitants, for tourists and for business people.

For these reasons, support for cycling is a strategic part of the urban development plan for transport in Berlin.

More info:

15% of Trips By Bike: Germany’s National Cycling Plan Under the Microscope


12 thoughts on “A little bit of Germany

  1. I had a chance to cross the border between Germany and the Netherlands twice on a bike. Both times I had an impression that the Dutch are way ahead in providing for the bicycles, compared to Germans. The paths in NL are more generous and better maintained.

    Interesting detail: once you’re in Germany you see people routinely riding wrong way on supposedly one-way cycle tracks, which is quite rare in NL. Don’t know why that is so.

  2. Those 7 arguments could and should be for any town/city (with adjustments of the journey length data)

  3. I really like your point of view, but i fear it is a little bit naive.
    Most of the cycling infrastracture in Germany is a load of crap that makes cycling unsafe and uncomfortable. In Netherlands, cycle path were constructed to make cycling easy and safe, in Germany to get rid of the cyclists and make car driving more easy (at least this was the case until the 90ties).
    An update of this infrastructure would in most cases need a complete reconstruction of the street-layout, thereby reducing car lanes or parking space to create safe cycle paths. In Munich you can see this happen in some cases, but most cities have neither the money or the political will to do so.
    Despite the poor infrastructure, there are some good pieces like the shortcuts shown in the video. Also, besides the arterias, all streets in german cities are “Tempo-30-Zonen”, so cycling is convenient there.
    People in Germany cycle despite the infrastructure, not because it. But at least, cycling is rising a lot!

  4. I had lived in Groningen for five years. Like you, while cycling, I had found myself in Germany a few times, without noticing the border. I think the Germans generally ride better and newer bikes than the Dutch. But bicycle infrastructure is much better in the Netherlands. In Germany, bike paths, if any, are mostly placed on the sidewalks.

    1. That’s the Schengen area for you. No cop asking you all sorts of questions that are really unneeded in an area with so much in common, even a common currency. Germans have good cars, they can go 300 km/h in half the Autobahn, now let’s make an Fahrradbahn

  5. Thank you for this post. As a Dutch and an active member of the ADFC (german cycle union) in my city (Nürnberg) , I see how cycling promotion is starting to become a topic in politics….but not really seriously. If it gets to investing money, reducing space or speed for cars (taboo!!!) or implementing creative solutions for cyclists –> forget about it! No chance! The car is the holy object of the common german citizen. Don’t try to do anything that touches this idol. Every politician who tried to do so has been punished in the next election. Incredible actually, as the number of cyclists is increasing from year to year.
    Many of them ride on the side-walks (in any direction!) because they fear riding on the streets, many also, because they are used to it since they were kids and noone told them to ride on the streets. Many pedestrians feel menaced by them.
    Separated cyclepaths have a bad image and often are in a bad condition, compared to those in NL. Another problem is the trafficlight-situation at most junctions. Mostly, cyclist have to use the same trafficlights and the same narrow lanes like the pedestrians. No wonder, that cyclists are often overseen by cardrivers. As I moved to Germany over 20 yaers ago, I had to change my way of cycling massively, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write these lines. Meanwhile the conditions have impoved a little, but it still is a loooong way to go.
    By the way: The german national cycle plan is just a nice piece of paper without any obligatory regulations for anyone.

  6. I have lived in Germany as well, in Koblenz. That was ten years ago, so things may have changed since then, and my memory might play tricks on me as well, but what I remember on differences with the Netherlands were (apart from the lower number of bikes/cyclists):
    * Where there was no cycle track, cyclists were usually sent to the pavement rather than the road
    * My ‘Hollandrad’ (stadsfiets) was very much an exception, the Germans had mostly mountainbikes
    * Red traffic lights get much more respect than in the Netherlands. In the Netherland most people walking and many people cycling will ignore red lights if they have the impression nobody will cross their path anyway. Germans (almost) always wait for red, even if the road they are crossing is completely empty.

  7. Nice post. It is always interesting how people from abroad look onto German the cycle system. Cologne is one of the bad examples for German “bicycle-friendlyness”. But some people even are excited about German cycle tracks as you can see on TV.

  8. I lived in Berlin from late 2008 until earlier this year. A strategy is one thing but putting it into place is another.

    To your list about the Hauptstadt I would add:
    * Cycling is significantly over-represented in areas without (poorer) immigrants.
    * Lots of children do not cycle at all
    * A combination of no lights on bikes and less idiot-proof infra. makes life difficult for pedestrians
    * Lots of people cycle because they are poor
    * Dutch-style bikes are still not so common/Too many Germans want a sporting aesthetic on the bikes for no practical reason so they dislike cargobikes with wood and full chaincases
    * German experts know that Dutch and in some cases the Swiss (and Danes) do things better, and don’t like it when Americans suggest ideas.
    * Front crate-type racks are very rare, especially those that mount to the frame. Preferred are cheap baskets that get zip-tied to the cheap rear rack: This makes carry bike passengers difficult (and it is illegal, though only a 5 EUR fine, and not really enforced.
    * For the benefit of the trees, salt is not used on paths. This makes things difficult in the winter! The problem is not the trees, but that the paths are above the level of the trees and drain into them. This is related to the bad design of having (different-coloured) bed and bike paths on the same level, and separated by 20cm. So bikes always detour into ped paths.
    * Training is decades behind the Netherlands when it comes to immigrants. Programmes focusing on non-Westernized women are still tiny and a relatively recent phenomenon. Also the govt. still does not fully understand that many Western immigrants (from N. America, Spain, etc.) never rode a bike in the city and did not have training in school.
    * Bikes are still promoted too much as a “green” thing. A German friend says this is a kind of delusional romanticism. It seems that this is related to the European 30km/h urban speed limit “million signature” petition which was initiated by ADFC (German Cycling Union) and VCD (a national sustainable mobility org that also acts as a green version of the conservative ADAC) and also mostly supported by Germans. The petition is a total failure.

  9. Still looks like heaven from an Australian perspective 🙂 Surprised to see so many on upright bikes, people are very relaxed on their rides. Nice!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.