Heading down the Rhine, I’ve now had the dubious pleasure of cycling into, through and straight out of some of Holland and Germany’s major cities: Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Arnhem, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Bonn, Mannheim, Koblenz, Mainz, Karlsruhe.
The experience normally goes something like this:
– hit the city boundary and buildings (often industrial estate) with slight surprise;
– realise that I should have stopped for a piss about half an hour ago in the countryside, and that now there are no opportunities without stopping in a cafe until I’m out the other side of city;
– realise I am lost;
– realise I need a piss quite badly;
– realise that any city street plan in Rhine Cycle Route guide is complete rubbish and bears only a passing resemblance to the actual streets down which I am now cycling;
– accept these facts, ignore map and follow nose (and signs).
And this is where, generally, things get surprisingly better. As long as you have an idea of the next town, village or suburb along your route after the city centre (which you can get from even a crap map) you can pretty much follow the bike specific route signs. The experience is slightly different depending on country and the nature of the city, but the overall effect is the same.
In Holland there seem to be segregated bike routes everywhere. Segregated from traffic and pedestrians. With their own sets of traffic lights and junctions and comprehensive signposting. In fact there is so much cycle route and direction provision that the signs are often almost too confusing – with multiple options to get to the same place which isn’t that helpful when you’re not familiar with the area and are trying to locate yourself on the map.
In Germany you often share a pavement with pedestrians, sometime with a marked bike lane, other times without. Sometimes the bike lane is at the edge of the road. The signing is a little more low key (some might say efficient). At main junctions there are an array of signs telling you the distance by bike to many places, and the along the routes there are subtle reminder signs with a bike or a route symbol and an arrow. This actually is the case both in the city and out in the countryside. Rather disconcertingly these signs can be suddenly absent at what you think are junctions where you need direction. But you have to keep the faith, and if there is no sign then just head straight on, and you invariably pick up the route and realise that a very efficient German planner has, in fact, thought this through.
Some cities have been very easy with the route, after negotiating an industrial estate on the outskirts of town, then sticking straight to a cycle path along the river, passing though parkland, waterfront developments and city centre promenades with restaurants and cafes (e.g. Dusseldorf, Mainz).
Other cities bring you in on a main artery, often a major road over a bridge which feels more stressful. But even here, there are always separate bike lanes and signage.
In the countryside this network of signposted routes is even more pronounced. In the hills and valleys of the Black Forest for example, every village is linked by these bike routes (and footpaths that can also be used by bikes but which can be of lesser quality), all signed, way-marked and with distances provided. These routes are also used for cross country skiing in winter. It’s quite amazing and I just can’t imagine being able to get around by bike in the UK anywhere as easily as this.
Consequently, everybody cycles.
In the countryside, old men and women wobble along at walking pace staring strangely at me and my bike covered in bags as I sweat my way past. Middle aged men in Lycra spin round the local forest after work (yeah, they need to work on their attire). In cities, beautiful girls (ok, guys too probably, but I’m biased) cycle to the shops, college, work, the pub. They use lights at night and (generally) stop at traffic lights. Children cycle to and from school and friends’ houses in the next village or the one after that. Everybody uses a cycle, for both pleasure and as a functional tool allowing them to get about more quickly.
As a result of this, cyclists don’t feel at odds with both pedestrians and drivers, as they do in the UK. Where cyclists share a pavement with pedestrians, the cyclists take care. They use their bells, they slow down when needed. The pedestrians move nicely out of the way with a smile. Drivers anticipate cyclists crossing roads on cycle lanes and stop for them. So many times in the last two weeks I have stopped at a roadside and had a driver stop and wave me across. Consequently if I’m stopping but not crossing, I now know to indicate to the driver so he realises he doesn’t need to wait for me.
When on the road, drivers generally don’t try to squeeze through gap that isn’t there as they do in London, they hold back and then give you space. In London I once had a lady clip my handlebar with her wing mirror as she slowly passed me in traffic WHEN I WAS IN A CYCLE LANE. How close was she to me and how can she not have realised, especially as she wasn’t going much faster than me? In Germany I’ve actually found the more aware and considerate drivers IN the towns and cities. It’s in the countryside where people have driven faster and passed a little closer.
Clearly this is all a bit of a generalisation and there are exceptions. I even think I may have spotted a bit of gesticulating between a cyclist and a driver today but for two and a half weeks of cycling all day, (almost) every day in the countryside, towns and cities, I think that’s not bad.
It really does feel like there is no ‘them and us’ here, as it feels like in the UK. There is no feeling of having to race the traffic so as not to hold them up, or to avoid being cut up by them. No feeling of having to cycle aggressively in order to claim your bit of the road and not get squeezed off. Cycling is a gentle, pleasurable, practical way to get about.
Consequently, everybody cycles.
I don’t know how we go about changing things in the UK to even start to head in this direction. I guess it’s part infrastructure and part attitudes. I can’t help but think that the infrastructure has to come first before using bikes is seen as more practical, safe and accepted as the norm. I know that in many cities in the UK there are efforts being made, for example in London with Boris’ Barclays bike scheme and new cycle superhighways. But if you compare the infrastructure here to even the newest cycle superhighways that get parked in, walked in, driven in and disappear at junctions, you realise how far we have to go. We don’t have to look too far away from home to see how it can be done though.