The Streets of Berlin: Cyclists versus pedestrians

Sign 1

This sign means the sidewalk is shared by pedestrians and cyclists. It screams: “Pedestrians, watch out for your lives!” Photo: Hyde Flippo.

I don’t think there’s a German over the age of five or six who doesn’t know how to ride a bike. Seeing an 80-year-old German lady zipping along on her bike is nothing unusual in Germany.

I have witnessed rush hour in the small town of Burghausen, Bavaria, which means swarms of bicycles, not cars, going to and from the Wacker chemical plant. In much larger Berlin and other German cities, the bike is also a popular mode of transportation. An estimated 400,000 bikes stream across Berlin on an average day. If we compare the USA and Germany, travel to work or school makes up only 11% of all bike trips in the US, compared to 28% in Germany. Shopping trips account for only 5% of all bike trips in the US, versus 20% in Germany. (McGill Univ. (TRAM) – “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany”)

So you might think that cyclists have a special place in the hearts and minds of most Germans. Well, they do, but it’s usually a negative place. The average German motorist despises cyclists (and vice versa). Although Germans often maintain that most people are both motorists and cyclists who should not hate each other, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Once a cyclist gets in a car, a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation takes place as the driver grasps the steering wheel and heads out to do battle with people on bicycles. And there are a lot of them in the average German municipality, large or small.

But that’s a topic we’ll save for another day. Here I want to discuss a different bike battle: cyclists (Radler) versus pedestrians (Fußgänger). I have my own battlefield experience on the sidewalks of Berlin when it comes to cyclists versus people on foot, particularly from the viewpoint of the pedestrian. During my time in Berlin I often rode the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, but I didn’t have a bike. I was always the Fußgänger going up against the Radler. Luckily, my Berlin battle scars are only mental, but I had a few close calls in which I only missed being run down by a speeding bicycle by milliseconds. I’m now a war veteran who has somehow survived the insane German practice of putting pedestrians and cyclists on the same stretch of pavement.

Sign 2

This sign means the sidewalk is divided into two lanes, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists — only slightly safer than shared sidewalks.

Most German cities try to save money by putting bike lanes on existing sidewalks, rather than the safer practice of having real bike lanes on the street or parallel to the roadway. Even when the sidewalk is divided into a pedestrian and a bike lane by a white stripe or different colored paving material (the so-called “getrennter Geh- und Radweg”), there is the constant risk of a collision between bikes and people on foot. Unsuspecting tourists who aren’t aware of the bike lane (and they are often poorly marked) soon learn the risks of setting foot into one. If they’re lucky, they’ll only get cursed at by a Radler who is suddenly forced to brake (or not) for them. The unlucky ones may get a more physical lesson. They soon learn the mortal fear caused by the chime of bicycle bell.

Even after learning the ropes of safely navigating the sidewalks of Berlin, I would occasionally get an unpleasant reminder that one has to be constantly alert to potential bike danger. I once decided to cross the street where there was no crosswalk or signal within a 100 meters, being careful to watch for cars, only to hear the screech of bike tires as I inadvertently crossed a bike lane on the other side of the road. I also heard a few harsh German words from the woman on the bike that had almost hit me. Okay, I was in the wrong that time, but more often it is a pedaling scofflaw who endangers life and limb.

Sign 3

For bikes only. No pedestrians allowed.

As is typical for Germany, there are laws and regulations governing bicycles and their riders, but many cyclists ignore them. Although it is against the law, aggressive cyclists (Pedalritter, “knights on bikes”) often speed along the sidewalks of Berlin, catching many a pedestrian by surprise. Berlin cyclists are a tough breed who show as little mercy to pedestrians as motorists show them. (Nine cyclists killed by cars or trucks in Berlin last year.) Cyclists also frequently ignore red lights and weave through pedestrians as if they were rubber cones. Recent law changes (as of Sept. 1, 2009) don’t really help the situation, and have led to more confusion than clarity. Nevertheless, you’d be wise to learn the rules and laws governing bicycle riders before daring to venture out onto the sidewalks of any large German city — as a cyclist or pedestrian. In 2006 there were 221 reported collisions between cyclists and pedestrians (and many more unreported) in Berlin. The result was one person killed and 42 seriously injured.

At first I wondered if it was just my American sensibilities that made me regard most German cyclists as a menace to society. But I soon learned that native Germans also shared my cyclophobia. Apparently, Berlin is not the only German city where pedestrians live in fear of being run down by a Radfahrer or Radfahrerin. From (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 2009):

…weil die Verkehrsverhältnisse für Fußgänger in Frankfurt „unerträglich“ geworden seien. Die Gefährdung durch rücksichtslose Radfahrer, für die scheinbar weder rote Ampeln noch Zebrastreifen gälten, nehme drastisch zu. Passanten auf den Gehwegen und in den Fußgängerzonen seien der ständigen Gefahr ausgesetzt, umgefahren zu werden.
(…because the traffic conditions for pedestrians in Frankfurt have become “unbearable.” The danger from reckless cyclists, for whom apparently neither red lights nor zebra stripes [at pedestrian crossings] mean anything, has seen a drastic increase. Pedestrians on sidewalks and in pedestrian zones face the constant risk of being run over.)

Similar laments can be found in newspapers in most larger German cities. In Düsseldorf there was an article about a proposed initiative to impose a speed limit for bicycles. (Not very likely.) In Berlin the magazine Berliner Woche recently ran a story under this headline: “Wie Radfahrer Fußgänger das Fürchten lehren” (“How cyclists teach pedestrians the fear of God”).

In closing, here are some of the rules and laws many German cyclists choose to ignore:

  • If there is a blue “Radweg” sign (see photos) indicating a bike lane or path, cyclists are required to use it, not the street or sidewalk (as of Sept. 1, 2009).
  • Cyclists over the age of 10 are not allowed to ride on sidewalks or in pedestrian zones (Fußgängerzonen). They must use a bike path or bike lane, or the street if no bike lane is available.
  • Children age 8 or under MUST use the sidewalk rather than a bike lane and must walk their bikes across intersections. Cyclists age 9 or 10 may use a bike lane if they want to.
  • On the street, bicycle riders must keep to the right and travel in the same direction as auto traffic (unless there is a sign indicating otherwise, most often on one-way streets).
  • In Fußgängerzonen or on sidewalks where bicycles are specifically permitted (“frei”), cyclists must exercise caution and adjust their speed for the pedestrians.
  • By law, bicycles must have a warning bell mounted on the handlebars. Intended as a warning device, the bike bell in Germany usually serves to strike terror into pedestrians.
  • Note for motorists: When making a right turn, bikes traveling in the same direction on your right (on the street or in a bike lane) have the right-of-way. You need to check your right side-mirror before making a turn, in addition to checking for pedestrians.
  • Helmets are recommended for cyclists but not required. (See more about helmets below.)
  • German traffic law (StVO) has specific requirements for bicycles regarding brakes, lights, reflectors, and warning bells.
  • Differing local state and municipal cycling laws/regulations may apply. Inquire locally.

Helmet? I don’t need no stinkin’ helmet!
Although some German bike riders do wear a helmet, it is not as common as in many other countries. There is no legal requirement for cyclists to wear a helmet in Germany. In fact, the leading German cycling association, the ADFC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club e.V.), is opposed to mandatory helmet laws for cyclists. They do recommend bike helmets on a voluntary basis for children.