As a German-American born in Germany who later moved to the States for middle school, I 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 with little biking infrastructure, Germany has bike lanes “that seamlessly flow from the sidewalk to the road,” as my American partner recently told me.
According to 2008 data compiled by the German Ministry for Traffic, 14 percent of Germans regularly bike to work. That number was only 0.5 percent in 2019 in the United States according to data provided by the American League of Cyclists.
I think it boils down to two things.
Bike Lanes and Germans
Germans love rules, love following those rules and enforcing them as well. “Every German is a policeman,” I remember reading in a comic.
You see, unlike countries such as the US where people cross intersections at a “Don’t Walk” signal or zig-zag through lanes on the highway, Germans see everything as black and white, not grey.
In Germany, a co-worker of mine was fined for not stopping at a stop sign while biking on her way to work.
My sister, only eight years old at the time, was nearly run over by a bike in Berlin because she was cluelessly standing in the bike lane. The guy didn’t bother to apologize and raced off, because he was right and my sister was wrong. Black and white.
When I forget my German pedestrian etiquette I find myself getting yelled at for having some part of my body in the bike path. At times I find myself desperately wanting to go up to tourists or non-Germans aimlessly walking on a bike path and tell them they are sure to get yelled at.
None of these anecdotes are fathomable in the United States. But that’s why I prefer biking in Germany. If you are in the bike lane, you’re good.
The importance of biking
There has been a biking boom of late. 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 and space friendly bicycle.
Although the United States has plenty of catching up to do with Germany when it comes to biking infrastructure and general biking culture, Germany is still 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 Bike Club 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 German Bike Club.
The political culture
Both the US and Germany 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.
Although things have improved, bikers in New York usually have to compete with cars for a spot on the streets
Both the US and German governments realize this and have recognized biking as one of the many parts of a solution.
In the massive $1 trillion Infrastructure bill recently passed in the US there are many issues that indicate the need to improve the biking culture in the country. “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 around the corner in Germany each party has presented a framework on climate and mobility policies. Almost every party sees biking infrastructure as a key to solving clean transportation and mobility challenges.
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 create a more positive biking culture and not be surprised when I tell them I bike to work every day.