13 November 2011

A nice stroll?

Where's the cycle lane?

I have a lot of respect for the way the Germans go about things; their efficiency, practicality, organisation, as well as their all-round no nonsense approach to a lot of things.

That said, however, there is one aspect of everyday life in Germany that lets them down big time. Something, I must admit, that they are conducting in the most imbecilic fashion imaginable.

I’m talking about their bogus cycle lanes, or the way bicycles in general are such a pain in the arse all over German cities. Whoever thought up the system should be slapped in the face with a rotten fish.

Quite simply, strolling around any German town can be a very stressful experience.

You can pay all the attention that you like to cars and traffic lights alike, never cross where you shouldn’t, stick to the pavement, look both left and right and so on. That will be close to irrelevant, given how inept city planners were when they first thought that mixing together cycle lanes and pedestrians without any separation whatsoever was actually a good idea.

Basically, for the sake of your own life, be aware that bicycles in Germany are expected to circulate on pavements and not the road. In theory, their specific path is red as opposed to the pedestrians’ bit, which is grey. Except that:

  1. More often than not the weather-beaten red bit has faded and is almost impossible to tell apart from the pedestrians’ bit.
  2. The two are even more indistinguishable at night and during October and November when they’re smothered with layers of fallen leaves.
  3. There is no physical separation whatsoever between the two, so a moment of distraction while enjoying a harmless walk (check this out, a walk, possibly the most natural activity a human being can do aside from breathing and shitting) can cost you precious spinal fluid.
Which side the bikes?
The worst part consists of when you’re about to approach a pedestrian crossing or even a bus stop. Now, whereas everywhere else in the world the above-mentioned actions should be performed simply and without any particular concern, this is not the case in Germany.

As your body performs the simple movement of turning to the right, for instance, in order to walk the yard or two which separate you from the bus stop, here comes a cycling dickhead, whizzing inches away from you without a care in the world. And that’s because you trod on his or her path, which is the only way to either cross the street or make it to the bus stop. Which makes you wonder when, rather than if, you’ll end up in hospital courtesy of a collision with a cyclist. And, in turn, makes it impossible to relax 100% while simply strolling around.

According to a study on cycle safety in Germany, "cycle facility may contribute to accidents by making cyclist over-confident [and] bad cycle facilities are worse than none" (see this).

This is the thing. Whereas everywhere else in the world cycle lanes are carved out of the roadside in a way that will minimise obstruction from (and to) either pedestrians or cars (which is why they are clearly marked –including through the use of bollards or reflectors), in Germany they are integral part of the pavement and almost invisible.

If there ever was a place in the world where cyclists got their own back from years of car rule…well, then Germany must be it. Except that the brunt is not being taken by motor vehicles. It’s the pedestrians that are getting buggered senseless in return. You can count dozens of instances a day where you’ll spot cyclists carelessly riding along the pedestrian half of the path, but try and do the opposite (i.e. tread on the “red” bits) and you'll get shouted at like an East Berliner who’s just tried to jump the wall.


Italy suffers from the opposite problem in that both pedestrians and cyclists are subjected to the absolute rule of the car.

Like we already mentioned here, the Italians love their cars, a fact you’ll detect purely from taking a quick gander around any Italian street. Quite simply, the road network can’t cope with the sheer volume of cars. Whether in town centres or suburbs, the streets are jam packed.

Add to the equation the motorists’ lack of respect for zebra crossings and traffic lights and you can begin to ask yourself why street corners aren’t full of dead pedestrians piled up.

Of course, this varies depending which part of Italy you’re exploring. The further south you venture, the more irrelevant the Highway Code gets.

To put it plainly, too many Italians drive like absolute wankers.

In the Southern city of Bari, for instance, you may run into motorcyclists aggressively calling you names ("coglioni!") in return for the mortal sin of stepping on the road on a zebra crossing. And, in Southern Italy as whole, it's absolutely typical for cars to be parked on pavements -which is obviously illegal except that "everybody does it". And let's not get started on mopeds and scooters, which are likely to pop up on the pavement (!), routinely slaloming their way past unfazed pedestrians.

You won't find the same anywhere north of Rome, but still think again if you think that a zebra crossing or even a green light for pedestrians will be enough to shelter you from the grim reaper.


What will spoil your nice walk in Spain is unlikely to stem from small-dicked motorists or pesky cyclists. All over Spain, in fact, you'll find that the Highway Code is actually widely respected. To their full credit, cars tend to stop at zebra crossings and traffic lights seem to be there for a reason, something you will appreciate particularly if you visit after a spell on Italian soil.

In Catalonia, however, you'll discover that the pedestrian's main enemy is actually fellow pedestrians. The region is extremely civilised on a million levels but, like we mentioned here, nature failed to supply the Catalans with the notion of spatial awareness, especially when it comes to fellow pedestrians. They say that cats and dogs use their whiskers to gauge whether an opening is wide enough for their body to pass through and for navigation and tactile awareness. In which case someone should come up with a similar solution for our Catalan friends.

And that's because you'll simply be blown away by the ease with which people routinely bump into one another, by how totally indifferent they are to the fact that they may be standing in someone's way or, conversely, by how casual it is for them to elbow you out of the way without the flimsiest of pre-warnings or apologies.

It's just incredible. This may be anecdotal evidence but once, in Berlin, I was on one of those charming Bike Taxis (Rikschataxi, as they call them there), on the way from the Victory Column to Potsdamer Platz. As we were being ridden along the wonderful Tiergarten, we were suddenly forced to stop as a group of middle aged ladies spread the entire width of one of the paths were simply not moving out of the way.

They'd clocked us and all, and we marvelled at how unfazed they all looked as the vehicle was clearly waiting for them to move to the sides a tiny bit and allow us to move past. Nowt. It took a couple of friendly dings of the bicycle bell to finally wake the zombies up. Guess what? They were speaking Catalan.


Which takes us to what is probably the least complicated country to be in if you fancy the simple god-given joy of walking around. Without, that is, having to take into account bicycles suddenly raining from the sky, colour-blind car drivers and zombified pedestrians.

No particular problem may arise if you go for a stroll on English soil. Unless, of course, you allow for the inhumane scrum that is typical of high streets up and down the country. You won't know the notion of a panic attack unless you've tried Birmingham New Street on a Saturday afternoon or, worse, Oxford Circus at any time of the day. Those places are best avoided unless you don't mind your misanthropy levels reaching perilous highs.

However, typical of England - and extremely annoying - is the harrassment courtesy of desperate commission-based sales people trying to flog you credit cards and insurance packages as you're going about your own business. The word "persistent" doesn't do them justice. These are people who have mastered the notion of double-marking and rugby tackling in a way that would grant them a glittering sports career, if only they were aware of their talents.

Few people will manage to do your head in like that.

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