Guest post: Biking in Munich, Germany isn’t perfect, but it beats just about anywhere in the US

Good news and bad news. 

The good news is my surgery went well last week. The bad news is I entered the hospital with compressed nerves in my wrist and elbow, and left with conjunctivitis, leaving me virtually blind for the past several days.

So I’ll be out the rest of the week to give me a few more days to type with both hands and see clearly with both eyes. 

Fortunately, we have a guest post today from our European correspondent Ralph Durham, who has shared his insights on biking in Germany and other nearby countries since moving there several years ago. 

And I’ll be back on Monday to get things rolling again. 

………

Greetings from Munich Germany.

My name is Ralph and I have lived here for almost 7 years. My wife got a job here and allowed me to retire and move with her. She was a lifelong SF bay area person and I have lived in several states and 4 countries. Most of my serious cycling has been in and around the SF Bay area. I spent 12 or so years commuting by bike the 12 miles from my home to work so I have seen a lot. I spent 8 years on Sunnyvale’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Here we have no car. Between our bikes and public transit, we have almost no need for a car. If we need one for a trip, we will rent one. 

The purpose of this post is to talk about riding in the Munich area on a regular basis. In addition, I have ridden in different European countries to some extent. The cycling infrastructure in Munich is quite a bit different from the SF Bay area. Munich is not perfect for its cycling infrastructure. Munich does have some of the best, or at least the greatest total amount of bike infrastructure in Germany, which include 58 bike paths. Many of those skirt parks and are along rivers.

Germany has no real overarching bureaucracy to cover cycling nationwide. Each state has their own way of dealing with the problems and how to work it out. I live in München, in Freistaat Bayern, (Free state Bavaria.) I can’t speak about other city/states and their methods. The basics are likely to be the same based on my travels. The rules of the road are becoming more standardized in Europe. The new government may push to develop more commonality in how cyclists’ infrastructure is set up. And better yet, provide extra cash.

The German mentality, caution stereotype alert. This is one of the big differences from the US and it might be the most important. Generally, Germans will follow the rules, and expect others to do so. This is especially true in town where the risks of hurting others are greater. That is not to say that some drivers don’t act up. Drivers in towns rarely speed. Pedestrians rarely cross on a red light even with no cars present. You will almost always get the right of way when you have it when on your bike. Drivers won’t race you to a spot so they can get ahead or turn in front of you. They will wait behind you on narrow roads until it is safe to pass. 

Helmet use is not required unless you are under the age of 16, which is when you can drink beer or wine. Adults wearing helmets are in two groups. Parents with children or people riding road bikes. Most ride some sort of practical city bike with no helmet. I am seeing more helmet use with the greater penetration of the e-bikes as a market share. 

There is also a lot more wayfinding signage. Some of it can be sketchy, or in my opinion too far apart. Or perhaps I just miss some of the small signs. I seem to see them better now than when I was first here. Cities are not laid out on a grid. Straight down the road is almost meaningless. Follow the road is better.

All photos by Ralph Durham

You will see whole families out for rides even if just to and around parks, and the school run. Many kids are starting on balance bikes so seeing training wheels is a bit of a shock. I’ve seen kids that can’t be much over 2 riding pedal bikes with no training wheels. Most families seem to have a trailer so when the kid gets tired, they can get transported home. You will see families on major streets because there is usually separated infrastructure. Children can ride on the sidewalks until they are 8. The feeling of safety is key to get people out on bikes.

One of the big differences from the US, is the speed that vehicles are allowed to travel. What we would call residential, is 30 KPH, 18 mph. When you enter a town, you will see a yellow sign with the town name. That means 50 KPH, 30 mph, unless otherwise posted. The 30 zones have no bike lanes for the most part. Pretty much all 50 kph zones in Munich have bike provisions. 

Most 30 zones are two-way traffic.

However, they are only about 3 car widths wide. You can have parking on both sides of the road leaving one lane open and drivers need to negotiate who goes first with oncoming traffic. These streets usually don’t have any yield or stop signs. Priority is given to the vehicle, car, truck, bike coming from the right. Yes, drivers will give a cyclist right of way if they have it. I can tell you that is very scary when you are used to drivers just taking the right of way in the US.

A feature which helps cyclists and pedestrians is that there is no right turn on red. There are a few locations where there is a slip lane to the autobahn, but it is rare. One part of this is the traffic light posts are on the entrance side of the intersection.

So, if you pull up past the limit line you can’t see the traffic light. Since there is nothing to gain from stopping in the crosswalk or bike lane, they are free for cyclists and pedestrians to cross the street. There are very few stop signs in Munich. There are signs letting you know if you are on a priority road or there is a yield sign.

Another big difference is in driver’s training and licensure. It is expensive and hard to get a driver’s license here in Germany, and in many EU countries. I have talked to people from England and Ireland and their process seems close. A beginning driver will be lucky to only have to spend $2,700. A lot of that goes to the required driving school. The base cost for a license is about $55 and is good now for 15 years. There is a first aid course, and an eye test. You pay for everything. The manual is 400 pages long. It includes the math for stopping distances and passing distances. The written test is about $110. You pay, every time you take the test, until you pass. I have heard there is a 30% failure rate. The driving test comes in around $340. You pay for the time for your driving teacher, their car and the test administrator. You pay each time you take it.

Drivers tend to be more careful in city driving. The largest vehicle has the most responsibility in the event of an accident. Insurance limits are high. Three million to 5 million Euro for cars. But not that expensive. People injured don’t need to worry about going bankrupt if a driver hits them, between the driver’s insurance and their own. It is not uncommon for drivers to have their licenses revoked for short periods of time for flagrant infractions, including speeding. At a set amount over the limit, it is automatic. Also, most people have ridden bikes or still ride bikes. This gives them heightened awareness to look for others using the facilities. I now am now shocked when a driver violates my right of way. When I first got here it was scarry to take the right of way. If you don’t the drivers will be annoyed that you didn’t follow the rules. The thinking is that you are using the roads that you know the rules.

In the city the facilities are a bit different.  In the center of town, you have the tight old areas and pedestrian malls. The old areas have no specific bike facilities for the most part. The speed limit is 30, if you are lucky to get a clear road. The pedestrian malls normally have signs which say no cycling except for late at night to early morning. There are too many pedestrians and tourists to ride safely. You can walk your bike. If you ride to the town center and decide to walk there never seems to be enough bike parking. So, you park with the rest of the bikes and pray for safety in numbers. Main roads into the center have space carved out. The car lanes are about 10 feet wide; parking is narrow and then the bike lanes are next to the pedestrian way.

Surprisingly enough, even with no real barrier between cyclists and pedestrians both parties stay in their area. Both parties generally keep a lookout if they must use the other’s space. 

The treatment of cycling and pedestrian facilities is different when there is construction. If building must go on for a while there are provisions made for pedestrians and cyclists. That can include covered walk/bike ways, lanes taken from drivers and or parking spaces. Since the mode share is high for commuters and families with children, provisions are made to reduce the impacts. One project that is crossing the river has a 4-lane bridge was necked down to 2 lanes, one in each direction so work could be done on half the roadway. The sidewalks/bike lanes closed but temporary covered bridges were set up for cyclists and pedestrians. 

When you leave the city and its suburbs the situation is a bit different. Many of the major roads have a mixed-use path on one side of the road.

Photo by Ralph Durham

This can move from side to side depending on where it was easiest to put in the path. It is not set up like Holland where it seems that they went out of their way to make the whole country connected. Just remember that it you hit a pedestrian it is almost always going to be your fault. Small winding country roads will generally not have bike lanes. Most tend to be narrow, almost 2 lanes wide, twisting along farms or forests. Drivers wanting to get somewhere generally stay off them. 

Towns of various sizes are close It is hard to go more than 20 kilometers without hitting another small town. Even if there is no specific bike lane traffic is slow, 50kph max, and they can have speed cameras. Some places have speed radar to inform you of your speed. If you are at or under the limit you get a green smiley face. Go over and it becomes a red frown face.

Cycling is done year-round. Winter cycling can be more treacherous because of balance issues. Some places the bike ways are kept clear and gritted better than others on the same street. My wife won’t let me ride in the snow without my spiked tires. I see a lot of riders without them. I am old and allergic to falling. 

The takeaway from this is that cycling infrastructure can be done. Even in tight European cities. Traffic speeds need to be cut down. England has a push for 20 (mph) is plenty. We don’t need streets that have freeway width lanes in residential areas. The fire departments will have to get used to lanes which aren’t as wide. You get more riding when people know that it is safe to ride. You get more riders when they can get to the places they want to go. Be that work or the park, or the next suburb over. It must be done. It is hard. I spent 8 years on my California city’s BPAC. Every paint stripe and loss of parking space was a fight. 

Too many developments aren’t set up for cyclists or pedestrians to get through them. Developments are huge blocks that force traffic out to arterial streets, car sewers, that encourage high speeds and leave limited space for cyclists and minimum width pedestrian facilities, should anyone wish to walk along a 6-lane road baren of life. No, Munich isn’t perfect or cycling Shangri-la. But it is better than anywhere I have ridden in the US. 

I know people are busy. Family, children, jobs. Try to provide input into the process. Letters to the paper. Letters/email to council, boards of supervisors. Your state representative and senator. Every bit helps. If you have the time volunteer for your local BPAC (bike ped advisory committee). Look at the city agendas, BPAC, Planning, Council. Find out how to contact members of those groups and explain what you like and don’t like. Attend meetings. Don’t be mean when you state your case. Research the city/county plans that they have approved. 

In the words of a radio newsman from San Francisco in the last century, Scoop Nisker, “If you don’t like the news; go out and make some of your own.”

3 comments

  1. Edward Rubinstein says:

    Ted,

    Interesting guest column. Feel better soon. Ed R.

  2. Allen Marin says:

    Get well soon, Ted.

    Love the guest post. I spent a week in Berlin a few years ago and rented a bike for 2 days to see the city. It was the most fun and efficient way to see the real city since I was mixing with others and felt much more connected, than if I was in a car cacoon. I promised myself then that I would always rent a bike when visiting a new city.
    This was also part of what inspired me to design the Chonus bike basket for the type of casual urban cyclists I saw riding alongside me.
    Get well soon, Ted.
    Allen

  3. Andy Stow says:

    Berlin is a city I’d love to get a job in, or maybe just retire near. It looks better every year.

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