In contrast to the United States, riding a bike in Europe is not something that only hipsters with “fixies” or doped Tour de France participants do. Cycling is not just a sport; it is a (rather cheap and quick) means of transportation. On the old continent, the distances are often not that huge, the landscape at times pretty flat (sorry, Belgium and Holland, your location was just too convenient), and the cities not only sky scrapers and plenty-laned (despite Allied help in restructuring German cities), which lends itself to riding a bike. Pupils (this word is just much more poignant than the too-general and confusing “student”) use their bicycles to ride to school (there are often no buses–and especially no “short buses”) and then to visit their friends (unless they live in a really big city where parents think it is too gefährlich for them to ride through the Straßenverkehr–the dangerous traffic of Deutschland–and where there are buses, trams, and/or subways). Especially those who grew up in the Provinz, the rather rural areas of Germany, need bicycles to have some sort of Freiheit–the Bahn or Bus schedule eventually ends at some point, thereby limiting one’s freedom of movement. But then the Provinzler are also those who eagerly take their Führerschein (driver’s license) exams (both Theorie and Praxis, with both lots of theoretical and practical lessons, costing–a lot of money) when they turn 18 (or is it 17 already in some Bundesländer these days?) while their urbanite Kommilitonen at university often do not even have a driver’s license, geschweige denn (not to speak of a) a car. To quote a Gymnasium friend of mine who said back in the day, “I will burn my bike when I have my Führerschein.”
Enter university. Often, a huge percentage of students at an Universität will be from a 50 to 100 kilometer radius. The closer they grew up to their new university town, the more likely they are to continue to live bei den Eltern (with their parents) and to take their car to go to university (or, if they are more conveniently located, the öffentliche Verkehrsmittel, public transportation like the Bahn). If you come from farther away, you either have a car or you have none. Having a car does mean more freedom of options (I have always preferred doing a Großeinkauf then buying every day what I need). Those who do not have a car and possibly also not the gas or train ticket money to spend (or those who do not want to go home because of whichever reason) will very likely have a bike for their freedom of movement. While some university towns do have a great public transportation system (I have a bus station less than 5 minutes away from my apartment where a bus drives in the direction of the university every 10 minutes during the semester), the Fortbewegungsmittel of choice, the student’s means of transportation, is the bicycle. Invest in a bike instead of investing in a Semesterticket (student transit pass–which are still pretty cheap) and feel more liberated.
Sure, one is more flexible with a bike and can easily and rather quickly reach one’s destinations. But I can go everywhere in my university town on foot, zu Fuß, even where one cannot go with a bike. When I talk a walk, though, I have to take care that I am not run over by Fahrradfahrer. Even when they have their own bike lanes, Radfahrer more often than not choose to drive where they want, either the pedestrian sidewalk (Fußgängerweg) or the street. And guess who is most upset about pedestrians who are allegedly in their way? Correct, cyclists. And this species often does not give a hoot about any traffic rules. Red lights? Those are for Feiglinge (cowards). Driving the wrong way on a bike lane? They don’t care.
It gets worse in a town like Münster. One of the big university towns of Germany (around 25,000 students), it is also one of the most bike-populated ones–at least that is my feeling. In some German one-way streets, cyclists are allowed to drive the “wrong way” (there are signs that allow this–but even without signs, many riding a bike will go the wrong way in an Einbahnstraße). So imagine trying to parallel park in a narrow street that is choked full with parking cars and Radfahrer continuously coming from behind and the front while it is night and raining … Sounds like fun, right? Ein großer Spaß. (That’s sarcasm.)
But Fahrradfahrer cannot only be found in big cities. Aside from school children without lights on their bikes, there are also other varieties of cyclists. Just drive along a Bundes- or Landstraße in a rural area on a nice, warm, sunny weekend, preferably a narrow, winding road with lots of trees on the side. Those guys in neon-colored cycling tights (Radlerhosen) and jerseys on racing bikes are most likely not training for the Tour de Doping, I mean Frace, but possibly rather 40- or 50-year old men who work hard during the week and think they need to stay trim and fit. Fair enough. But please USE THE BIKE LANE. And especially DON’T RIDE NEXT TO EACH OTHER–this is 1) against the law 2) endangers you and other Verkehrsteilnehmer (traffic participants) because you slow down traffic, make it hard and even dangerous to overtake you, and is just a plain nuisance. But who cares? YOU obviously do NOT.
Think that it will be quieter to take a walk in the woods? Nicht so schnell, mein Freund–don’t be so quick to judge. Another Gedankenexperiment (though experiment): you hike up a narrow Waldweg, a trail in the woods that is like gefühlte (felt) 50 centimeters wide, with wet leaves, large tree root knots, and rocks. Then you hear that sound, that of mountain bikes tires going over the Waldboden. Of course the Mountainbiker will not have a Klingel (bike bell)–although, you might have guessed it, it is the law to have one on your bike–but will either expect you to step aside as if it was natural or shout at you to get out of the way. Alright, ok, not all of them are that bad; at least some of them will be nice and say “thank you.” The urbanite cyclist who crosses red lights and knocks you over on the pedestrian sidewalk won’t.
My vision is that of streets for all annoying Verkehrsteilnehmer–one road just for LKWs, Raser, and cyclists together. Man wird ja wohl noch träumen dürfen …