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A friend has asked for ideas on ‘how to start cycling’ for someone who owns a car but wants to cycle more for transport, especially commuting. Now, I’m not terribly well qualified for this as I never owned a car and only got my driving licence when I was twenty six because we were in a rural area and I mistakenly believed I ‘needed a car’. Here are my paltry suggestions, I hope more experienced people can add others:
- Don’t panic: the streets look scary, but they looked pretty scary on your first driving lesson too, and you made it.
- Get a decent bike: Yes, I know supermarkets are selling ‘bargain’ bicycles, but how much are you really going to use a bike to get around if you have to pedal to get downhill with a following wind? Especially if it doesn’t have lights/mudguards/luggage rack. And your ‘expensive’ bike will still work in ten years time: your car won’t.
- Get at least one good lock.
- Freeze your car keys: put them in a margarine tub full of water and put it in the freezer: that way you can get at them if you need to, but it’s a lot less convenient than having them by the door.*
- Put your bike keys by the door.
- If you feel the need for a helmet, get one, if the idea (or cost) of a polystyrene lid puts you off, don’t.
- Explore: bikes can go places cars only dream of. Find regular routes you are happy with. In six months your mental map of the town will look different to a motorists, so you’ll send drivers down dead end streets.
- Always hide after giving drivers directions.
- Learn how to ride safely. learn about blind spots, door zones et c.
- Please, stop at red traffic signals.
- Wave at other cyclists.
- Learn which sort of car to watch. Locally it is Taxis, old men in big cars (especially Mercedes) and young women. Other places are different. I don’t know why.
And of course:
- Enjoy yourself, smile and wave at drivers, even when they are swearing at you. It’s nicer than shouting back and it makes them madder than anything else you could do.
*maybe not if they’re one of those new-fangled electronic keys…
One of the positive things about doing my formative cycling in the UK is that just about anywhere else is easier by comparison -Mercedes drivers are far from the level of the British taxi driver or White Van Man- but sometimes journeys can be a little more eventful than expected, like the morning I was following an SUV down the main road after the kindergarten run. I know most cyclists think SUV’s are a destructive oil guzzling abomination on wheels, driven too often by people who use them to bully their way through traffic, but they have one advantage, when you follow on a bike everyone keeps out of the way.
Everyone that is, except for the lady in the blue Ford who decided the moment to pull out of her parking space was after the nasty big car had gone, which was just as I was alongside. I automatically keep well away from parked cars which is why instead of being crunched by a mirror I was able to veer left sharpish, and brake, which brought me right in front of a bus coming the other way for added excitement. Fortunately the bus driver was awake and had slowed in reaction to the sudden movement of the Ford, so (s)he was able to slow down in plenty of time, leaving me to wait for the Ford to clear off -driver oblivious- and for me to pull in behind.
Mr. Bus driver, I salute you sir.
The Ford driver was very apologetic, and I came home and called the bus company (a bit of positive reinforcement never hurts, after all) then reflected that if I was in the UK this wouldn’t have been a rare enough event to be worthy of a blog entry.
*Short for “Entschuldigung, ich habe sie nicht gesehen” which is the slightly less catchy German version of the British SMIDSY: “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”
On the hunt for a direct route south, I found the bridge over the river Aich. The massive concrete structure is the road bridge that crosses the same valley. Of course, it would make life a lot easier for southbound cyclists if we had a cycle lane on the road bridge instead of having to ride into valley, but that would require joined up thinking…
And while I’m in this slightly cynical frame of mind, a public service announcement for drivers, especially those in our local area:
In Germany, vehicles travel on the right. Therefore, when you are driving on the left because the right hand side of the road is blocked by parked cars, you are generally expected to give way to oncoming vehicles by pulling onto the right (ie. your) side of the road when a gap in the parked cars allows you to do so. This applies even when it means you may lose three seconds off your Very Important Journey, and even when the oncoming vehicle is one of those non-motorised things called a ‘bicycle’.
I mention this because the person riding the bicycle may -to pick a random example- be an awkward Brit who learned his vehicular cycling in places like the West Midlands, and who may not be willing risk being squashed in the 50cm (2 foot) gap you have left in the gutter, but may instead cheerfully plant both feet on the ground, regardless of irate hand signals from yourself and the lovely lady sitting next to you, and lean on the handlebars waiting for you to take your white minibus out of his way and proceed on your side of the road.
Thank you for your attention.
I don’t write about bad driving a lot here, partly because it makes cycling locally look dangerous, which it isn’t, certainly compared to the UK. Normally, 99% of the time drivers are reasonably courteous and sensible, give room when overtaking and don’t buzz you too much.
So why is it that on certain days they seem to collectively stop thinking in their metal boxes. Is it the full moon? First day they switch the air conditioning on? Herd mentality? Or are they collectively trying to make a case for bike infrastructure? In five normally stress free kilometres I experienced the following:
10m into journey:
Oncoming car driving in my lane, trying to fit into the 2m gap between me and parked cars: fast.
Approaching junction, a car comes around a blind bend in the middle of the road and swerves around me. Not fast, but annoying.
400m: Riding in primary position uphill on a fairly busy road. Car overtakes as we approach a blind bend, forcing oncoming car almost onto the opposite pavement.
Car parked in ‘No parking’ area across kindergarten entrance.
Same car still there, engine running while driver sorts out his GPS navigator.
As I squeeze out and wait for passing car (driving at 50 in a 30 zone) another car is waiting for me to move, clearly planning to park in the ‘no parking’ zone
Car stops and opens door in front of me.
Driving in middle of road, Oncoming car drives towards me in the assumption that I’ll get out of the way. Somewhere. Certainly the driver seemed put out when I didn’t.
truck driver parks truck over half the road at a junction while he uses his phone. Then despite my having right of way, just drives off.
Thankfully soon afterwards I was able to get onto a cycle lane, just after a parked car suddenly started moving while I was passing, but that’s why we ride in prime isn’t it?
I’m used to thinking for drivers, and expect them to be unpredictable. Besides I’ve cycled in the UK and nothing in Germany compares to that. It was just weird that suddenly half the drivers in the village seemed to be unusually dozy. Then I got home and found Karl On Sea has been having the same problems. Perhaps it’s European Bad Driving day. Or volcano ash.
There were roadworks in the village. All was chaos: diggers roamed the streets; the road bristled with traffic cones and raised manhole covers threatened passing vehicles. Then, from he north, came Fast Car Man.
Where did he come from? No-one knew, but if it was more than 200m away he would have passed a sign saying “No Entry” and another sign showing “Diversion”, pointing to the right. Perhaps he came from beyond the sign, perhaps he missed it. Whatever occurred on that fateful morning, Fast Car Man came into the centre of the village fearing nothing, because Fast Car Man had The Knowledge.
Whether it was received through the words of the ancients, or vouchsafed via his GPS Navigator, Fast Car Man knew there was another way. A narrow way, beset with cobbles, and protected by The Sign, but there, free from traffic cameras, and known to important drivers with pressing business appointments.
Fast Car Man turned into the road, past The Sign ‘Play Street’, and over the mysterious 3 metre long white road marking bearing the mystical ’7kmh’, for Fast Car Man was Late For Work, and drove an Expensive Vehicle. Which clearly conferred upon him the right to Drive as He Pleased.
But then Fast Car Man saw a Rogue Cyclist driving at the regulation 7km/h, right in the middle of the road, making overtaking impossible. Fast Car Man slowed to the speed of the Rogue Cyclist and revved his engine a couple of times, clearly communicating that as the driver of a Fast Car he was too important to be delayed. The Rogue Cyclist took no notice, but blatantly continued to drive on the speed limit.
There is always a way. As the Rogue Cyclist turned a corner, an empty parking space on the left hand side offered a chance. Fast Car Man could speed down there and brush the Rogue Cyclist aside with his two-ton vehicle. He nosed his car alongside The Rogue Cyclist… and glared at his adversary and gesticulated his demand that the Rogue Cyclist yield to the true master of the road, but the Rogue Cyclist kept going straight, forcing Fast Car Man to brake for a stationary car.
By now the main road was in sight, with prowling diggers and shunting trucks. Fast Car Man followed The Rogue Cyclist, ready remonstrate in the time-honoured way, but it was not to be. Rogue Cyclist turned left from the main road and into a gap alongside a large truck.
Fast Car Man decided to be lenient this time: he was late, and besides the truck was bigger than his car and might scratch it.
Here’s an experiment for anyone who drives a German car: on a level road, put it into first gear and take your foot off the accelerator. It should drive along at exactly 7km/h. (oh yeah: turn it on first)
This is because German towns have a network of ‘Spielstrassen’; equivalent of a ‘Woonerf’ in the Netherlands. On a Spielstrasse, everyone has the same rights to the space, cars going through must give way to people and to other cars coming from the right, and drive at walking speed: 7km/h. If you’re wondering where I got this useless information, I learned to drive in Germany and was informed many times of the dire consequences of speeding or running into a child (If you’re lucky the police catch you before the mob does) .
It’s a great system. Germans are usually pretty good drivers and most people drive at a maximum of around 10-15km/h, take care, don’t bully you and wait for pedestrians. On the other hand, because it’s a road, people tend to be aware of bikes and things so there’s very little conflict. They are great to cycle along because the boys don’t have to watch out for cars: we can ride three abreast, or practice learn about road cycling. We’re looking for a new apartment and one of the criteria is that is should be on a Spielstrasse if possible.
Unfortunately, no matter how scientifically designers design a street, however many bumps they make or trees they plant, however much street furniture they artully arrange to make chicanes, or cobbles they lay to encourage people to drive slowly, someone is going to try and drive fast, and stuff anyone who gets in the way. The notion that their two-ton metal monster could probably do serious -possibly terminal- damage to a child who runs out of their home onto the street doesn’t seem to compute. It’s rare, but it happens, and when it does, the system falls down.
I guess this is on my mind because a town to the north of here has recently announced it is starting a ‘shared space‘ scheme instead of building a bypass. This is different to a Spielstrasse because it’s on the main road: there will be no speed limit, but everyone has equal rights to the road, so trucks must give way to pedestrians, and drive slowly enough to stop if they need to (and in Germany the blame is squarely on the driver if they drive into a pedestrian). I really want to see ‘shared space’ work because it bucks the trend of sacrificing land, houses, children’s health, and anything else that gets in the way of speeding motor vehicles: it makes drivers slow down which driving less convenient, which is good for all of us because then less people drive. If it works, it could be a way of allowing pedestrians and cyclists back onto constricted village roads where motor vehicles currently rule, but looking at the way many drivers behave on our local roads, I wonder if the lack of barriers will make them negotiate or get more aggresive. Or am I being unduly pessimistic?
I’ll try and visit this scheme as it comes online, and post what I find.
A few days after I wrote that post about the rental van reversing along the pavement the same van was involved in an accident with another road user while parking for a pick-up. Fortunately no-one was hurt, just someones’ alloy-wheeled Opel was scratched and the police were called to check out the insurance claim. It took almost an hour.
Don’t two policemen have better things to do than be the arbiter of an insurance claim between two drivers?