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A friend of ours needed to move house, and I opened my big mouth and suggested that I could drive a car-share van, thus saving him a lot of money compared to renting. Being totally unaware of my driving incompetence he agreed.

We arrived intact -after a minor detour in Tübingen and a tour of an old railway yard- and found his apartment in an old mill, down a narrow track alongside a stream, on the edge of a small village.

The sort of place which is just begging for a family like ours to come along and start a smallholding/arts centre, like we’ve been dreaming of doing for ages.

Our dream is becoming more practical as I’m going to be a fully fledged carpenter from 2015. This will give me the skills to build stuff, and a way of actually earning money*. Rather conveniently there is a shortage of carpenters in rural areas.

At which point lots of people feel the need to remind me that we couldn’t possibly do this with our lifestyle. The vast distances of the countryside are simply too much for us to rely on bicycles, and public transport as we know it doesn’t exist. Better, we are told, to stay near to the big city with all the convenience this brings. Or grow up and get a car.

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This is the view from our friends new apartment.

In the time it takes to catch a bus to our local tram stop and wait for a tram, my friend could take this train right into Tübingen, and take his bike with him.

Or he could use the traffic-free cycle way through the fields behind which goes into the centre of the city.

To add insult to injury, our friend pays far less rent than we do, because of the ‘convenience’ of our public transport.

* A Theatre studies degree being as useful as a submarine in the Sahara when it comes to making a living.

Our local town has a free newspaper printed by the local government. It is as exciting as you’d expect.

This week the headline is about how our town is a ‘safe place to live’ according to the police (which would explain why they closed the police station).

They do admit that there was a 6.5% increase in traffic incidents, which would seem rather a lot for a ‘safe town’. This includes two fatalities, but with about eleven fatalities a day in Germany, most towns will get a couple each year. Two deaths aren’t enough to make the traffic situation officially ‘dangerous’.

No mention is made of motor vehicle vs. pedestrian/bicycle collisions involving adults but we are told that there were seven ‘accidents’ which involved children under thirteen. The article tells us: “It is noticeable that three of the children were riding on Roller Scooters. A further three accidents involving children occurred on traffic lights on a pedestrian crossing with a red light showing.”*

So they were all ‘accidents’. Not the driver’s fault: all the fault of those irresponsible children, as the ‘official in charge’ concludes: “It is important that children are carefully prepared for road traffic”.

At no point does anyone seem to stop and ask any further questions.

For example, how fast the vehicles were being driven, and why they were unable to stop in time. Weather conditions or the type of vehicles involved are not mentioned.

We don’t know if the children were driving on a pavement or a ‘Spielstrasse’ (Lit: ‘Play Street’, a street where children should be able to play safely). The speed limit is 7km/h (4mph) on these but motor vehicles normally bounce down them at twenty or thirty Km/h.

We don’t know if the drivers were using their phone or adjusting their navigator.

There are no details at all about the seventh ‘accident’.

We are left to assume we have the information we need: children were driving on roller scooters or crossing the road. Tut, tut, they should know better.

So that’s all right then, keep driving as fast as you like and if no-one takes those naughty children in hand and teaches them to be responsible with traffic, it isn’t your fault if you ‘accidentally’ run one down.

*German: “Auffällig sei, das dass drei der Kinder jeweils mit Tretrollen unterwegs waren. Weitere drei Unfälle mit Kindern ereigneten sich an einem Fußgängerüberweg bei roter Ampel” Any native German speakers are welcome to correct my translation.

At any given moment our local council are usually making a hole somewhere so it was inevitable that sooner or later I’d come across one on the way to college and back, but now they’ve excelled themselves and are turning several sections of the town into holes in the ground at once so we can all get a bit of the fun: riding home is currently a Tour de Road works.

One of these happens to be a main road towards Stuttgart, meaning that all those Very Important Drivers rushing into the city may be inconvenienced. This of course is a Bad Thing. The problem, as it was explained to me, is that people rushing through a village at slightly more than the speed limit are much more likely to stop and spend money at the local shops than people walking. Obviously*. Therefore we must be very, very, nice to the Very Important Drivers and not cause them to slow down or they may go away, in which case the village economy will collapse.

To avoid this there has been a no-expense-spared information campaign for the Very Important Drivers so they don’t get confused by the new signs or upset by having to go a tiny bit slower, with front-page newspaper articles showing detailed maps of the town and alternative routes, and massive information boards showing a very rough sketch of a broad tree-lined avenue with wide pavements and lots of pedestrians and busses, and just in case any Very Important Drivers get concerned at the amount of provision for Non-Motorists, an information panel making it clear that “The intention is not to reduce the number of cars travelling through the town”. Translation: “We wouldn’t dream of impeding your mighty progress, mister Very Important Driver. Sir”.

Just to make sure that the VID’s don’t get inconvenienced on their carefully signposted and mapped diversion route, the local bus is no longer allowed to stop there, because people in busses are, well, people in busses, and obviously cannot be allowed to delay cars.

In theory of course, this makes my life easier because I’m riding in the section of town where the diversion is in force, but what our local council forgot -possibly because they think it is still the 1970’s- that drivers have navigators in their cars now, and they very quickly worked out that the diversion wasn’t quite the shortest route around the closed road. Now, residential streets are full of big cars racing about, their drivers intensely focused on pressing the buttons on the little screen in front of them.

Having made it through all this I finally make it down the traffic free section of the way home on a Feldweg, a surfaced farm route open to bicycles and pedestrians, which suprise suprise, the council is also digging up with enthusiasm. Here’s how much warning we got:

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That’s it: a fence across the road. Well, and a computer printed piece of paper with an arrow drawn on it a bit further back. Obviously there’s no point in spending money on anything more than that, as there are only non-motorists here.

After a lot of pressure the council grudgingly added a diversionary route. You can see it in the picture below. The contractors then made the hole bigger and dug the new path up again.

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I think we can understand where non-motorists stand in our local councils list of priorities.

In this context, when a car came barreling past the “no motorised vehicles” sign at the end of the Feldweg, and bullied their way through the non-motorists all the way between the two villages, only to come to a grinding halt at the gap between the fence and a tree that non-motorists can squeeze through, I was very sympathetic and didn’t laugh. Much.

*Especially as there are very few people walking these days because it is so unpleasant with all the traffic, so we need to encourage the traffic to keep the shops open. Obviously.

The rain has finally managed what the city refuses to contemplate, and cleared the hard packed snow on the route over the fields to the next town. The majority of the route (where cars are allowed to go) was fine but the middle was impassable, or at the very least unpredictable. I know this because I’ve been going out to check the route whenever I had time and daylight with all the seriousness of some native hunter tracking prey.

By cycling I save about ten minutes each way, and avoid the slow tedium of driving on a bus that winds its way around the town for several kilometres before returning to the same place it was five minutes earlier.

I can’t help wondering how drivers would cope with these conditions. If, whenever it snowed, drivers had to go out and check if their route would be clear the next day, would winter driving would be as unpopular as winter cycling locally?

Or maybe there would be a surge in SUV sales because people ‘felt safer’ driving in the snow in a bigger car, and then we’d have te same situation as now, on a larger scale.

It’s that time of year again when the snow turns to ice, glues itself to the road surface, and stays for weeks. I kept cycling as long as I could but eventually it came down to a choice of riding on ice or along a busy narrow road with drivers who rather object to sharing the space with anyone.

And then the weather report said it would get really cold. Even if the bike had had incredible ice tyres like Disgruntled, cycling in temperatures of minus ten would mean all kinds of cold weather clothing which I’d have to haul around all day, so I’ve been going on the magical mystery tour on the bus. This does nothing for my energy or mood.

To try and get some exercise back into the morning routine I’ve taken to abandoning the bus once we get into town and walking the final bit to the railway station. No time is lost by doing this as the bus goes wandering around the inner ring road and takes as long to reach the station as I do on foot.

I also enter the city via a  stone bridge and a city gate, which gives a rather glamorous mid-European vibe to the start of the day.

I finally got myself moving and replaced the front light on the commuter bike. The old light had been flickering for a while and expired one morning on the way to college, naturally after I left the street lights of our village but before the short section on a busy main road. Fortunately there isn’t that much traffic at half past six in the morning.

At some point in the not too distant future I’m hoping to get a hub dynamo to replace the bottle dynamo I currently use, so the light has its own switch and a lot of wire that I’ve wrapped together and secured on the forks with tape.

This adds to the already chic apprarance of the bike no end.

I was going to leave the old light on the bike but the casing reflected most of the beam from the new light into my face, so it has gone in the spares drawer.

As an added advantage I no longer become invisible when I stop in traffic, and I can see where I’m going.

The bike is probably filthy as I’ve been riding it through puddles, mud, and runoff from the fields for a few days, but I haven’t seen it in daylight for weeks, and with three modular tests coming up at college cleaning will have to wait.

At least the light is now strong enough that I can see to avoid the horse poo.

Yesterday evening I had an invitation to visit a friend in York, and decided to ride. I’d borrowed a bike*, and York is one of the UK’s three ‘cycling cities’** that were being trumpeted to rival Amsterdam and Copenhagen as world-class cycling centres, so I figured I’d be okay. And I was, mostly because I started on a fairly minor road and some kind soul reminded me that in the UK people drive on the left before I met any traffic.

I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the bike lanes: certainly I’d have preferred them to have priority over side roads like in Germany, and it would have been even better if the one I was using hadn’t given up after a couple of hundred metres and pitched me into the road, but it wasn’t too bad.

In the other hand, I liked these nifty speed lumps in the roads. I’m sure you’re all used to them by now, but humour me while I ramble on about them like some country cousin discovering electricity: they are just narrow enough for a car to drive over them fairly quickly without spilling the drivers coffee, so cars seem utterly focussed on keeping their wheels either side of the things. I soon noticed that vehicles overtaking would go over (round?) the more distant bump, giving me a reasonable amount of room. Just as well as I was on the road all the way to my friend’s house and back: if I’d followed the designated cycle route I’d most likely still be out there.

Come to think of it, none of the drivers who passed were using their phone either, because they had to concentrate on the road to avoid leaving part of the car on the road. If only we could get them to treat pedestrians with the same respect as their own vehicles…

*Thanks dad…

**The others being Bristol and… where are the others exactly?

This weekend is likely to be a bit busy as we’re off to a friends wedding in Freiburg, which if all goes to plan will involve picking up a car share car at a railway station in the middle of nowhere, driving to the wedding and thence to the reception and back without driving into anything, coming home on Sunday and then catching a train to Rotterdam to meet the ferry to hull on Monday, so I leave you with a small dilemma I discovered this week.

On one of the routes I cycle frequently here, there’s a point where the mandatory cycleway I follow alongside a busy road becomes a mandatory footpath, meaning I have to go onto said road or ride illegally. Nothing new there of course, but there’s a catch. I have about two hundred metres of this road before turning left (and crossing two lanes of traffic) onto a quieter road. These two hundred metres are on a blind bend, and we all know how aware most drivers are of cyclists on blind bends. There is no way there will ever be a cycleway on this bit of road: even a filter lane into traffic was dismissed out of hand by the town as it ‘would be abused by cyclists’, presumably by cycling on it…

Where the cycleway ends there’s a pedestrian crossing with lights, and I’ve discovered that if I press the button on the lights and ride onto the road, I can pedal around the corner and be turning off before the first car catches up, saving me the stress of being buzzed or possibly overtaken dangerously closely on the blind bend. Is this adaptive use of poor infrastructure, or abuse of a pedestrian crossing?

(Tales of the UK come next week: I doubt there’s W-lan on the ferry so responses to comments may take time…)

Beautiful Wife asked me to get some emergency pizza when I picked Youngest Son up from Kindergarten. No problem, I thought, we can swing past the shop on the way.

Except that Youngest Son likes to cycle home on his bike these days, and the only shop in the village is directly on the main road, which happens to be one of the routes into the Stuttgart/Neckar valley industrial region. There’s no way he can ride there with all the cars and trucks and buses rushing into Germany’s sixth city, and of course, we can’t remove the right to choose your transport mode by say, slowing people down or stopping through traffic: then there would only be three fast roads, and imagine the pain and hardship that would cause.

On top of this a child under seven has to ride on the pavements/sidewalks in Germany. The idea, as I understand it, is to get them used to things like a high curb whenever they have to cross a side road; pedestrians appearing from buildings; and how to jump out-of-the-way* of Very Important Drivers coming out of driveways, opening car doors or just using the pavement as their own private parking space.

In this way children quickly learn that ‘cycling’ is what you do on a Sunday afternoon, and if you want to go more than twenty metres from the front door, get Mummy or Daddy to drive you there.

I’m being cynical: It’s probably just a cheap way to avoid building proper cycle lanes.

Either way, it’s surprisingly difficult to ride down a busy road and keep contact with a small person cycling on the other side of parked cars while Mercedes man leans on his horn because I’m delaying him in his Very Important Journey and distracting him from his Very Important Conversation on his mobile phone.

Now I’m sure some people (probably the people leaning on their car horn) would say I should get off the bike and walk along the pavement, thus getting out-of-the-way** of the Very Important Drivers, which would be fine except that because we are ever-so-special tree huggy types we are usually trying to get somewhere on our bikes.

Which makes it even more annoying that having made an extra trip to get the pizza, and riding all over the village to find quieter traffic calmed streets, we still ended up with an SUV behind us revving his engine and generally expressing his annoyance at our presence on the road.

*WordPress is convinced I need these hyphens. Do I? or is WordPress being nannyish?
** See previous footnote.

Exciting new spiraly bicycle path under a railway station. This was a vast improvement on the steep steps we had to deal when we cane through here last year. There was even a ramp back out of the other side as well. Even better, there was a wide, traffic free cycleway across the river about 500 metres away.

It would have been perfect if the route between the spiral and the bridge had been a traffic free cycle route instead of a car park, a patch of waste ground, and a busy road.

Still, one thing at a time. Maybe that’ll be sorted out by next year…

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