|Prof. Gil Hanson's wheels in Muenster: the ubiquitous Gazelle|
|Mail carrier. Stock web photo; I didn't get my own.|
|Bike racks are rarely empty in Bremen, Germany|
|Day or night, rain or shine, the bike, with lights and fenders, moves people|
|Bremen Town Musicians|
Although many American vehicular cyclists ("VC" here, and I count myself as a VC) swear that these systems cannot work, I came back convinced that what makes them work or not work is not religion (after all, one sees one's world through one's own paradigm) but good engineering within a well defined paradigm coupled with people obediently using the system within well defined operational parameters. Anyone riding too fast with their nose to the drop bars would be deadly or dead on the Bremen path system. Note: I didn't get out into the country, but suspect there are plenty of places to get out and hammer.
|Weser R. crossing. Red (l) is for bicyclists, grey (r) for peds.|
Gas is taxed heavily to reduce consumption; the engineer I worked with all week, who lives in his ancestral town about 30 km from the Bremen Airport says he pays about 1.5 Euros per liter for gas or diesel, almost eight bucks a gallon. Much of that price is tax. Sure, many drive, but I didn't see an SUV all week. Small, fuel-sipping cars and mini-utility pickups ruled. People also ride bikes or take transit in great numbers because Germany, like most European societies, socially engineered itself to eliminate as much non-essential gasoline consumption as it could through postwar urban design (see Gil Hanson's essay), a political goal reinforced during the twin oil crises that bracketed the 1970's. Thus, cities remain quite compact, were purpose-built to incorporate bicycling and public transit, and suburbanization never happened on the scale it did here, making cycling an effective option.
|A lone rider on a foggy Saturday morning|
Central Europe never had much oil and Germany almost none; during WW II the Third Reich was heavily dependent on synthetic fuels made from its vast coal reserves. But that was an expensive industrial process, which is why it doesn't work here. When Germany lost the Ploesti oil fields in Romania to the advancing Soviet armies, saw its Army Group South troops slaughtered while advancing to the Caucasus oil fields, and lost its own synfuels plants to U.S. heavy bombers, German tanks and airplanes sat idle or literally ran out of gas in battle. That lesson, that its dependence on other people's oil or on expensive synthetics makes it strategically vulnerable (as it did Japan during the same war), was not lost on postwar Germans even though it seems to have been lost on Americans, who used to be oil-rich. Ubiquitous, well-equipped bicycling infrastructure and the ever present (but not inexpensive) tram and other mass transit forms do quite well at reducing such vulnerability and cutting consumption, but at a definite price, i.e., punitive taxation of gasoline and diesel.
|Transportation, Bremen style. A tram and two bicyclists in the old city center|
|Lots to see when you are not stuck in traffic|
Which system is better? Depends on what you are trying to do. Pick your religion--or better yet, forswear the religion altogether. One can work single-mindedly to preserve the VC right to ride unfettered on every road and dismiss alternatives, one can uncritically rally for separate facilities everywhere, or-- what often seems to be the third rail of the discussion, one can suggest we thoughtfully and socially engineer the bicycle as a mass mobility tool in places where it makes sense for the greater good. One can still work for common use facilities where that makes sense, such as on open roads, in the country, and in many urban and suburban locations where big engineering solutions are quite frankly, solutions in search of a problem (i.e., Calgary, Alberta, in 2005 used quiet residential grid streets as bike routes, augmented with off-street paths along opportunistic geographic locations such as railroad rights of way and greenbelts). Its probably called context-sensitive design or some such buzzword. For example, a context-sensitive system might accept a design speed of 8-10 mph as appropriate for a compact city and riders in street clothes. Cyclists commuting longer distances will want faster design speeds just as motorists commuting long distances desire freeways. This probably means roadway cycling or cycling facilities specifically designed for fast cycling (which sound like roads to me).
|Orders are orders: the bike signal is red. Note red color of bike path|
|Sidewalks are partitioned. I almost found out the hard way|