The Battle for Germany's Roads Tempers Fray as Bikes and Cars Vie for Supremacy

Germany may have a reputation as a bicycle-friendly country, but its streets are becoming increasingly tough as cyclists battle drivers and pedestrians for their share of limited space. A history of misguided transport policy is partly to blame for the growing aggressiveness. But model projects across Germany show harmony between bikes and cars is possible. By SPIEGEL Staff

Munich, about 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday at the end of August. An ambulance has been dispatched to help an injured cyclist. It's the first incident of the day.

A 43-year-old tried to stop another cyclist who was coming from the opposite direction and was on the wrong side of the road. That was a mistake. Instead of stopping, the second cyclist struck the 43-year-old man's arm with his fist and kept on going, leaving his victim with a bone fracture.

The day continues without interruption as one cyclist after the next is involved in accidents around the city. A woman on a bike smashes into a car door that someone suddenly opened. Another woman collides with a garbage can that a resident pushed onto the sidewalk. A male cyclist doesn't see a woman as she steps off a bus.

Shortly before 9:30 p.m., a car pulls out of a parking space on Nymphenburger Strasse, but the driver doesn't see a 50-year-old cyclist. The woman, unable to avoid hitting the car at the last minute, suffers a contusion on her arm and has to be treated in a hospital.

On this unexceptional day, the police record 11 accidents involving cyclists in Munich. What they do not count are the many curses and angry tirades, balled fists and arguments, for which there are no witnesses and no police reports.

Cursing and Slapping Roofs

Good manners are disappearing on German streets. Cursing, pushing and shoving are becoming more common as drivers, pedestrians and cyclists fight for their share of a limited space. Every centimeter counts, every method is fair game, and everyone wants to be first in line. Voluntarily stepping on the brakes or coming to a full stop is often seen as a last resort.

People all across Germany are plunging into this new form of urban warfare, but one group has become especially aggressive: cyclists. For many of them, traffic lights seem to be nonexistent, stop signs are overlooked, and one-way street signs are somebody else's problem. When drivers get in their way, some cyclists like to send them a message by slapping the roofs of their cars with their flat hands.

In the past, the Mercedes star was seen as the symbol of an assumed right of way. Today it's the handlebar, and many cyclists seem to think that they now own the entire roadway. To get to their destinations more quickly, cyclists sometimes hop onto the sidewalk, veer into the bus lane or zigzag their way through cars stuck in traffic.

Here's a typical experience from the driver's perspective: You stop your car at a red light on Unter den Linden, a wide boulevard in central Berlin, in the morning. University students are on their way to classes, and workers are cycling to their offices. Within seconds, the car is surrounded as bikes shoot by on the left and right. Most of the bikes keep going through the red light, while the remaining cyclists jockey for position on the pedestrian crosswalk in front of the car, triumphantly blocking the path of both drivers and pedestrians.

When the light turns green, both cars and buses can only proceed at the speed of the slowest cyclists, who demonstratively hog the roadway by riding next to each other and have nothing but scornful glances for any driver trying to pass them.

Injuries Up

In late August, Germany's Federal Statistical Office released its latest figures on accidents involving cyclists. These accidents claimed the lives of 137 people between January and May of this year, a 7.9 percent increase over the same period last year. The number of those seriously injured in such accidents rose by 43.5 percent, to 5,045. Weather conditions can cause these numbers to fluctuate, and looking at the overall trend, accident figures have actually declined slightly in recent years. Nevertheless, there is one constant: Cyclists as a group are disproportionately affected.

More than 500,000 people cycle on Berlin's streets every day, or more than twice as many as only 10 years ago. Residents of the southwestern university city of Freiburg do a third of their traveling on bikes. Nationwide, the figure is 10 percent, a number that continues to rise. The Germans are already Europe's biggest buyers of bicycles and own almost twice as many bikes as cars, or more than 70 million. At Eurobike, the world's largest tradeshow for the industry, held annually in the southern city of Friedrichshafen, bicycle makers tout their latest successes and inventions as if they were the new Porsches and Daimlers of mobility.

The balance of power on Germany's streets is changing, as an army of lone fighters winds its way to the front of the lines of cars stuck in the ubiquitous traffic jams. A new, wild social order is taking shape on the asphalt, colliding with the old turf claims and traffic regulations, and leading to acrimonious emotional outbursts.

"People turn into monsters when they're on bikes," writes Munich author Annette Zoch in her book "Das Fahrradhasserbuch" ("The Bicycle Hater's Book"). Posters reading "Kampf den Kampfradlern" (loosely translatable as "Fight Aggressive Cyclists") have begun popping up in Berlin in recent months.

The most unpleasant sides of German road users are now becoming even more apparent than in the past, in a struggle that revolves around control of the road, being in the right and taking others to task. People seem to prefer confronting their opponents instead of yielding the right of way to them. The sense of being morally superior -- because what they do is good for the climate -- empowers cyclists to constantly break the rules. A Darwinism of the streets is taking hold in which having the bigger vehicle no longer automatically translates into being in the stronger position.

Designed for the Car

For decades, the automobile was the measure of all things. Designing cities with cars in mind was the ultimate goal of local politics. Architects and urban planners, like Le Corbusier, were celebrated as heroes of the modern age for their highway-meets-highrise visions. Now cyclists, self-confident and aggressive, are pushing their way to the front, as they demand more influence, their own wide lanes on streets and enough parking space for their bikes -- to the detriment of drivers and other road users. All of this is being done with a view toward redefining public space.

Germany, traditionally a nation of automobiles, is turning into a cyclists' republic. A transportation revolution is taking place, a popular movement that is changing life on the streets.

It's also making it much more colorful. There are grandmothers speeding past slow-moving bike taxis on their electric bicycles; pizza delivery men on their new cargo bikes, maneuvering around cycling mothers with extra-wide child transporters; and mountain bikers easily jumping even the tallest curbs with their shock absorbers and fat tires, treating the entire city as a big, urban mountain-biking trail. They have nothing to lose but their chains. No bike path is good enough or big enough for them. So-called conference bikes, with up to seven riders sitting in a circle, take up about as much space as a small car, not to mention "beer-bikes" for tourists, which literally take the entire bar onto the street. Daredevils riding fixies, or fixed-gear bikes, seek their thrills by weaving in and out of cars stuck in traffic. A Berlin court has already described the brakeless vehicles as a "threat to public safety."

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Eleos 09/17/2011
1. Green gangsters
Their aggression is similar to those who tore up railway sleepers to halt nuclear installations. Any means seem justified if you are intolerant enough to dismiss all other opinions.
Markus 06/21/2013
2. Honestly what absolute rubbish
I live in London and commuted into Oxford Circus for a year, and now I live in Berlin and commute through Unter den Linden every week. This article is extremely exaggerated, I sit at the lights and nearly all cyclists sit quietly and wait with patience. The writer needs to spend some time in London and perhaps commute on the routes here in German that s/he's so dramatically portraying as some kind of war zone. I really didn't expect this from Spiegel.
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