It's 9:30 a.m. on a sunny spring day when a Toyota collides with a young mother in Berlin's Köpenick neighborhood. Her bike is knocked onto the street, the child seat falls off, and her two-year-old son is suddenly lying in the roadway screaming. The boy is lucky. The other drivers manage to brake quickly enough, but his mother is hospitalized with broken bones.
It's the first serious bicycle accident of the day in Berlin, but there's another one roughly every half hour that follows. The same scenario unfolds each day in Berlin, Munich and other German cities, where bicycle traffic is on the rise.
Soon afterwards, a 40-year-old man collides with a bus and sustains a serious head injury. Another cyclist flies over his handlebars when he brakes suddenly to avoid a stopped car. Others are caught in oncoming traffic, overlooked by cars making turns, slam into car doors that open suddenly or hit pedestrians. By the end of the day, the Berlin police have counted 26 serious accidents involving cyclists. Experience tells them that a number of other minor incidents involving scrapes and paint scratches on cars are not even reported.
Germany's cyclists live more dangerously than anyone else who uses the country's roads. The risk of being seriously injured or killed is significantly higher than that of car and motorcycle drivers. In 2009, about 76,000 cyclists were injured and 462 killed. About half were seniors over 65 and children under 15, who drivers sometimes have difficulty seeing.
Could it be that cyclists are to blame for their own misfortune? The Auto Club Europa warns of "inconsiderate hooligans," and local politicians nationwide rail against bike-riding Rambos who ignore red lights, cycle against oncoming traffic and violate traffic regulations by whizzing through pedestrian zones. It isn't surprising, they say, that the number of accidents in Munich is up by 40 percent compared to the same quarter last year.
Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer joined the fray in early April. A member of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), Ramsauer was sharply critical of "an extremely noticeable group of cyclists" who tend to break the rules. The VGT German council on traffic rules wants to see cyclists policed more heavily and subjected to stricter rules. While rebellious cyclists are undoubtedly a reality on German streets, most accidents involving bicycles are in fact caused by car drivers and other road users.
"Many municipalities have done too little to improve safety for cyclists," says Arne Koerdt, director of the Bicycle Academy at the German Institute of Urban Affairs. "Now things are getting dangerously crowded in many places." Although the number of cyclists is constantly increasing and is almost twice as high as it was two decades ago, many cities and towns are still "focused primarily on motorists," says Gerd-Axel Ahrens, a transportation engineer at the Technical University of Dresden.
Cyclists crash into each other because bike paths haven't been widened sufficiently, they are hit by turning trucks because intersections are confusing, or they crash into markers and lamp posts that should have been removed long ago. In many cities and towns, there is simply a lack of knowledge "about the importance of safety-related infrastructure characteristics," writes the German Federal Highway Research Institute in a report titled "Accident Risk and Rule Acceptance by Cyclists." According to the report, it isn't just individual mistakes but also "design flaws" that influence the frequency and severity of accidents.
A number of municipalities haven't managed to keep even their existing bike infrastructure in good shape. Cologne concludes that about 60 percent of its bike paths are unsafe for cyclists. In some cases, tree roots have been growing into paths for years. Well over 300 kilometers (187 miles) of bike paths are now scheduled for renovation, but the city has earmarked only €1.5 million to €2 million ($2.2 million to $2.9 million) a year for the project.
According to transportation expert Ahrens, the situation is similarly dramatic in many cities in eastern Germany and the industrial Ruhr region, where there are also many "horribly bumpy stretches" that often come to an abrupt end and confusing design. Besides, many of the road crossings are blocked by parked cars, with no decisive steps being taken to discourage this practice, federal officials say.
Nowhere to Go
At a recent conference in Berlin, experts on bicycle traffic called on the federal government to increase annual funding for bike paths and other facilities for cyclists to about €1 billion -- compared with the €86 million currently on the books. Meanwhile politicians continue staunchly advocating that more people ride bikes in cities. This year, the federal government alone spent €3 million on PR programs designed to explain to that cycling is great for weight loss, saves gas and protects the environment. Because more than half of all city trips taken by car are less than six kilometers, there is still a lot of room for expansion, officials say.
But where are the additional people expected to bike through Germany's cities supposed to go? Stephan Böhme, a transportation planner from the western city of Münster, knows how difficult it is to modify public space. The self-proclaimed cyclist capital of the country ranks among cities like Bremen, Kiel and Freiburg for having the highest percentage of cyclists in Germany. On some days, more than one in three road users is traveling by "Leeze," as bicycles are called in Münster.
Böhme's office is on the third floor of a modern office building. A sticker that reads "I like bike" and a poster of fender ornaments from past decades are attached to the door. It all seems somehow cozy, like so many things in this city of government officials and students. But nowadays Böhme's work is increasingly related to matters of life and death.
The engineers and his staff recently compiled yet another list of measures they feel are urgently needed. There are 1,700 items on the list, for which Böhme has a budget of about €5 million. Some of the items include adding markers to delineate bike lanes, lowering curbs and adding new traffic lights, as well as banal questions such as where the hoards of cyclists are supposed to park their bikes. The money probably won't be enough, he says.
Although a parking garage for bicycles at the train station was already expanded, suitable places to park bikes are becoming increasingly scarce. When they move, many students simply leave their bikes behind and buy a new one at the location of their new apartment. For some time, the city has been deploying low-wage workers to serve as bicycle parking attendants. The men and women spend the entire day moving parked bikes that are blocking the entrances to shops or in the path of parents pushing strollers along the sidewalk.
Two New Breeds of Cyclist
At the moment, however, Böhme is most concerned about the bike paths, which are slowly becoming too narrow. Already more than one in three cycling accidents in Münster involves collisions on bike paths. Unfortunately, says Böhme, that number is only expected to rise.
There are two relatively new groups of cyclists that are taking up an especially large amount of space: parents with child transporters and cargo bikes, which are hard to maneuver, as stubborn as donkeys and hardly capable of quick maneuvering in an emergency. And then there are bikes with auxiliary motors, so-called E-bikes and Pedelecs. Even elderly cyclists can get these motorized bicycles up to speeds of 25 kilometers per hour (16 mph), which means that they need plenty of space to pass slower cyclists. "And where are we supposed to get that space?" Böhme asks. By making pedestrian paths narrower? Cutting down trees?
Bremen native Wilhelm Hörmann thinks he knows the answer. The traffic expert with the German Cyclists' Federation (ADFC) and his club members have been a thorn in the side of the motorists' lobby for years with an unpopular demand. They want to take away space now being used by cars and send more cyclists into the streets. "It's a difficult battle," says Hörmann during a tour of Bremen's bike paths, where all it takes is one false move to collide with another cyclist.
As a result of a lawsuit filed by an ADFC member from the Bavarian city of Regensburg, German cities are now required to provide more dedicated space for cyclists on their streets. The man went to court on behalf of the club to overturn the "bicycle path usage requirement," which applies wherever blue bicycle signs are posted. By the end of 2010, the man had managed to have his case heard by the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig -- and won.
Now the usage requirement can only be imposed when there is a hazardous situation "caused by special local conditions" that significantly exceeds average levels of risk. For this reason, many of the blue signs should already have been removed, and yet this has rarely been the case.
Some experts suspect that removing the signs could bring significant safety improvements. A federal agency found that when cyclists ride into intersections on bike paths, the accident rate is "about twice as high" as when cyclists use bike lanes on the street. Because of poor visibility issues, turning motorists are often unable to see cyclists.
Police Want Stricter Rules
Meanwhile, police officials like Münster Police Commissioner Michael Bäumer are skeptical when it comes to the street skills of German cyclists. "Many lack manners and a knowledge of the rules," he says. On this morning, Bäumer and his colleague Christian Fenner have ridden their white police mountain bikes to the Ludgeri traffic circle, where tens of thousands of cars and bikes often come within dangerous proximity of each other.
After spending five minutes at the circle, the two police officers have already pulled over four underage cyclists who ignored stop signs and one student wearing headphones. Then an older man with a basket on his handlebars comes barreling down the street, apparently chatting with wife on his mobile phone. "I'm going to pull him over too," says Bäumer, and tells the man to stand at the back of the line of traffic sinners. The police officers collect a total of €100 from the rule-breakers, including €25 from the man who was talking on his phone while cycling.
The biggest fines are collected from cyclists who run red lights. According to police estimates in Münster alone, there are some 15,000 traffic light infractions every day. Anyone who is caught is fined €45.
Because the number of rule-breaking cyclists is so high, traffic experts like Münster Police Chief Hubert Wimber argue that cyclists should be policed more heavily and that violators should be punished consistently. The first member of the Green Party to become a German police chief also wants to make the rules for cyclists much more stringent.
If Wimber had his way, license plates would be required for bicycles, so that those riding against traffic, running red lights and fleeing the scenes of accidents could be tracked down after the fact. But Wimber is opposed to a helmet requirement, as are the Ministry of Transportation and the ADFC. He argues that this would likely prompt people to give up biking for reasons of vanity, an outcome no one could seriously want. The police chief feels that another issue is much more important in terms of reducing the number of serious accidents. "It's imperative that we do something about the many people who are intoxicated as they bike through our cities," he says. One in four cyclists involved in accidents in Germany is either drunk or stoned.
Today, when a traffic policeman on the beat believes that a cyclist may have had one drink too many, he can merely "offer" him a breathalyzer test or "recommend," in the interest of protecting other road users, that he leave his bike behind. The suspect can only be punished if he has a blood alcohol content of at least .16 percent. A man who is 1.80 meters (5'10") tall and weighs 75 kilograms (165 lbs.) can reach this blood alcohol level after drinking nine beers -- and four shots of schnapps.