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.
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."
The Bicycle's Moment Has Come
Veterans are reminded of the late 1970s in Germany, when alternative do-it-yourselfers built bikes as part of their dream of an environmental transformation of the roads, established manufacturing facilities and collectives and drafted visions of a world without motorized individual transport. But the movement never took off.
Now, however, the bicycle revolutionaries feel their time has come. "We all know that the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end, we know that we have a CO2 problem that threatens our very existence, we know that our society suffers from a lack of exercise, and we sense that the constant increase in traffic consumes an enormous part of the landscape." These are the words of Albert Herresthal, whose organization Service and Bicycle Network (VSF) emerged from the alternative cyclist movement.
What was once a marginal position has become socially acceptable. The Green Party's recent surge in popularity is also a reflection of changes in attitudes, with a new 33-speed derailleur gear becoming more impressive than a 300-horsepower engine. The percentage of young people who feel that car ownership is a goal worth pursuing has been declining for years. "In some cases, the bike is what the convertible used to be: a status symbol!" the German Automobile Club (ADAC) admitted, with some incredulity, in its magazine Motorwelt in May. Cyclists had probably never received so much recognition from the perceived class enemy.
Cycling hasn't caught on as quickly in the political world, however. Many federal, state and local officials still tend to favor their official cars, complete with tinted windows. In many cities, narrow, poorly paved bike paths, sometimes squeezed onto sidewalks, still represent a failed traffic policy that can be seen as the main reason behind the current problems on the streets.
Ignored by Politicians
The federal government is leading by example, but it's not a good one. Although about half of the country's 38,000 kilometers (23,750 miles) of federal highways are equipped with bike paths, Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), reduced investments in the program this year from €100 million ($137 million) to €80 million. The federal road construction budget, on the other hand, amounts to a whopping €7.1 billion.
In general, the coalition government -- made up of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the CSU and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- is showing little interest in reconciling its automobile-friendly policies with growing bicycle traffic. Ramsauer does say that he wants to take the interests of cyclists and motorists into account, and he insists that all road users obey the rules. "German roads are no place for Rambos," he says, "whether they're behind the wheel of a car or sitting on a bike."
But the "National Bicycle Traffic Plan," which the former coalition government of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party adopted in 2002 to promote cycling in Germany, expires in a few months. The current government is still thinking about a new plan. Chancellor Angela Merkel could set an example, but she prefers to focus on other symbols. On Thursday, she will open the Frankfurt International Motor Show (IAA), as she does every year, and play her part in celebrating the industry and its latest big cars.
Bicycles, on the other hand, are left to back-bench politicians with special interests. "Most members of the Bundestag see the bicycle as nothing but a recreational device," says Stephan Kühn, the traffic policy spokesman of the Green Party. "Cars always take priority," says his SPD counterpart, Kirsten Lühmann. And CDU Bundestag member Gero Storjohann offers his take on why so little can be achieved on bicycle policy issues: "There's no money."
The Golden Age of Bikes
Meanwhile, there has been a renaissance of the technology that already revolutionized traffic once before, in the late 19th century, when bicycles became a mass-market product. At the 1895 Stanley Bicycle Show in London -- a precursor of today's car shows -- several hundred exhibitors showed 3,000 different models to a wide-eyed public. The bicycle industry became one of the most important economic sectors in the United States.
Suddenly millions of people had a new way of getting around now that mobility was no longer a privilege of the upper class. Now workers could commute to their factory jobs instead of having to live in cramped conditions within walking distance of the smokestacks. This, in turn, contributed to the growth of suburbs.
The genetic pool began to rearrange itself in the countryside. Family names that had been associated with a handful of villages for centuries gradually began appearing in places many kilometers away. Thanks to the bicycle, the radius of potential brides had been expanded.
And so, in the words of the British author Robert Penn, "the first golden age of the bicycle began." He describes this development in his book "It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels." For Penn, the bicycle is "one of mankind's greatest inventions." He compares it to the printing press, telephone and electric motor.
But soon the new age of the bicycle began to decline. Bicycle manufacturers like Edoardo Bianchi, Adam Opel and Armand Peugeot, and their partners and heirs, used inventions like the chain drive, spokes and the differential to develop an even bigger business: making automobiles. Existing bicycle workshops were gradually replaced by car factories, and motorists conquered the roads that had previously been expanded thanks to the energetic efforts of the bicycle industry. The victory march of the automobile began, while bikes were either relegated to the side of the road or banned from traffic altogether.
Taking Over the Streets
At the beginning of this summer, on June 5 in Berlin, it seemed as if this banishment of the bicycle had finally been lifted, at least for a day, and as if cyclists had reclaimed their rightful place on the road, which they had used before cars even existed. Some 150,000 cyclists staged a rally, shutting down the city's downtown area and demanding "free passage for free wheels." Baffled motorists had to wait until the convoy had passed and the invasion had been weathered, at least for the time being.
Large and small demonstrations of cyclists' newfound power also took place in other cities. In mid-August, 2,000 cyclists, escorted by a substantial police presence, tore across a downtown expressway in Frankfurt before occupying -- without paying any attention to traffic lights -- all four lanes of an arterial road, waving gleefully at the drivers of BMWs and Porsches forced to wait out the spectacle in their cars in Germany's banking capital. Some of the cyclists also gathered in front of an office of their powerful adversary, the ADAC, which the protesting cyclists derided as a relic of history and an obsolete "jalopy club."
"Frankfurt belongs to us tonight," one of the group's leaders shouted into the crowd. Werner Buthe, 51, wearing biking shorts, was standing on a bike trailer. He had organized the first Frankfurt "Bike Night," an effort to encourage even more people to get on their bikes and promote peaceful coexistence among road users.
Behind him, the letters on the black-and-yellow logo of the automobile lobby seemed to melt into the rainy evening sky like a dying vision. And in front of him were his cyclists, the members and supporters of the German Cyclists' Federation (ADFC), some making somber references to what they called a "war in the streets."
But couldn't things be more peaceful? In many places, the tone on the street has become dramatically sharper. A scene that unfolds on a late summer morning in Hamburg's Eimsbüttel neighborhood is a case in point. About 20 schoolchildren are waiting for the light to turn green at a four-lane intersection on Osterstrasse. They seem anxious as they try to negotiate their way across the chaotic intersection, surrounded by the sounds of bickering, car horns and bicycle bells. When a boy on a racing bike pushes his way past a long line of cars, a motorist rolls down his window and shouts: "Get lost, God damn it!"
Ignoring the Rules of the Road
In Berlin, Ulrike Amthor, 70, is biking home from a supermarket in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. She say she is afraid of other cyclists. "Many no longer stop at red lights. They tear around the streets without any consideration for others," she grumbles. "I think it's outrageous that traffic regulations are constantly being ignored."
Pedestrians, like Bernd Irrgang, feel especially threatened. As chairman of the Federation of Pedestrians, he sees his clientele as a threatened species. He tries to talk sense into the bullies of the road, because, as he says, no one else does. "Politicians always treat cyclists as the good ones," Irrgang says.
In Frankfurt, Irrgang pursues his mission on Konrad-Adenauer-Strasse, lying in wait for cyclists who ride on the sidewalk instead of pushing their bikes. He tries to stop them to remind them that they're breaking the law, but it's a hopeless task. "I'm constantly being insulted and called crazy."
Of course, the police also do their part in trying to keep things civil in the streets. In many cities, police have observed similarly dangerous behavior among both cyclists and motorists. This includes using mobile phones and sending text messages while riding with no hands, sometimes even while listening to loud music on oversized DJ-style headphones. Many a cyclist has adopted a devil-may-care attitude, apparently in the belief that being careful should be someone else's responsibility. And then there are the classic offences, like missing bicycle lights or defective brakes. Although inconsiderate motorists are often to blame for accidents, so are careless or aggressive cyclists.
Running Red Lights
According to a recent report by the Berlin police, cyclists routinely "overestimate their own abilities." They drive vehicles that are often not roadworthy, ride "illegal" sections of streets and wind their way past cars "where there isn't enough room." And when there are accidents, they sometimes simply take off.
In Munich, where the number of accidents involving bikes, including weather-related incidents, increased by more than 40 percent in the first quarter of 2011, cyclists are at fault in half of all collisions. "We need a new cycling culture," said Robert Kopp, the vice-president of the Munich police. Of the 12,500 cyclists stopped by the Munich police this summer, 60 percent had violated traffic rules.
Years ago, Munich Mayor Christian Ude (SPD) personally addressed the problem. He even wrote a small book about his life as a cyclist. "When I took a look at my own habits, I discovered that I thought nothing of cheerfully violating the rules of the road while cycling," he writes in his book, "Stadtradeln" ("Urban Biking"). Ude concludes that many cyclists are less interested in protecting the environment than in using the bicycle as "an instrument to break out of our legal system."
Ude suggests that skeptics hop on a bike to monitor their own behavior. "Isn't it true that you start cycling while you're still on the sidewalk? That you ride the wrong way on one-way streets? And that you run red lights when there's no compelling reason not to?"
Cyclists apparently feel an affinity for the Marlboro Man on his horse, raves the politician, as they get a taste of freedom and adventure on their bikes. Many a cyclist, Ude argues, feels that by swinging himself up onto his bike seat, he can finally leave all laws and rules behind, "to briefly wallow in anarchy."
In his book "Bicycle Diaries," David Byrne, the co-founder of the band Talking Heads, even describes bike riding as a meditative process. The constant mechanical act of pedaling "distracts and occupies the conscious mind," he writes. "It facilitates a state of mind that allows some but not too much of the unconscious to bubble up."
'The Battle for Space Has Begun'
Mobility researchers and traffic psychologists have little use for such fantasies, as they watch in dismay at what the street is doing to its users. "Traffic de-socializes people," says Andreas Knie. A sociology professor at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB), Knie is interested in the relationships between mobility and social change. His conclusion is that the more a society is focused on the individual, the more serious are its traffic problems.
Knie envisions an urban "post-fossil fuel mobility structure," in which the scarce resources of energy, space and time are used efficiently. In this world, the bicycle could be the perfect means of transportation for most distances that people travel, but the issue of space would have to be resolved first. "The battle for space has begun," says Knie.
He can see the problems unfolding from the window of his office, which lies on one of the city's most important east-west thoroughfares. Every day, thousands of cars travel along the four-lane roads bordering Berlin's Landwehr Canal, but there is hardly any room for cyclists. Such conditions, says Knie, turn cyclists into "desperados who look death in the eye at least once a day."
People feel anonymous in traffic, much as they do on the Internet. This tempts them to engage in unrestrained behavior -- and to adopt different roles without thinking twice. A case in point is the person who berates cyclists while driving his car in the morning, swears at an inconsiderate Porsche driver in the afternoon from the saddle of his bike and jumps out of the way in the evening, cursing loudly, to avoid a mountain biker tearing along the sidewalk.
Many, if not most, road users behave in schizophrenic ways on the street. Depending on their mode of locomotion at a given moment, they have no compunctions about switching allegiances, declaring the morning's fellow cyclist the afternoon's class enemy. Even though they have changed their means of transport, their opinion remains the same: The others are simply in their way.
Burkhard Horn, the top transport planner in the city-state of Berlin, has addressed the conflicts of interest on Berlin's streets. "The trend toward individualization doesn't stop at our streets. Community spirit and consideration are no longer popular," he says. For many, he says, the most important rule of the road is simple: "At the end of the day, I'm the one who counts."
Horn and his staff spent a long time developing a new traffic strategy intended to revise the German capital's often hostile attitude toward bicycles and ultimately achieve a "redistribution of street space." "The image of the car has declined, while that of the bicycle has improved. This opportunity should be taken advantage of," the document reads. Some of the improvements it promises are bike express lanes, the "repurposing of automobile parking lots" for bicycles and a so-called "green wave" for bicycles, whereby traffic lights are synchronized so that cyclists traveling at a certain speed will hit a series of green lights.
There is enormous room for improvement. Berlin spends all of €2 per year and resident on its bicycle infrastructure, a total of about €7 million. The city's three opera houses receive 18 times as much funding per year.
Most of Horn's plans haven't even been implemented, and yet a battle for coveted space is already raging, proving one thing more than anything else: Cyclists aren't really wanted anywhere.
Learning to Love Cyclists
When car lanes are replaced with biking lanes, the local press is quick to complain about "faulty planning" and unnecessary traffic congestion. But when bike paths are not removed from sidewalks, pedestrian lobbyists start protesting. "The sidewalk is the last remaining bit of unrestricted space for the citizens of this city," says Stefan Lieb of the organization Fuss e.V. (Foot Association). Lieb wants cyclists to be sent into the street once and for all. The status quo cannot continue, Lieb says.
But cyclists are also unwanted in the bus lanes. At one point, the Berlin Transport Service (BVG) even instructed its bus drivers to snap photos of particularly noticeable troublemakers. "The Senate (the Berlin government) has to decide what it wants to emphasize: public transportation or cyclists," says a BVG spokeswoman.
Transport planner Burkhard Horn hasn't given up, but he has recognized that his traffic revolution is still in its early stages and that people on Berlin's streets still have to get used to one another. "Motorists have to learn to accept cyclists first," he says. In a joint effort with his counterparts in Freiburg, Horn is developing a public campaign to reduce conflict and improve the atmosphere in the streets.
The re-education process will likely be just as cumbersome in local politics. For decades, generations of city and regional planners, from the tiniest villages to major cities, have spent billions to enable motorists to quickly reach even the most remote corners of the republic. Old lanes and public squares, and sometimes even entire streets, were sacrificed as a result. And because new streets tend to generate new traffic, construction has led to more construction.
Lack of Vision in Transport Planning
That's what happened in Frankfurt, a city that ought to be ideal for cyclists. It's compact, neighborhoods are relatively close together, and the few hills within city limits are small.
But in the last century, after the destruction of World War II, local politicians did everything possible, using plenty of asphalt and concrete, to turn Frankfurt into the epitome of a car-friendly city. Expressways were brought deep into the city limits, large parking garages were built overnight, and new streets were cut into the crowded inner city.
To perfect their vision, urban planners even pulled up large segments of the city's streetcar system in the 1980s, determined to create a "rail-free inner city." Efforts were also made to make the surrounding countryside as amenable to drivers as possible. With its "Congestion-free Hesse" program, the government of the surrounding state of Hesse has long emphasized, and continues to emphasize, the continuous expansion of the autobahn in the Frankfurt region, so that commuters can drive into the city as quickly as possible.
Only marginal attention was paid to cyclists in this world, with the city providing them with the occasional narrow bike path on the side of the road or on the sidewalk. The bike paths were both inconvenient and dangerous because cyclists either crossed paths with pedestrians or were easily overlooked by turning cars.
Correcting the Mistakes of the Past
What they hoped to achieve with such plans at the time will likely remain the eternal secret of Frankfurt's traffic planners (and those of many other cities), except perhaps to promote an enormous stimulus program for the manufacturers of the bumpy cobblestones that make life difficult for cyclists on these paths to this day.
"No one would do such an amateurish job of building bike paths today," says Stefan Majer, 53, the current head of the city's transportation department and a member of the Green Party. Majer, in office since mid-June, says he rides his bike to most of his meetings. He intends to increase inner-city cycling traffic by 15 to 20 percent, but it won't be easy. The conservative CDU, which runs Frankfurt in a coalition government with the Greens, gave him a bicycle pump as a humorous gift when he took office.
Many of Majer's counterparts throughout Germany are now trying to correct the mistakes of the past. In the industrial Ruhr region, plans are underway to build a new superhighway for bikes dubbed the "Bike B1," 85 kilometers long and 6 meters (20 feet) wide, which will connect cities like Essen, Duisburg, Gelsenkirchen and the Unna administrative district.
The planners hope that up to 2 million people will eventually use the route to bike to work, relieving some of the burden on the eternally congested A 40 autobahn. Electric bikes, which are becoming increasingly popular, would also make commutes of 10 to 20 kilometers feasible.
New priorities are also being set in downtown areas, with many cities and towns seeking to emulate the northwestern city of Münster, a stronghold for cyclists. The western city of Aachen has pledged to pursue "consistently cycling-friendly" road traffic regulations. As part of the plan, the city introduced 30-kilometer-per-hour (19-mph) speed zones in all residential areas, turned more than 100 kilometers of old farm roads into bike routes and used an abandoned rail line to make a bike path that connects the city to the surrounding countryside.
In the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, Mayor Ulrich Maly (SPD) holds mobile town meetings on the street. The meetings, conducted on foot or on bikes, move through the city so that residents can directly discuss suggested improvements with the mayor on location. Meanwhile, the district administration in Düren, near Cologne, was given an award for being the first "bicycle-friendly employer" in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia because it cleared car parking lots to make room for cyclists, installed showers for sweaty commuters and plans to have its employees complete 25 percent of their official business on bicycles.
Nevertheless, two schools of thought will continue to shape the debate over road traffic. One is focused on cyclists and develops proposed solutions primarily from their perspective. Supporters of this approach can still remember the days when they were derided as bone-headed "eco-freaks" and as cranks who fantasized about a car-free society.
Nowadays, more and more officials in town halls and government ministries are at least listening to them, which is a new experience for these people. "The bicycle no longer has political enemies," says Albert Herresthal from the cycling advocacy group VSF.
In the 1970s, Herresthal and other like-minded individuals founded the "Rusty Spoke Collective" in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. The group staged protests on bicycles, hoping to make "slow traffic" a reality. Today, Herresthal sees himself a good deal closer to his goals. Instead of new expressways, he wants to see the city build "bicycle highways" like the one being planned for the Ruhr region. He also envisions an urban society in which no one depends on owning a car anymore as well as an interlocking system comprising various means of transportation, with cars playing a relatively small role in the mix. "In the future," says Herresthal, "the following rule should apply: Use, don't own."
The other school of thought still focuses on the motor vehicle. It is backed by the powerful auto industry, the top-selling sector of the German economy, which has interests worth billions and hundreds of thousands of employees.
Car-industry lobbyists have always automatically fought for new roads and more parking lots. "Cities must remain accessible by car," says the ADAC, responding to calls for environmental zones and vehicle bans in city centers. It warns that cyclists shouldn't be allowed to "come up with their own traffic rules."
Nowadays, cyclists are often still seen as crazed intruders who are best fought with new rules and strict controls. There are plans on the table to institute a 15-kilometer-per-hour speed limit in urban areas for cyclists who use combined bike and pedestrian paths, although it would be difficult to enforce. Other proposals include making helmets and reflective vests mandatory, banning alcohol consumption for cyclists, instituting license plates and obliging cyclists to have a license and insurance.
To improve cooperation in traffic and safety for cyclists, automakers are not recommending measures like taking away space from car traffic lanes and parking lots or even imposing additional speed limits for motorized traffic. Instead, they are proposing rather sophisticated technical solutions.
For example, BMW would like to equip cyclists and pedestrians with transponders that transmit signals to nearby motor vehicles. Electronic systems would then report the position and direction of motion of vulnerable road users to drivers, warning them of potential dangers lurking around the next corner. Mercedes is developing an algorithm that processes real-time images taken with cameras attached to the vehicle. The system, which is expected to go into serial production in two years, will ensure that cars equipped with it automatically take evasive action or apply the brakes when a cyclist unexpectedly crosses their path.
Is this the future? Will technologically enhanced cars soon dominate a street scene in which cyclists represent nothing but potential accidents for vehicle computers?
Where Bikes Are Too Successful
In Freiburg, Georg Herffs is campaigning for a different solution. It is technically conventional, but radical from a traffic-policy standpoint.
The best way to understand the approach is simply to bike through the city. On this day in late summer, the sun is shining and ice cream vendors are already doing steady business early in the morning. Herffs, the head of Freiburg's traffic planning department, takes us on a bicycle tour of a city he describes as an environmental wonderland.
At the main train station, where there would probably be a large parking garage in other cities, "Mobile," a two-story, steel-and-wood contraption with space for 1,000 bicycles, towers over the tracks. Then the path takes us across a bridge open only to cyclists and pedestrians, against the direction of traffic on one-way streets, and then onto a "bike street" with a large, blue pictogram on the roadway, which indicates that cars are secondary to bicycles on this street.
Cyclists make up almost 30 percent of traffic in this green-minded university city because Herffs' predecessor was already thinking of them in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the system is now approaching its limits, and the city is on the verge of an unusual type of gridlock. Some of the narrow streets in the old part of town are so jammed with bicycles that pedestrians have trouble squeezing by. In some areas, the city government has had to impose parking bans for bicycles so that people can at least disembark from the streetcars.
There are also growing complaints about the many cyclists who ride too quickly. "Speeds are getting higher and higher," says Herffs.
Becoming Like Cars
City officials hope that a new system of bicycle express lanes will relieve some of the strain. One of these express lanes already leads along the banks of the Dreisam River and into downtown Freiburg. With some 10,000 cyclists using the path every day, things can get crowded in the morning and late afternoon. Like drivers on the autobahn, the most athletic cyclists force their way to the front, commuters stubbornly maintain their speed and families adopt a leisurely pace as they cycle to an outdoor pool. "Sometimes it's hell during rush hour," says Herffs, who bikes to work along the riverside path.
Perhaps cyclists will constitute the majority of road users in Freiburg in the future. The more numerous they become, the more they come to resemble the vilified motorists, as they face some of the same problems of tight parking, congestion and inconsiderate speeders.
It's all a little reminiscent of the oppressed pigs in George Orwell's "Animal Farm." Once they had liberated themselves, they took on all the bad characteristics of the farmer who had controlled them before.
But there is one critical difference: Bicycles don't cause pollution.
REPORTED BY MATTHIAS BARTSCH, STEFAN BERG, SIMON BOOK, MARKUS DEGGERICH, LAURA GITSCHIER, MANUEL HECKEL, FRANK HORNIG, GUIDO KLEINHUBBERT, PETER MÜLLER AND MICHAEL SONTHEIMER