From Bourg to Burg. Beyond the Netherlands: Bicycling infrastructure in Germany and Strasbourg

Beyond the Netherlands

While the Netherlands and Denmark are the renowned pioneers of bicycling culture and infrastructure, several other European countries have built for bicycles with much success as well. Bicycle share stations are quickly emerging as a standard in many European cities (most famously in Paris and Lyon), while many other cities once bereft of demarcated space for bicyclists have jumpstarted campaigns to increase the share of daily trips made by bicycle.

This past week, I had the chance to visit several bicycle-friendly cities outside of the Netherlands. My trip began in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France bordering Germany, and then took me across the border to Freiburg, Karlsruhe, Munster, and finally Hamburg in Germany. Whereas I had done a fair bit of preparatory research on bicycling in the Netherlands, I went to France and Germany rather off the cuff, to gain a perspective on what lessons a bicycling system in the course of its elaboration has to offer. What I discovered was a host of excellent examples of how to (and how not to) develop infrastructure for bicycles in a cost-effective way.

Below I discuss some of the primary lessons that I have garnered throughout this tour.

1. The art of the sidewalk bicycle path

As a kid, it always bothered me that I wasn’t allowed to bike on the sidewalk. If there was space, and nobody was using it, it seemed more logical to dodge pedestrians than to dodge traffic going 50 mph. My ten-year old self would have pleased to find that in Germany and Strasbourg, sidewalk bicycling is standard practice. Though I noticed that bicycle tracks and lanes were on certain occasions carved, sunken or paved into the existing sidewalks of the Netherlands, in Strasbourg, Freiburg, Munster and Hamburg, this appears to be the solution of choice.

In Strasbourg, for example, bicycle paths have been placed alongside narrowed pedestrian walks through a combination of painted lines and actual asphalt repaving. Though the painted lanes often seem a bit provisional, what Strasbourg excels in is reassurance. Even if it seemed clear that the bicycle path was really just a couple of lines painted onto the preexisting sidewalk, the city has stamped its bold bicyclist logo every ten or twelve meters along the sidewalks. Along with a painted line, this makes for at least some degree of comfort at minimal cost. Better pathways were paved smoothly and made for a nice ride.

The sidewalk solution, as I later learned, is even more popular in Freiburg, a university city with decent signage and average infrastructure. Freiburg, like Munster and many of the university towns in the Netherlands and elsewhere, benefits hugely from its bicycling student population. This gives bicyclists enough critical mass to make cars aware of their presence. In Freiburg, on-street suggested bicycle lanes were also quite common.

The most interesting use of the sidewalk path was without a doubt in Munster and Hamburg. In both cities, the paths, to my surprise, had tiling and color variation built into the sidewalk (as in many Dutch cities), but without much (if any) change in grade. In Munster, because these paths had a consistent stream of cyclists to keep pedestrians at bay, they functioned successfully as a separate piece of infrastructure. These consistent pathways, along with a level and consistency of signage on par with the Dutch, made Munster a ideal environment for bicyclists.

Munster, like Freiburg, is a university town. The situation in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, was a far cry from Strasbourg, Freiburg, or Munster. With heavy pedestrian traffic, a car friendly center, and a sprawling downtown, the bicycle paths on Hamburg’s sidewalks at first seemed hardly there. What is striking, however, is that space for bicyclists–bicycle paths with red color and separate tiling–covers a vast amount of ground throughout the city. Unfortunately, these paths lack the critical mass or change in grade that functionally separates bicycles and pedestrians. The result is that Hamburg, despite giving bicyclists a defined space, has relatively fewer bicycles using its lanes than one might expect. Hamburg, of course, is no university town. It is major metropolis with a fabulous, efficient metro, and superb roadways. The city could benefit from traffic calming measures as well as shorter wait times at intersections that bother cyclists and pedestrians.

2. Iterate Intersections

Without the proper signage and infrastructure at intersections, a bicycle system cannot function effectively. Even if a city has dedicated, separated high quality paths along all of its major streets, if a cyclist is stranded without signage or direction where he meets other modes of transportation (foremost cars, but also pedestrians, buses and trains), those are rendered relatively useless.

One of the great things about bicycling in Strasbourg was that even though the pathways often seemed less than adequate,  the indicators were consistent and the intersections were ubiquitously painted green. This made it clear to cars, pedestrians and bicyclists, exactly where the systems continues and further strengthened its sense of connectivity and logic.

In Freiburg and Hamburg, two cities with arguably more on street (or sidewalk) bicycle paths, the intersections tended be a lot more problematic, and in the case of Hamburg, favored the automobile over both the bicyclist and the pedestrian. A well-iterated intersection represents a point of quick decision-making. At its best, a bicycling network should have signals, directional signage, and a dedicated space to perch and rest while you wait for the light to change or the cars to pass. Without these and other cues, the systems loses its currency and can be dangerous and uncomfortable.

Munster, like many cities the Netherlands, not only highlighted safety at its intersections with proper markings, signals, and demarcation, but also added another layer- directional signage. Munster’s signage was superb, arguably even better than many of the cities that I saw in the Netherlands, and definitely superior to Copenhagen’s. Though Freiburg and Hamburg had the occasional standard (German) signpost indicating the next town or touring destination, Munster had signs at most major intersections, and, best of all, had a wonderful tree-lined promenade, or bicycle ring road (as I would to call it), around the old city, which distributed bicyclists to routes emanating into the outskirts. I rode gleefully around this ring at least five times, using its signage to shoot me off like a pinball in a novel direction each time.

3. Smooth riding surfaces

Bicyclists need a smooth riding surface. In Strasbourg and other cities of Germany and France, this lesson has only been partially realized. In certain circumstances, I found that the cyclist area had been repaved or done with separate tiling, but when simply painted with markings, paths tended to proceed over surfaces not ideal for bicycling (including cobblestones) or went straight through obstacles (like benches or bus stops) that made riding problematic.

If the US Government declared tomorrow that bicyclists should, when possible, ride on the sidewalks instead of the streets, there would be major problems with the surfaces. Not only would cyclists persistently run into trees, parking meters, and bus stands, but concrete panels and asphalt destroyed by tree roots would (at least in my town) make for a bumpy ride. Where the pedestrian area ends, so must the tree, the bus stands, benches and parking meters. If bicyclists must negotiate these obstacles in addition pedestrians blissfully ambling side to side, the “sidewalk” path becomes just another sidewalk, and is no place for bikes.

4. Slow streets/Bike streets

In the Netherlands, speed bumps are everywhere. Residential areas serve as notoriously poor shortcuts for drivers, but ideal riding space for bicyclists and local pedestrian traffic. In Germany and Strasbourg, these lessons have been adopted with measured success, but not enough change in paving, material or street configuration. In Freiburg and Strasbourg, streets often had large blue or green signage telling cars to go only 30 km/hr. In most cases, these were respected. But in a bigger city like Hamburg, without an actual speedbump or street reconfiguration, the cars went faster. Any measure changing how cars use streets must go beyond signage and paint. In certain cases, I saw the use of temporary speedbumps. These functioned effectively and translated two-dimensional signage into a three-dimensional, tangible, yet cost-effective, solution.

I noticed one particularly interesting solution to the bicycling street in Freiburg. The street, running parallel to a street with much heavier traffic, had been marked as a Fahrradstrasse, or Bicycle Street, and was marked by mid-streets bollard, which forced cars to drive on that street only if they planned to park there or it was their residence. This effect, I realized immediately, could be immensely successful in American grid cities where altering the pattern of one-way streets crossing one or two-way streets could solve some of the traffic problems encountered by bicyclists.

This kind of thinking is extremely cost-effective, and can enhance urban living environments and streets congested by traffic. It is essential for any planner or designer of a bicycle system to thinking beyond bicycle lanes or cycle tracks to consider how the entire traffic realm of cars, bicycles and pedestrians interacts.


With the exception of Munster, what I found in Germany and Strasbourg were bicycles systems half complete and on their way to being fully realized. Though spaces for bicycles were in most cases “carved” out of the sidewalk, the architecture of these carvings varied in their material consistency, level of permanence, safety and comfort. This architecture of the street, can, of course, be a moot point in a place like Hamburg, where the level of activity makes sidewalk tiling and separate coloring a failed proposition. In these cases, a stronger change in elevation or separation must exist.

Where paths did not exist, I saw other strategies- signals, speed bumps, and others types of signage, that indicated at a basic level both a space for the bicyclist to use, as well as an opportunity for a larger number of people to carve this space out through increased bicycle usage. In Hamburg, a bicycle rental/share system has just been established. The presence of these red bikes, with a small seat placed on the bike’s back for a bag or friend, was unmistakable. Surely, as the bicycle gains in use and overall attractiveness there, more measures will be enacted to make the city’s street safer and to create an environment healthier for cyclists, pedestrians, and the overall urban atmosphere.

For those in the United States studying how the Europeans have done it, the systems of the Netherlands and Denmark in many cases offer utopian prospects, while those of Germany and France offer lessons in the process of realization. May we learn from their trials and improve upon there successes.

Photo Gallery

Below are a series of examples illustrating the four topics discusses above. The first group of photographs shows sidewalk bicycle paths, and is followed by photographs of well (or not-so-well) iterated intersections, and finally, bicycle streets. Different surfaces, smooth and tiled, are depicted throughout the gallery.

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One Response to From Bourg to Burg. Beyond the Netherlands: Bicycling infrastructure in Germany and Strasbourg

  1. Ryan says:

    From what I’ve been told and also reading, Hamburg is quite poor for cycling.
    Despite its want of being known as a “green capital”, their bicycle network has a long way to go. Signs, parking metres etc. are all placed in the cycle path part of the sidewalk.
    I’ve also heard many complaints of obliviously pedestrians wondering into the cycle lane.
    Another northern German city that has similar bicycle infrastructure (ie Sidewalk), is Bremen, which has far more people cycling.

    I believe where Freiburg succeeds is in the general attitude of the people. They tend to be more ‘environmentally aware’, so those who drive give plenty of respect to those on bikes. It also helps that they have many people who do cycle.

    From a Canadian’s POV, I’d be more than happy to take Munster, Freiburg or Strasbourg’s bicycle network.
    Only Vancouver and Montréal have separate cycle lanes, and even then they are on few roads.
    Vancouver has recently added more and more separate cycle lanes, though has and still is facing an uphill battle as the public outcry has been incredible. I believe they have a municipal election this year which I plan on following closely, as it will pit a bike-friendly mayor against a pro-car candidate.

    Although Montréal has seen some opposition, people have been fairly accepting of the separate cycle lanes. Montréal also has Bixi (London’s Boris bikes are based off Bixi) which has been an incredible success! Where Montréal fails is they close most of the cycle lanes for winter (Nov-Apr), and the ones they leave open are usually not maintained.

    My city has few cycle lanes and the cycle lanes we do have are just a strip of paint that separate us from cars travelling 50km/h.
    Although we have few people who cycle year round, the majority of motorists are actually quite friendly/respectful around cyclists.

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