Sunday, May 10, 2009


I really enjoy riding my bicycle in the Ruhrgebiet, but it's not without its stressful moments. I often have people comment on my behavior while I'm riding and although my interactions with them are far from conclusive, my natural guilty conscience makes me imagine I might be breaking some traffic rule. Today, for instance, as I headed down Bredeneyerstr. for the path along the Ruhr, an elderly fellow waved at me as I approached him. He didn't really say anything, but seemed irritated as he pointed to the crosswalk lines on the street in front of him. He was standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross, and as I pulled even with him I stopped and waited for him to explain himself. He looked at me, I looked at him, I looked at the crosswalk lines and at the red "don't walk" light across the street. He remained silent, I saluted and went on my way. What was he trying to tell me?

Traffic rules here are so complex, I imagine that at any moment I might be breaking several laws as I ride. Unlike most parts of the US, where bicyclists are seen as a nuisance to auto drivers, but of no more real significance than the bugs that get caught in your radiator, most European countries try to incorporate cycle traffic into the big mix. Sidewalks often have a "bike path" down one side and points are awarded for each pedestrian maimed. On other streets there might be a narrow lane painted red on the right margin for cyclists. It's sometimes hard to see these lanes as you ride along, but they are most easily identified by all the trucks parked on them. A street might be designated one way for cars, but bikes are allowed to weave in and out of traffic in both directions with no designated lane. And when in doubt, you can just follow signs like these:

In spite of all this chaos, everyone seems to get where they want to go and there is a minimum of "road rage" killings. I do my best to follow the rules, but sometimes my inner cowboy takes over and I just do what seems to make sense. Mostly I'm met with tolerance and I find I can usually return the favor.

Today I rode about 25 kilometers along the Ruhr, from Werden to Mülheim. If there is a means of locomotion I did not encounter along the way, I am unaware of it. I saw a really cool tandem bike with a recumbent seat up front and an upright saddle in the stoker position. I saw a wheel chair fitted with a rowing mechanism for propulsion. I saw unicycles, inline skates, kayaks, canoes and sailboats. One passer by was carrying a bicycle across his chest instead of riding it. Some bikes go by creaking and squeaking as though they haven't seen the light of day since Willy Brandt was in office. Others are so loaded with cargo, you can only imagine the riders are planning a three week trip, camping on every street corner between the Ruhr and the Mülheimerbahnhof. I thought I had seen it all and then as I was having a refreshing Pilsner at a beautiful Biergarten on an island in the middle of the Ruhr, a Viking ship came by and pulled into the locks to continue its progress down river. I can't wait until next Sunday.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a pretty awesome day out on the bike. Those traffic signs are a bit confusing. I wonder if you've ever had a conversation with Prof. John Nicholson in LAEP dept. He loves bikes and Germany too. I bet he could explain all the rules you're probably breaking.

Shawn B.

Em said...

The snowflake in the triangle really clears things up for me, personally.