I started cycling properly as an adult when I moved to Hamburg after I finished university. Cycling is very popular in Germany and almost everyone seems to have a bike, so I quickly decided to assimilate to that aspect of German culture. Because cycling is so common, it is very easy to buy second hand bikes, and I ended up getting a 25-year old bike from a flea market for €60. It was old-fashioned with a basket on the back and even Dynamo lights – the kind which are connected to your wheels and light up as you cycle. I loved it!
One of my fondest memories of cycling in Hamburg was taking my bike to have a puncture repaired at the university’s bike shop. People can use the tools to fix their own bikes, or there are people there to help you. After the nice German man fixed my bike I discovered that the shop worked on a “pay what you think we deserve“ system. I only had a large Euro note and no change, and all they had was a box to drop my cash in. To my surprise I was told not to worry and just come back tomorrow with some change. I remember thinking somehow this system of trust would never work in Britain!
While living in Hamburg, I cycled 25 minutes each way into Hamburg city centre for work every day. One of the most surprising parts of this was discovering the existence of the– “bike rush hour”! So many people cycle to work that sometimes you get a mini bike traffic jam at junctions. Commuting is also a safe experience. It is rare to see Germans wearing bike helmets and you often see cyclists with no lights. While this is certainly unwise (although I admit to never wearing a helmet there) it is a strong sign that there is very little perception of danger when Germans hop on their bikes.
Cyclists share the pavement with pedestrians (there is usually a bike lane and a pedestrian lane) rather than with the motorists. The only accident I witnessed myself was with two cyclists colliding with each other, rather than with cars. Perhaps a testament to the number of cyclists on the road! Overall, cycling in Germany is a pleasant, fun, safe experience and when I move to Berlin in October one of the first things I will do is make sure I have a bike!
Fast forward to my post-Hamburg move to Birmingham. After some initial enthusiasm, I quickly stopped cycling because it was a) terrifying and b) extremely hilly. Two years later, however, a running injury (and some bullying from my friend Shaz) encouraged me to get back on my bike again and I am now enthusiastic about rediscovering my love of cycling.
I cycle to work every day, meaning that it has massively reduced the time it takes to get there. I love the exercise and the freedom a bike affords me, and it saves me having to rely on buses which frequently don’t turn up. As a woman who often feels vulnerable walking alone in the city late at night, I appreciate the security the bike gives me knowing I can jump straight on and cycle home. I also recently cycled about 10 miles to the Lickey Hills on the Rea Valley route, which takes you along a lovely path by the canal and the River Rea to Worcestershire. In a couple of weeks I also plan to cycle to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Sadly though, cycling in Birmingham makes me feel like I am risking my life on a daily basis. For example, one morning this week two cars and a lorry overtook me on blind corners and one driver overtook me just before turning left at a junction, cutting straight in front of me. Last week a 4×4 nearly hit me as I cycled past a junction, the driver seemingly about to turn out without looking right. In contrast to when I was cycling in Germany, I wear a helmet and a high visibility jacket, and of course lights. I have come to the conclusion, however, that these visibility tactics are only useful if I can trust car drivers to actually look where they’re going and drive responsibility. Unfortunately, in Birmingham I can’t have this kind of faith!
My commute is also made more dangerous by the existence of one pothole after the other. So far I have bent my front wheel and lost a vital bolt holding my bike together by cycling through a pothole in the dark. I also frequently struggle to find bike parks – at my local supermarkets for example I simply have to attach my bike to whatever piece of metal I can find!
Cycling in Birmingham is an unpleasant and often frightening experience. I hope not to let this deter me from cycling in the UK. But perhaps Birmingham leaders should look to our German friends for great ideas on how to really encourage a genuine cycling culture.