Bremen – impressions from a cycle city

Published in The Chronicle on 22 October 2015

On my summer break to the continent, I visited Bremen this year. For those who have not heard of Bremen, it is a city in Germany’s North on the Weser river, an old Hansestadt – a marine trading city with an inland port dating back a good millenium. With its long history and half a million residents today (comparable to the Newcastle-Gateshead conurbation), it’s a sizeable and majestic city. What is undoubtedly even less well known still – surprisingly – is that Bremen is a one of the world’s best Cycle Cities. In Bremen 25% of routine daily trips are cycled (in Newcastle-Gateshead it’s in the region of 1-3%), making Bremen the third top cycling city in the world, after Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Via Berlin, Braunschweig and Hanover – all fine cities which in UK terms are quite presentable for their cycling participation and number of cycleways – I reached Bremen. It blows your mind. I got off the train, and walked out onto the wide-open square outside Bremen central station. You cannot help but notice. People on cycles are everywhere, integrated into the cityscape, quite naturally, by a network of cycleways. Cyclists are the normality, and the city environment seems all the more graceful and elegant for it. I will describe the five things I noticed most, perhaps in contrast to Newcastle, or Gateshead or indeed any other UK city.

1. Cycleways are omnipresent on main roads

Friedrich-Ebert-Straße, Bremen. Credit Richard Grassick

You can bet on their presence. Where you need them, they are there. And that helps the end user, the cyclist. I would suggest it even helps the decision to cycle. Walking around Bremen, you see cycleways, and they are like an advert, a billboard, screaming: I am a cycleway – use me. It’s easy and comfortable. Just do it, join in! Of course, cycleways are of good quality in Bremen, and unlike the start-stop, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature that Brits are used to in their cities. When you are in a city like Bremen, you realise that we do not actually have any cycle infrastructure to speak of in Newcastle/Gateshead and that, chiefly, it is the protected cycleways on main roads that are so absent in any UK city. The typical Bremen cross-section of a road is like this. Pavement, cycleway, then a kerb, followed by parked cars (if present) and carriageway, then reverse. This means when you cycle you have pedestrians on one side, and on the other you are protected by a kerb from motor vehicle traffic. Bremen could improve the surface and width in places, but otherwise, the Bremen’s cycleways were a top notch experience.

2. Cycleways and pavements continue over sidestreets

Sidestreet off Sielwall, Bremen. Credit Richard Grassick

The second great walking and cycling invention is another design feature along main roads. It is the continuous pavements over side streets. It’s not just the ease the continuity offers, it also employs very cunning, subtle and inexpensive design features slowing down turning traffic. This is an urban design innovation that Newcastle and Gateshead could easily adopt, straight out of the box. And they should if they are serious about prioritising walking and cycling. The essence of the design is in providing priority to walking and cycling travelling straight on along the main route. This is done by keeping the raised height of the pavement and cycleway, and continuing it across the mouth of the side street. This creates a bump in the road, which also acts as a physical speed limiter to turning drivers. Combined with using visual clues like cobbling the ramp and keeping the road corners tight, I have seen this to work amazingly well, especially considering its sheer simplicity. Again, Bremen could improve the surfacing for walking and cycling to make it an even smoother crossing, but otherwise I really enjoyed the visual and physical priority over turning traffic. Well done, Bremen, supporting pedestrians and cyclists in that way.

3. Everyone cycles

Excerpt from photo above. Credit Richard Grassick

Bremen people cycle, due to the supportive infrastructure, a couple of aspects I have described above. And not just that, Bremeners want to cycle – there is a sense of real freedom in the way Bremen people cycle. They gracefully glide along at good speed. But there is no real rushing, head-down, speedy cycling. Rather it is a very civilised affair of getting from A to B and, I’d even say, an elegant way. And for the short distances afforded by a compact city, in no way it is slower than using the car. Cycling is the natural way of going about your business. It’s integrated, respected and respectful of the city’s nature. So you see young ones, older people, women, men in suits, trailers, trikes and bikes with child seats – an inclusive picture, quite absent from UK cities. Yes, in comparison to the UK, this is such an amazing thing to watch and experience, and become part of. Not to be missed, when you get a chance, participate! It’s a beautiful way of moving about, and a graceful way to greet your city, its people and the environment.

4. You can cycle with plenty of stuff

It’s not unusual for Bremeners to transport things on their bikes. You can carry your briefcase to work, but also do the shopping and run errands. There are various different ways of managing the logistics, and it’s an individual’s choice to pick the methods and means suitable to them. The cycle infrastructure, again, is there to support these cycling activities. When watching people in Bremen, a typical picture would be the company director cycling past with her bag thrown into the front basket and some work papers in the rear basket, when on her way back from work perhaps containing some shopping on top too. The ordinary bike is a heavy-duty steel or aluminium frame, with mud guards, chain guards, a basket or two, kick-stand, back-pedal brakes, integrated lights, hub gears, wide handlebars for easy steering, all with an upright all- round viewing position for the person in the padded saddle seat. I visited in the holiday season in August, with its reduced traffic volumes. But from what I have observed, I can guarantee you that the school run and commuting rush hours will look a little bit different to a typical UK’s roads with snarled up car jams. In Bremen you would just glide past it on your bike.

5. Junctions capacity for whom

I will end on a technical note that is worth mentioning I think: junction design. Junctions are the places where different transport streams coincide and a way must be found to design their coexistence. UK junctions still favour motor traffic, its flow and capacity, but in Bremen a fairer way is shown to work – done through the existence of cycleways and special traffic light settings for pedestrians and cyclists. One argument of course is that Bremen’s transport system has never shifted so many people into car use and always retained a fairer spatial balance with walking, cycling, public transport. And this lesson will be quite a challenge for UK cities to tackle. What needs to be done in the UK is clear: reduce car use by including alternatives in the city landscape, in particular catering for cycling. But the how-to-get-there is less well known, discussed or explained. Newcastle and Gateshead would do well to make a plan.

[Sent to my local Newcastle newspaper]

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