In all three of the cities in Germany that I have spent the most time in, Freiburg, Tübingen, and Heidelberg, bikes have been a big thing. You can find people whizzing by you on their bike just about everywhere: people of all ages, in all outfits, with or without a child trailer – everyone loves riding their bike.
Even the common expression “Fahrrad fahren” in German reveals a bit of this intoxication. The verb “fahren” means “to drive” or “to ride” – to get an idea of the sense of this verb, think of the English verb “to fare” (as in “farewell!” or “sea-faring”), this verb has its etymological roots in the verb “fahren” . “Rad” means “wheel”, so “Fahrrad”, which translates to “bike”, has a literal translation of something like “faring-wheel”. “Fahrrad fahren” is then “faring-wheel faring”.
Bike riding seems to be a general trend in the “greener”, university cities of Germany, where students not only seem to consider the environment in their actions, but probably couldn’t afford a car even if they wanted one. Freiburg, which is currently run by the Green Party, even has a pole that shows you how many bike riders passed a certain spot on a certain day, the total count of riders for the year, and the amount of CO2 that was saved as a result of their decision to ride a bike instead of a car. (Heidelberg, incidentally, also has a sign showing the “goodness” of the air that day, although it contains no information pertaining to bikes). In Heidelberg, there are even streets that only allow bike riders for most of the day.
Germany’s layout is also conducive to bike riding and public transportation. Many small to medium sized cities have a pretty dense layout and you can get to anywhere you need to go within 10 minutes on a bike. In many places in the United States, you really need a car if you want access to all of the things your area has to offer. A movie theater is 10 minutes in one direction, a supermarket 5 minutes in the other, the home improvement store 10 minutes in yet another direction. Of course there are exceptions in both places, but it seems that overall the transportation structure in Germany is a lot better than in the US.
Many, many people in Heidelberg have bikes, and many (most?) purchase them second hand. I have already been to three such used bike stores, all within a 3 kilometer radius of my apartment and these certainly aren’t the only ones. There are also used bike flea markets, one of which is hosted by the city train station so that they can get rid of all of the bikes parked in front of the station that have not moved for months. When you get a bike at a shop they usually in okay shape, often taking on their new life with the addition of other parts from some bicycle graveyard.
I purchased a bike from just such a shop, and have been riding my bike every day for the past month, usually from home to class and back. Each leg of the trip I get to cross over the Neckar river and get a beautiful view of the city with the old castle in the background. This is my favorite part of the trip, but unfortunately I don’t have a great picture yet from this spot.
Today, my bike was making a lot of strange noises so I took it to an on campus bike repair center that is run by students and provides free repair and learning. Someone diagnosed the problem and then gave me the physical and theoretical tools to fix it myself. The staff was very helpful and friendly and really just wanted to help me get my bike working again. I can go there any time they are open and I have access to all of their tools and knowledge (and yes, their own bicycle graveyard as well). If any Heidelberg friends are interested, here is their website.
I am happy to join the bike culture in Heidelberg. Bike riding is good for the environment and it has definitely been good for my health. I have been traveling 6-12 kilometers a day just to go to and from class and when I get there I can park right in front of the door without ever having to worry about finding a spot.
I leave you with a song I love by an old German a cappella group, The Prinzen, that wrote a song about bikes. The last line sounds better in German and says something like Only connoisseurs ride bikes and they always get there faster. I think that is true!