If you have visited or lived in Berlin, you will be familiar with the very real and valid fear of being hit by a bicycle. I come from a place where pedestrians own the footpath and we very self-righteously hold the right to damn any cyclist who dares to take up space on our path.
Before arriving in Germany my friend was emailing me and one of his messages issued me with a warning: You must get a bike here, everyone has one. I was soon to discover just how very true that was. My first port of call was Freiburg, notorious for its student population and as I was to learn, its bike population.
This was where I first encountered the shared path sign.
While participating as a pedestrian in Germany you will come across the two iconic signs at some point. They are both bright blue circle signs, one with a person at the top a line drawn down the middle and a bicycle beneath the line. This sign warns that the footpath in this area is shared by cyclists and pedestrians.
The other depicts a bike on the left side a line down the middle and a person on the right. This indicates that the footpath is divided into a pedestrian and cycle lane. Pedestrians must stay within the allotted right hand space of the line.
It took me a few weeks to get used to devotedly walking to the right hand side of the footpath. Failing to observe the painted white line will ensue in a shrill ‘Dring dring!’ warning from an approaching bike. Even if you have checked before stepping into this holy area a bike will magically appear within seconds and angrily ding ding you out of the way.
It doesn’t stop there though, cyclists will assert their holier than thou mentality at pedestrian crossings and zebra crossings as well. Often when the green Ampelmann is flashing, a bicycle will come tearing towards the crowd splitting the foot traffic to zip through.
The snow exacerbates the situation because all the pedestrians are trying to walk along the footpath avoiding the worst affected slushy areas. So there is a well trodden track by mid day where the path is pretty clear of slush enough for the most timid of boots to tread along. But then you’ll get one of those cyclists either heading straight for you or impatiently dinging their little bell at you from behind when they clearly have the upper hand and are more easily able to manoeuvre through the deepest of puddles!
There are different levels of obnoxiousness and if you just happen to encounter the highest on this scale on a particularly bad day it can just about send you over the edge. According to law, on sidewalks where bicycles are specifically permitted, cyclists must exercise caution and adjust their speed for the pedestrians. But of course there are cyclists who fail to observe the ‘ride with caution’ neighbourhood footpaths and zip along at high speeds often clipping pedestrians on the shoulder or at least issuing a hell of a fright as their wheels zoom past.
The safety level is what astounds me. Most of these cyclists are riding around without helmets to begin with. Helmets are only recommended for cyclists but not required. Cyclists are required by law to wear a helmet in New Zealand and I frequently see police pulling over offending helmetless cyclists.
Even with the damningly high statistics of cyclist injuries on the roads, helmets are not enforced.
And the amount of parents I see riding along with their infants in a bike seat on the back also without a helmet makes me very nervous.
I’ve noticed this so much more since moving to Prenzlauerberg a very well known family neighbourhood of Berlin which seems to be full of cyclists and parents taxiing their young along the streets. The footpaths from my apartment to the tram are shared not divided so this adds to the fun of my mornings and evenings as I walk along on guard constantly for oncoming, dominant cyclists.
And you know those situations when you are walking along and there is another person walking towards you and you do the awkward little hesitant side stepping dance in front of each other? Well this often occurs with bicycles but at a far more concerning level as you have no idea which direction they will veer to on the shared footpath. When they are approaching at such intimidating speeds I often find myself just stopping where I am to avoid a collision.
You'll find yourself participating in this dance at some point, or receiving a blaring warning from a bike bell or colourful, verbal abuse or if you're unlucky enough you'll come into physical contact with a bicycle, I just hope it's nothing more serious than a clip on the shoulder.