bike culture in van and ham

This morning I stopped by my neighbour’s – the dental clinic – to pick up a package they’d taken in for me on Tuesday while I was out. When I got to Wandsbeker Chausee station, the loudspeaker was broadcasting the disruption in train service at the moment due to a power failure between Hasselbrook and Hauptbahnhof. I was peeved that I’d be 15 minutes late for work (well, I say late but mean later, since there’s no set time when I have to be in the office), but took the time to eat the PBJ I’d made for breakfast :D Even with my turtle-slow eating speed I still had seven minutes to kill – then I remembered the package! It turned out to be a beautiful bike frame handle Karlie got me from walnutstudiolo. It’s so pretty I kinda worry it might get stolen, haha.

In the UK there’s a portal to meet and make cycle buddies. It sounds like a cross between a dating website and a carpool postings site. I love the idea!

Cycling in Vancouver is not something I’ve been doing for a long time, but I’ve had a small taste of it. For two summers I commuted nearly every day (Burnaby-North Van and North Van-Stanley Park). One evening I got stuck in Critical Mass on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. My sister Florence and I joined the Central Valley Greenway opening day party. One August we took our bikes on a camping weekend on Salt Spring Island. Some routes, like the Greenway, are a joy to cycle while others, like the Second Narrows Bridge (it’s seriously narrow – and I don’t mean the narrows!), make it quite clear that cyclists were not the first priority in the urban plan.

Hills are a natural challenge for cyclists in a city that sits at the foot of the mountains, so oftentimes the best – and fastest! – route is not the shortest line from A to B but rather the least steep line. There’s a great site that helps you plan routes based on criteria you set, including on elevation gain, maximum slope, traffic pollution, vegetation, and designated bike lanes. It’s really awesome and who knows, it’s probably an app by now.

In most North American cities cars are king, so cyclists have to be very careful, cautious and aware of their surroundings. There’s definitely safety in numbers – which is why Critical Mass was such an interesting experience – and I felt a sense of solidarity with other cyclists around the very high probability that we would get hit by a car. Was this solidarity a figment of my imagination? Could be. But when everyone’s got their own close-shave story it’s easy to bond around common gripes about unsafe and unfriendly roads and drivers – even more so after big media stories about cyclist fatalities that light the powderkeg of a BIKES VS CARS war.

Here in Hamburg the biking is way less intense, because/therefore the biking culture and the position of biking in society are different than in North America. To put it quite simply – and this applies to many European cities – motorists and the urban infrastructure are nicer to bikes. Motorists respect you and your right of way. Bike paths are numerous (in HH) and are on the sidewalk next to the pedestrian path. Amazing how being elevated by a mere two inches makes so much difference. Of course, a cyclist might plough into a pedestrian, but most people don’t cycle like maniacs and also, more importantly, the pedestrian’s life is not in danger. The damage a cyclist can do to a pedestrian doesn’t compare to that a motorist to a cyclist. Following pedestrian traffic lights also makes it WAY EASIER to make a left turn! Unless you’re in NYC, in which case you have ingenious bike boxes to help you with that.

Helmets are not required by law and very few people wear them. Cycling is a norm here in that lots of people do it and it’s seen as no big deal… at the end of a seminar session + potluck dinner at a prof’s flat this past February another professor, of slight build and probably approaching 60 years of age, hopped onto her bike and cycled away, snowy conditions and all. In Amsterdam nearly everyone cycles, regardless of age and sex, though my friend Emily tells me the small number of people who don’t are immigrants. There’s an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon for you.

Hamburg’s also flat as a blueberry pancake, but without the blueberries. So you can draw whatever causality links you want… I myself am not sure in which direction the causality runs. It’s always hard to tell when something as complex and undefined as ‘culture’ is involved. I see cycling in Vancouver as unavoidably political, whereas in Hamburg it’s a way to transport yourself around the city.

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