As a dedicated bike commuter, I was overjoyed when the weather became tolerable enough to get back in the saddle. However, I quickly realized I was mentally ill-prepared to take on Munich’s streets. Even having learned to maneuver the Calcutta-like masses of students on UW-Madison’s campus, I have never before experienced a magnitude of bike traffic like Munich’s.
On one hand, it is a beautiful thing that so many people get around by Radl (the Bavarian version of the German word for “bike”). Munich’s diversity of bike commuters is much richer than the mostly young and (0ften) liberal crowd typical of most American urban biking scenes. To add to the expected herds of university students and young professionals, the biking population also consists of business men and women in suits (and sometimes pumps, if the latter), elderly women with shopping bags, elderly men just putzing along, chic middle-aged ladies with designer bags, and kid-toting parents.
Of course, the magnitude of bike commuters is likely due to the fact that Germany, in general, is a much bike friendlier country than the US. Biking is so much more engrained in its culture and its infrastructure. For example, Munich has a remarkable network of bike paths and lanes (and many of the latter are placed on the sidewalks, rather than in the streets), which makes navigating the city much easier on bike than by car. I have also found drivers to be much more mindful of cyclists than in the States; in other words, they actually look for cyclists before making a turn.
On the other hand, the popularity of biking creates a hazard of its own: more cyclists.
Having never before shared the road with so many bikers, I was a nervous wreck during my first couple of weeks in the saddle, as I acclimated to the ways of the road. I was that annoying slow biker that swerved or stopped at any sign of confusion. I felt like a skiddish horse every time a biker would narrowly whiz past me in the bike lane, sometimes so close I was surprised I wasn’t knocked over.
A lesson I recently learned is to avoid Munich’s bike paths on Sundays, especially warm and sunny Sundays. The paths are swarming with cyclists: from your super-sporty, why-the-heck-is-he-going-that-fast road biker to the wobbly child who leaves you guessing which way he is going to weave as you attempt to pass him.
Biking is especially tricky in the pedestrian and tourist-heavy parts of town. In these places, you have to add clueless tourists unfamiliar with Munich street etiquette to your already busy radar.
I have found Marienplatz (Munich’s pedestrian mecca) to be the worst. Beware the tourist who steps into the middle of the street looking only through his camera’s viewfinder, or the one standing in the middle of the bike lane totally unaware of the oncoming cyclists frantically ringing their bells at her! Even though biking through Marienplatz is my most direct work-to-home route, I have resorted to riding home the long way, just to avoid its mayhem.
Thus, in order to survive as a bike commuter in Munich, I am learning to become a more assertive cyclist. I can’t falter when I see that car about to turn at the intersection I am about to cross–more often than not, the driver knows I am there. I can’t panic when approaching an area congested with pedestrians and other cyclists–I have to weave my way around with confidence. I can’t startle when someone passes me too closely for comfort–I have to stay cool and move over. And I can’t get nervous when I want to pass the slow biker I’ve started tailgating–I have take a deep breath, ring my bell and hope for the best.