What can we learn from our German cousins?

It's always tempting to believe that they order these things much better in France, or Holland, or wherever. The other weekend I was over in Berlin, and admiring the way the cycling works. I did this on foot, I'm afraid, because it was snowing and I didn't fancy my chances of coping with compacted ice, unfamiliar traffic rules and trying to read a map while on two wheels.

The most striking thing about cycling in Berlin is that most of it happens on the pavement. Pavements generally have a cycle lane, marked out in reddish-brown paving-stones - far less obviously segregated than cycle paths in this country, but also used far more. Over here I'm against cycle paths, because they keep cars and cyclists apart while they're moving at speed, which is when there is least trouble anyway, and throw them in each other's way at junctions. In Berlin, though, they seem to work.

There are two reasons for this. The first is what you might call mechanical. At junctions, bikes have their own set of traffic lights, which change to green a second or two before the cars', giving that vital edge when it comes to getting across the junction; and German traffic regulations are strict about cars giving way to pedestrians and cyclists when turning. The second reason why it works is cultural. Other road-users are used to bikes and give them space, while the cyclists are less aggressively speed-orientated than our variety.

That is not to say things are perfect: I saw plenty of places where the road and pavement had been swept clean of snow, but the cycle path had been left alone. And Berlin's experience isn't easily transferable to our own urban environments: for one thing, it's a city of light traffic and wide boulevards. Still, it shows that in principle, cyclists and pedestrians can mix.

Contrast the attitude in this country, nicely exemplified in a House of Lords discussion about cyclists last month. This was prompted by Lord Quinton, who wanted to know whether the Government would take steps to ensure bicycle users abide by the Highway Code. Lord Quinton recounted how his wife had suffered a broken pelvis after being hit by a cyclist going the wrong way up Bond Street. He added the tale of an acquaintance "who, when a cyclist was going along the pavement, said to a nearby policeman, 'Oughtn't you to do something about that?' The policeman replied, 'The road is very crowded'. That seems to me to be turning a blind eye to serious offences."

To me it seems that the policeman's attitude was utterly sensible: breaking the rules and cycling dangerously aren't necessarily the same thing. The problem with the idiot who broke Lady Quinton's pelvis was not that he broke the rules, but that he wasn't showing proper courtesy and attention - if you're going the wrong way, you have to realise that other road-users aren't necessarily looking in your direction. If the pavement cyclist was behaving well, and the roads were dangerous, why would a policeman interfere?

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