It is striking how many modes of transportation one sees on the street in Koeln, or most German cities for that matter. Of course, there are the cars (more German and less Asian than we see in the States) and the public transportation (here we have buses, subway, tram, and rail). But what I find really intriguing are the many human powered conveyances.
There are a plethora of bikes, from what seem like dangerously low recumbents to almost comically tall lamplighters. There are cruisers and racing cycles, Amsterdam bikes and myriad just plain bikes. The normal bike here, a “city bike,” has a chain guard, fenders, and a carrier (often with a basket)—sehr practisch for everyday use. (And oddly difficult to get a bike so configured in a place like Nashville—I had to haul the one I use back as excess baggage a few years ago.) You see many more unicycles here, along with skateboards and two-wheeled scooters. And these are used by a wider demographic than we would find in Nashville—it is not uncommon to see men in their thirties on a skateboard or women of a certain age using a scooter. That always seems a little incongruous to me, but I do find the sheer range of transportation stimulating and provocative. Why shouldn’t I take a skateboard to run a short errand in the pedestrian zone?
It is not all rainbows and unicorns, as my friend Brent says, or, here, unicycles and hot air balloons. In fact, Koeln is not an especially bike-friendly city, at least compared to Hannover, where we lived before. It was quickly rebuilt after the war, with plenty of four and six lane roads criss crossing it; some have bike lanes and some do not; although I just live a couple of kilometers away, it is not easy for me to bike to the Hauptbahnhof.
Still, there are a number of clever public planning devices the Germans use that I wish we would have more. It is often the case, for example, that a street with one-way car traffic will allow have two-way bike traffic. This slows down cars, gives an advantage to bike commuters in terms of cutting route time, and is practical, recognizing bikers’ tendencies to stretch traffic rules (perhaps justified by a greater awareness of their surroundings and traffic). There are other devices to slow cars down, including bike stands in the street, pedestrian crossings, and subtle humps in the road. We have such techniques, of course, in the States, it just seems that we don't use them as generously.
If, for economic, health, and environmental reasons, a city decided it would be desirable to reduce traffic, such devices provide a gentle nudge to encourage alternative forms of transportation.