I’m reading the book Rowed Trip by a couple that rowed and biked from Scotland to Syria in 2008. When they were biking they towed their custom rowboats behind their bikes, and when they rowed they stowed their folding bikes in the hold of their boats. Cool.
I was particularly interested in how the biking situation is in Europe. I have this idea that the Europeans are way advanced in that department. Certainly their biking experiences in remote areas sounded nice. They described single-lane roads which they had pretty much to themselves, seeing only a few cars per day. But other areas sounded nasty. They described narrow roads which pimply teenagers used as race tracks. However, when they reached Germany they wax poetic:
…my spirits were buoyed by…the fabulous condition of the bike path. Even though it was wide enough for a car and paved, it was strictly for non-motorized travel. Regular signs marked distances to upcoming communities, while fruit trees and park benches appeared with regularity. I was happy to see the path was amply used by dog walkers, stroller-pushing mothers and touring cyclists, almost all of whom seemed intrigued by our road boats.
Cycling is big business in Germany. Every year millions of touring cyclists pedal along the nation’s 50,000 kilometres of bike paths. Not only is cycling an excellent way to discover a country, encouraging you to experience hidden gems away from typical tourist itineraries and to eat hearty meals with complete justification, it fosters a host of mom-and-pop businesses catering to the visiting pedaller. Small villages that would be overlooked by tour buses have bustling cafés, bicycle shops and accommodation geared to passing cyclists. The bed and breakfasts are wholesome and inviting, the kind of place where the hosts would yell at you in contented bliss and topple oversized swaths of fresh bread and farm cheese onto your breakfast plate. The pleasure of lengthy cycling trips on roads exclusively for human-power traffic is a foreign concept for Canadians. While we have the gorgeous scenery, long-distance cycle-touring in Canada involves sharing the roads with cars and trucks. The noise, fumes, and danger detract from the trip, and our experience in Germany made me realize what we’re missing. On bike trails, you can let your imagination wander without worrying about straying into the path of a semi, the birdsong comes through undiluted, and it is easy to chat idly as you pedal side by side.
When I praised the quality of the German cycling paths, our host related the origins of their cycling movement. In the 1970s, a group of students spearheaded a drive that ultimately led to a pace of bike-path construction exceeding that of roads. Since 1976, the total length of cycle routes in Germany had quadrupled from 12,911 kilometres to by some estimates about 50,000.
Canada has a few quality bicycle paths, but they are not interconnected, and for most randomly chosen A-to-B trips, a cyclist is forced to follow busy roads. Whereas in Germany, a pleasant bicycle path can be found connecting most towns. In 2007 Colin and I cycled in the Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island, a world-class tourist destination, and we encountered some or our most dangerous cycling conditions ever. We’ve cycled through Third World countries with a better shoulder for cyclists than those found around Long Beach. When we queried the park officials, they insisted the environment couldn’t take the extra burden of a track catering to fossil-fuel-free vehicles. The highway and numerous vehicular parking lots are the limit of what the park can handle. The Canadian government could learn a lot from the Germans.
Germany’s abundance of cycling paths is a case of “if you build it they will come”. In Münster, Germany’s most cycling-friendly city, bicycles are used for one in four trips. By comparison in Canada’s most pedalled city, Victoria, B.C., only one in twenty trips are made by bicycle. On average, 10 percent of trips in Germany are pedal-powered, which is five times higher in Canada and ten times higher than the United States or the United Kingdom.
I wasn’t surprised to find that more people cycle here as to discover it hadn’t always been that way. The advent of the automobile led to a precipitous decline in cycling in Europe, which would have undoubtedly continued if it hadn’t been for concerted efforts. In the 1950s, cycling in England was more popular than it was in Germany, as the Germans fully embraced the automobile industry, building world-class autobahns and mass-producing cars. Interestingly, grassroots efforts in Germany began breathing life back into cycling as an alternative, while Britain continued catering almost exclusively to the car. It’s hard to say what cultural forces spawned such differences, but these two European nations, both with strong economies, now have distinctly different cycling habits. The Brits are tied with Americans in their rejection of the bicycle, while Germany is a world leader.
The thing is, people don’t want to ride their bikes if it elevates their chances of dying or being maimed, and that is a real likelihood in the U.K., U.S., and Canada. If you ride your bike in the States, you are seven times more likely to be injured and 2.5 times more likely to die than if you ride in Germany—a factoid that may help explain why in America 75 percent of cyclists are male, while in Germany and the Netherlands, the number of women on bikes is equal to our surpasses that of their mail counterparts.
We were usually the only foreigners on the bike paths and felt as though we had discovered a national secret.
In my estimation Colin and Julie Angus, the authors, are nothing less than heroic. We saw them speak at the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. last November. The Society had awarded them Adventurers of the Year for 2006. They are professional adventurers who don’t hesitate to row across the Atlantic or do other such impossible-sounding feats. Colin and Julie are leading the way for the rest of us who embrace human-powered transportation. I hope that some day people will react to seeing a bike towing a rowboat not with an incredulous snort but with a yawn while they mutter “there goes another couple biking and rowing across Europe”.