I spent the last two months in Europe — mostly in Berlin, Germany. While I was there, I had the opportunity to use a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation, and it was a great experience. I looked forward to biking because every trip was a revelation: about urban design, road planning, and building on a human scale.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to bike from my home north of Annapolis, Maryland into the city. This is a trip I’ve made on previous occasions and I’d found it underwhelming for a variety of reasons. But with an extensive (and positive) biking experience under my belt in the last few weeks, I’m now able to articulate the reasons why the experience of biking is so much different between the US and Europe.

First let me briefly describe my biking experiences in Europe. Besides incidental daily biking to execute routine tasks, in one two day period I biked from Berlin’s center (Mitte district) to Potsdam and back. Potsdam, as you may know, is a city roughly 27km to the west of Berlin. The following day I biked extensively around Berlin’s northeastern suburbs (Weißensee, Pankow, Schloss Schönhauser). Here’s where I went:

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August 30, 2008

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August 31, 2008

This turns out to be well over 50 miles (80km) and a really significant trip by most non-athletes’ standards. I am a healthy person, but like many Americans (and people in their 30’s), I am carrying around a few more pounds than I’d like. Regardless, I found these two days of bicycling (and the subsequent time I spent doing much shorter daily trips) to be relatively easy, enjoyable, and for the most part, effortless fun.

And I did it on a 3-speed beach cruiser.

To be fair, some of this is because Berlin is mercifully flat; its geological history left it scrubbed flat and sandy by glaciers long before the first urban planners showed up, and certainly before World War II decimated the city, leaving it open to reinterpretation by modern eyes. However, the experience of urban biking in Berlin is entirely pleasant — even on some of the city’s busiest, high-traffic streets llike Kufurstendamm and Unter den Linden — because care has been taken with urban design to incorporate bicycles into the city’s rich and multihued transportation fabric.

Every time the “bicycling context” changed (for example, when road conditions dictate a switch from cycling in traffic to cycling in a road-based dedicated lane, to cycling on a sidewalk-based dedicated bike lane), the signage was very clear. When you are in traffic, cars accept your presence; some bike lanes are shared lanes with buses.

Deadly potholes are nearly nonexistent. Sidewalks almost all have ramps to the road surface, and are wide, with easy access to shops and services. Bike racks abound, and locking bikes to signs and fences is commonplace and accepted practice. Bicyclists can easily obey traffic rules by either a) following the signals that apply to car traffic, or b) using dedicated signals that apply only to bicycle traffic, which are typically installed where car traffic signals don’t make sense for cyclists.

Dedicated directional signage for bicyclists is everywhere; you can follow your way into Mitte from anywhere around Berlin by following route signs placed just for bicycles.

In short, the cycling experience or UX (as we tech design geeks might call it) has been considered. You get the feeling that every mile of road in Berlin was traveled on bike by a qualified urban planner who took notes and then went back and obtained budget to make all infrastructure improvements necessary to support a pleasant and well-reasoned bicycling experience. Incremental improvements were then made over the years, evolving into what is today an entirely civilized mode of transportation used by professionals, students, children, and senior citizens to execute the very human business of their daily lives.

Let me tell you about my short trip to Annapolis with my wife.

I live near a McDonald’s. On the way out we stopped by for a cup of coffee. No bike rack at all. Competing with cars in a hot, blacktopped parking lot. Dash in and dash out for your life.

Back out to the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail, a hiking-biking path that connects (in the loosest possible terms) the two cities. It’s pretty — an old tree-lined railroad right of way, now paved. It’s a straight-shot downgrade run to the end of the trail, where it must now join with a highway in order to cross the Severn River into Annapolis (the associated railroad bridge was taken out of service in roughly 1950).

Once you’re off the B&A Trail, you’re on your own. Steep hills (unlike those on the trail, which had to accomodate rail locomotives) and traffic accompany you as you make your way across the hot pavement downhill to the river. As you zoom down to the Rt more. 450 Severn River Bridge, it rises before you like the great pyramids or a mirage in a hot concrete desert. Your speed — 25mph, 20, 16, 10, 7, 6 — slowly drops as you struggle to find the right gear that will keep you from being toppled over and blown into the slipstream of constant SUV’s careening over the bridge 20 miles above the 40mph speed limit.

The hot sun beats down and radiates off the concrete, and while you might try to steal a glimpse of the “scenic” Severn River splayed out alongside you on both sides, you’d best worry about your survival. You begin to think you will soon reach the peak of the 80ft tall bridge, and when you do, you realize that you’re exhausted from the climb, even in the lowest gear. You push ahead and let your stored energy zip you down the far side of the bridge, hurtling towards the US Naval Academy at speeds that seem unjustified.

But you quickly lose the 25mph you’ve built up and face yet another daunting hill up from the bridge, only now with no “bike lane” (which seems to be what they had been calling the shoulder along this stretch). You earnestly try to fit in with car traffic, after all of this exertion and changing speeds. Yeah, now you’re pretending to be a car with all the rules of the road that apply to them. No warning, no transition, no refuge.

We wanted to turn left down King George Street, past St. John’s College, and go grab a sandwich for lunch. So, we did our best to fit in with the car traffic and waited in the left turn lane, trying mightily to look impressive to the SUVs and trucks that surrounded us.

We made it down there and had lunch, then headed back, which is essentially the same experience, only somewhat more tiresome because the overall grade from Annapolis back north is uphill. After the bridge, my bike chain slipped off and had to be reset. The only comment on my mind by this time was a subtly nuanced, “this sucks,” and we headed back home, rather demoralized and feeling glad to be alive in the same way that prey must feel when they narrowly escape the jaws of a predator.

Bear in mind this trip to Annapolis and back was a total of 10 miles (16km); nothing compared to the runs I made in Berlin, but considerably more taxing emotionally and physically.

We Americans are too fat, and the best solution we seem to be able to come up with is to drive our SUVs to the gym, where we pay money year after year (a permanent health tax) to work out on idiotic machines and burn off the calories that industrial food production insists we consume. And this is exactly how America’s corporations want you. They create your problems, and then you pay them to try to solve them.

If we could simply incorporate human-powered transportation into our daily lives, we would feel better, live longer, and dramatically cut back on fuel dependence and on carbon output. For this to be possible, we have a tremendous amount of work to do not just in planning better bike routes, but in unraveling 75 years worth of toxic urban-suburban design and road building.

Don’t even get me started on what it’s like to try to bicycle in a city like Baltimore, where road surfaces, curbs, and lane markings seem to have last been considered in roughly 1953.

So. Bicycling is for bicyclists. It’s not supposed to be about anything. It’s not supposed to have a purpose. You’re just supposed to ride around in circles, or back and forth, on what my late father-in-law called the “Goddamn linear squirrel cage” of the B&A trail. Why? Because that’s what you do to exercise. Fair enough.

But, what if we could actually use it for something practical, rather than just as a drug delivery device for the endorphin-addicted madmen who careen along our highways, high as kites, helmeted and hunched in sweaty spandex, ignoring the world around them while they try to beat their last best time? Again, nothing against them — it’s a free country — but these cyclists bear little in common with most people who might want to use a bike for their everyday lives.

Another way to look at it: when I bike around central Berlin, there’s lots of stuff to look at (including a good assortment of cute girls in heels, many on bikes), many possibilities for places to stop off and get something to drink (coffee, beer, water, depending on time of day), and it’s flat and accessible. The experience here is quite different. Everything is a trek: a trial of man vs. car vs. pavement, a contest of wit and will between competing modes of transport, with little to soften the journey or add interest.

We have a lot to learn from the rest of the world with respect to our relationship with our own landscape, and we could start by making bicycling a more usable, more human experience for average people.