Bristol vs Cologne – a quick personal view

(Sam shares some thoughts on a recent trip to Cologne.)

I went to Cologne last weekend. One of our sons and his partner (both artists) had decided to make a permanent move, away from the high costs of London. We hired a long wheelbase van for the job and it was just big enough to take two bikes, lots of boxes of stuff and some house plants.


The support network for artists in Cologne is strong. Friends there had already offered a temporary flat to stay in while work is done on the intended home and the friends were there to help unload the van. It was a very encouraging start to life in a new country. Cologne looked promising.



The bike shop that I glimpsed just round the round the corner had a startling range of things in the window. This was  a mostly residential street , not a city-centre shopping area at all. The snatched photograph shows only a third of the frontage.


In fact, as I hadn’t gone to Cologne for any sort of cycling adventure the most surprising thing about our overnight stay was to see how much the city has absorbed and welcomed cycling as a taken-for-granted part of daily life. Like Bristol it has lots of history, some narrow streets and enough affluence to support plenty of motor vehicles. But unlike Bristol it has gone much further with neighbourhood cells, 8-80 cycling and a normalisation of cycling. We saw a bit of Saturday and a bit of Sunday. It was weekend semi-suburban community life. It definitely wasn’t bustling city-centre weekdays and it was only in two neighbourhoods. But even so, the quantity and variety of cycling and cycle infrastructure that we saw outstripped Bristol by a significant order of magnitude.


Cologne is twice the size of Bristol and no doubt has it’s cycling desserts. The road in the above picture looks as though on a weekday it could be intimidating. The missing bicycles, of course, are on their own routes. They don’t need to compete. What follows are pictures of some of the other things I saw. I was surprised at every turn and I never needed to go far to see lots more.

I saw several nests of hire bikes without travelling out of the neighbourhoods I was in. It seemed as though they were usually in places where pay and display car parking was operating.


Driving the van on the wider roads across the city, I saw bikes (and other wheeled transport) being  given plenty of space and time to travel safely.


We visited the River Rhine on Sunday morning, along with hundreds of peple walking, running and cycling. It felt a bit like Bristol Harbourside but with more space.


I remember the evening meal on Saturday. We had been fed by a cheerful old Sicilian cobbler in his small café/restaurant. Behind the counter a large clockface had been scrawled around with greetings and images of bikes, as if bikes occupied some specially honoured place in the culture.


I spotted the next oddity the morning after the spaghetti. A street performer didn’t seem to have any connection with bikes at all. But it is significant I think that the safety that guaranteed passage for the cyclists in the shot also gave him an opportunity to earn a couple of euros from me for a pretty skillful display at a busy intersection. Town Planners and Highway Engineers can never be sure how their work will be appreciated.


The skateboarder in the next picture had just made friends with the bakfiets rider by helping out with a briefly unhappy cargo passenger. Notice a runner and two other bike types in the shot. All completely normal. Could this be Bristol soon?


Cycle parking was informal but omnipresent, with all kinds of stands, rails and racks, a dozen at a time taking up no more than the space of one or two cars. Notice a couple more over the road.


Children were a big part of the fun. Safety was clearly taken for granted. Adults were present. But not overbearing. Most had helmets, some not.



After a pretty exhausting return journey, back in Bristol at last, I asked my wife what her main impression of Cologne had been compared to Bristol. “It’s tidier” she said, profound and succinct as ever. She didn’t just mean that the streets were neat and tidy. There was a strong sense that things were in the right place. No entry signs were there to protect one end of all the neighbourly streets. The bike image with FREI written underneath allowed access for cyclists in either direction. Bicycle parking was near to where it was needed. Vans weren’t parked on pavements. If footpaths had bicycles on the people riding them were tiny tots and their parents. A tidier city indeed.

One other example of tidiness (and the cultural maturity that goes along with it) was in Martin Luther Platz. The books are free.


I realise that this has not been a systematic review of cycling infrastructure at all. It’s just a brief impression of a place that has stopped squabbling about itself and has made an effort to make the streets where people live into places where anyone and everyone can come and go as they please. Cycling is no big deal. It’s part of a way of life.