Walkable, Bikable Dresden

Dresden's efficient trams run all over the city.

Walk-ability, and ever more fashionable bike-ability are built into the streets of Lakewood, and something we rightfully celebrate in town. The oft-cited Walkscore.com website gives the entire city a ranking of 70, “Very Walkable,” with the note that “most errands can be accomplished on foot.” Even if the score is a little lower than that for people who live north of Clifton, or south of Athens, the entire city is quite good as far as US cities go. And if you live close to Detroit, of course your score is higher.

I'm writing this in Dresden, Germany. I was fortunate enough to be one of two Ohio artists this year to be selected for a swap between two old school print making shops—Zygote Press in Cleveland, and the Grafikwerkstatt in Dresden. I'm here for 5 weeks, carving wood blocks for a children's book, and working on a woodcut map.

Dresden, population about half a million, is in the former German Democratic Republic, the place we used to call East Germany. Having been a communist country from just after WWII until 1990, the place has gone through enormous change and renewal in the last 24 years. We're staying at a hotel in the Neustadt, or “New Town,” a neighborhood of narrow streets, some cobbled, all crowded with 200 year-old buildings. In what the people here call the GDR Time, this place was run down, abandoned in parts, a destination for squatters. Now it's packed with people and small business. There are lots of bars and restaurants, but there are also lots of bike shops, laundries, hair salons, nail salons, clothing stores, bakeries, groceries, banks, and everything else. In some ways this is a lot like Lakewood.

Of course Dresden is the big central city, and ten times the size of Lakewood. Cleveland is the better comparison in this sense. Dresden's population of 530,000 has a density of 4,200 per square mile. Cleveland's population of 396,000 is more dense, at 5,107 per square mile. Lakewood, with 52,000 people, has both beaten soundly on the density front, with 9,426 people per square mile. So when we talk about where you ought to be able to live your life without a car, Lakewood ought to be way out front. 

But walkable as Lakewood is, Dresden is in an entirely different league: Walkscore 93, “A Walker's Paradise. Daily errands do not require a car.” One difference is that a whole lot of the city has mixed use buildings. There are one, two, and even 5-family homes, but whole neighborhoods have storefronts on the first floor, and apartments up above, like the the building where the Root is, but all the way around the block, for many blocks. What Lakewood has of that is a huge advantage for efficient lifestyle. Dresden has even more.

But that kind of thing has more to do with heritage than any choice a city could make for its future. Once again, Dresden has made some conscious and very effective decisions to enable life without cars. They spend a lot of tax money to keep a municipal tram system running smoothly. The result is that every strata of society uses the streetcars all the time. Cars, trams, and bicycles mingle easily in the same roads, with some dedicated and some separate bike lanes here and there. The tram tracks are flush with the surface of the road, which means cars simply flow over them, behind, in front of, and next to the streetcars. Imagine if tram tracks ran down Lake, Clifton, Detroit, Madison and Athens, as well as down Riverside, perhaps Woodward, Lakeland, Warren, Bunts and West 117. It's more or less like that. Imagine bankers, lawyers, baristas, old ladies, students, and tourists sitting in clean, well lit comfort, riding on quiet machines reliably wherever they want to go. No car required. Digital signs at each stop read out which tram lines are on their way, and how many minutes until the next one arrives. And they are accurate. And the longest wait, all day long, is 10 minutes. Sure, this costs tax money. But for thousands of people –educated, well-employed people—that is balanced by saving the cost of owning a car.

Lakewood is a bikable place, too, and ever increasingly, the people seem to be taking advantage of that. The city has even painted some sharrows on the roads, and put up some signs and racks and in a couple of places, little maintenance centers with tools to encourage it.

But again, Dresden is in a different league. I'm riding around town on a full-suspension mountain bike, a German brand called the Checker Pig 6000. Not my style, really, but it works beautifully, outfitted with Shimano Deore, and the fat tires are great for the tram tracks and cobbles. Each day when I ride into the print shop, I'm one of thousands upon thousands of people, again from all walks of life, riding bikes all over town with ease –sometimes mingling with the cars and trams, sometimes following striped lanes, sometimes—when the road narrows—diverting for a stretch into their own lane on the sidewalk. Transitions like that are always handled gradually with a little ramp up or down the curb.

Cyclists obey the traffic lights here. A city official giving a tour told me, “If the light is green for you, you can count on it being safe. But if it is not green, you can just as well count on the fact that someone will run you over.”

I'm paying very close attention to those traffic signals.

At many intersections, in addition to lights that govern the whole of the intersection, traffic signals include specific ones for bikes. In some cases, the signal system gives bikes a little head start on the rest of the traffic when the light changes. That's not because bikes are preferred as some special interest group, but to help the whole system flow more smoothly. You know how in Lakewood, sometimes a cyclist who stopped at a light will start just before his light says it's his turn? That's so that he can get his balance, and be riding a straight and narrow line before the cars overtake him. Its safer. He gets out of the way. In Dresden, they've built that into the traffic lights. Someone thought about it, and they spent tax money to make it happen.

It's not all about spending money. It's also the will of the cyclists, and the behavior of the people.  Motorists give cyclists room. They wait without honking for the opportunity to pass. I ride to and from the Grafikwerkstatt every day, a distance of about 8 miles round trip. I haven't seen any car/bike confrontation, at least in the weeks I've been here.

As much as I love Lakewood's bikability and walkability, and as much as I appreciate how far we are ahead of most other US cities on this score, Dresden is showing me that we could do much better, much more.

Michael Gill

Michael Gill is a writer, editor, and wood block printer. He is also publisher of CAN Journal, the print and online magazine about art in Northeast Ohio.

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Volume 10, Issue 22, Posted 5:40 PM, 10.28.2014