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Fearless cycling, full on renewables in Germany

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/30/11 @ 1:58pm

What makes a city sustainable? In the case of Dresden, the capital of Germany's Saxon state and the baby boom capital of Europe's economic powerhouse, it's much of the same story that can be found around the continent. The Neustadt (or "new") is a compact neighborhood connected to the Altstadt (old city) by numerous tram lines, big parks and smaller kinderspielplatz (playgrounds) wedged sometimes on a vacant lot between four-story pre and GDR-era walk-ups. Bridges connect the two sides of the Elbe River. It's urban and densely populated, but lots of little things make Dresden feel more livable.

For one, the city orients itself around its river. The riverbank is a wide flat expanse of green, and, with a paved trail that stretches from Berlin to Prague, attracts tourists and city dwellers alike. On the weekends, you'll see droves of cyclists and joggers.

We walked from our pension in outer Neustadt to the river trail (pictured) in five minutes. Within twenty minutes, we arrive at palaces set into the hillside with a cobble stone lane shaded by European Basswoods, elms, birches leading to cinder trails and ponds with ducks and swans and petit gardens. On the way back, we're rewarded with a sweeping view of the city (once we're past the ugly new concrete bridge that is causing some consternation since it will cost the city its UNESCO World Heritage designation).

We kick back with a half-liter of Radeberg, the local pilsner, at the Augustus bier garden just steps away from the river at the foot of the Albertbrucke Bridge, and admire the major sites that rise in Baroque splendor across the wide Elbe. Our eyes are drawn to the dome of the Fraunkirche one of the city's two most important churches, which lay in ruins from Allied bombs until it was reconstructed, stone-by-stone, in the 1990s. Not all of the buildings that were lovingly restored from ruin have been cleaned of the blackened char, making yellow and black dominant colors along with the grey-green of the cobblestone.

Biking and walking and the rhomboid-shaped yellow streetcar are the dominant forms of transport in the city center (although you see a hundred new models of sub-compact, many of familiar make, that you never see in the U.S.). In the Neustadt, bikes are encouraged to use sidewalks (the streets are very narrow), but you'll see curvy roadsters, parents with kids on handlebar-mounted seats, and hybrids fluidly moving between curb and lane on the back streets. In Germany, we're told by the locals, cyclists are encouraged to use bike paths on the sidewalks rather than the streets. The narrowness of the streets and a law that makes cyclists equally responsible in a crash are incentives for using the paths, but many A level cyclists still use the streets off the main drag.

When we take our leave of the city for the village of Radebeul we notice that the bike path system continues. Cycling is a way of life here ? young and old take a bike to the market but there is also an aggressive driving culture here. The two don't always make the best of friends. It opens up a debate about whether having two systems ? the bike path and on-road add to the safety overall of cyclists. The paths are colored red and continue right through curb cuts, but are cyclists any more visible to motorists here than in the States? The bike path disappears in the 8 km trip between Radebeul and the hilltop town of Meissen of the famous porcelain factory. The villages and winding narrow two-lane roads that hug the Elbe valley would be like biking in the Chagrin Valley but instead of spandex and $1,200 touring bikes you see old men in floppy tweed hats and leather boots pushing the pedals on beastly heavy looking cruisers.

Space within the plazas is more defined: Albertplatz, one of the main squares in Neustadt, is an example where Dresden sets up space depending on your mode. Design plays a role at intersections where you can see a crosswalk zone for pedestrian and one for cyclists. Not every one follows the rules, but you will see cyclists waiting by a special bike cross signal. Red cobble stone for peds and small grey cobble sidewalks around the plazas connect to the bike path and re-enforce the dual zone.

Today we arrive in Berlin, after a 6-hour drive on the autobahn from Bavaria. We drive through massive wind farms outside every major town-turbines in rows, rising like wheat fields on hills everywhere the eye looks, and, in the space between, acres of solar farms. The highway corridor is where the power lines run and thus the turbines tower over the highways.

I start to consider that five turbines in Lake Erie will power 5,000 homes-so how many thousand homes does each turbine and wind farm power here? How much more sense it makes when you're in a country where energy efficiency is serious policy? I observe from stays in hotels that triple-paned windows appear to be the code in Germany-every building has them. In Dresden, our guide Steffi points out a Passiv Haus reconstructed in the tight confines of an urban setting (pictured here-it has a 'graffiti wall' that encourages the spat of aerosal artists to pick up some chalk instead.

In Berlin, the off-road bike path system continues. The haphazard way that Berlin appears to be reconstructed post-war, in the area of our car rental return around the Tier Garden convinces me finally that the off-road system is best to encourage cycling from the quiet neighborhoods through the big, brutal city centers with many roads criss-crossing. That doesn't stop cyclists young old women and men from choosing to ride in the street, too. What a fearless place this is!

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