Extra mile: Germany may create bicycle highways to promote long-distance cycling

Car sales are booming; but with increased cycling activity, Germany is planning more bicycle highways

Prathap Nair May 21, 2016 11:19:00 IST
Extra mile: Germany may create bicycle highways to promote long-distance cycling

On 30 May, cycling enthusiasts in Berlin will gather to discuss the possibilities of constructing bicycle highways across Germany. This meeting, titled Parliamentary evening, will be attended by noted parliamentarians and state secretaries, responsible for urban development and infrastructure.

Years after its neighbours Denmark and Netherlands successfully launched bicycle superhighways to promote long distance bicycle travel, Germany is taking baby steps to improve its bicycle infrastructure. The country opened the first 5 km of its planned 62-mile biking highway — Radschnellwege — from Hamm to Duisburg called RS1 in November 2015. This emphasizes Germany’s push towards green transport policies while signalling that the country has started viewing bicycles as a mode of mass transit.

Entirely different from the narrow strips of cycling paths in Germany's major cities, these highways are thirteen feet wide and allow free movement of cyclists without hindrance posed by vehicular traffic. They will eventually feature free charging stations for e-bikes and other infrastructure like pumping stations required for cyclists to commute long distance.

Extra mile Germany may create bicycle highways to promote longdistance cycling

Major German cities, like Berlin, have seen increased cycling activity in the past few years. Pictured here bicycles parked in the potsdamer platz area in Berlin.

Speaking to the German newspaper Die Welt, Michael Groschek the transport minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the province that started the first bicycle highways, said that the Radschnellwege will play an important role in framing transport policies. He emphasized the need to “detoxify the cities” and pointed out that metropolises like London are investing heavily in cycle paths. London is planning to open its new East-West Cycle Superhighway in autumn this year connecting central London from Tower Hill to Lancaster Gate.

NRW is ahead of other German states in Radschnellwege with several projects expected to be finished in the next 5 to 10 years. Munich is planning 14 such highways. Other German cities such as Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Nuremberg are also proposing a network of dedicated infrastructure for cyclists. A movement is underway to gather public support by bicycling enthusiasts in Berlin to create a network of at least 62 miles of cycling highways to connect the city center to its periphery.

Increasing cycling activity

Bicycle usage and activity have exponentially increased in German cities in the past few years. Over and above the traditional bicycles, there is a 37 percent growth of e-bike production in Germany last year with e-bikes enjoying 12.5 percent of the total bike sales.

However, can projects like Radschnellwege prove effective in taking cars off German roads and fuel further interest in cycling? A recent study optimistically estimated that the RS1 “will reduce car rides by 54.000 every day and CO2-pollution by 17.000 tons every year.”

“This is a very noticeable effect,” says René Filippek, editor at the “Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club ADFC” (German Cyclist’s Association). ADFC works with federal and state governments in Germany to improve infrastructure for cyclists. “Different studies also show that people would cycle more if there were good cycling infrastructure. Since 50 percent of every car ride in cities is shorter than 5 km, there is a huge potential to increase bicycle use,” she adds.

Extra mile Germany may create bicycle highways to promote longdistance cycling

Though a narrow strip of cycle routes exist alongside major roads in Germany, bicycle highways, if realized, will be dedicated to the exclusive use of long distance bikers.

How can it be achieved? Christian Schwägerl, environmental journalist and author of several books, including his latest The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet, suggests a comprehensive strategy. “I don't think it will work to just force people out of their cars and onto bicycles, for example, by banning cars on certain days,” says Schwägerl.

According to him, a better strategy would be to develop a comprehensive strategy combining cycling, public transport and e-mobility. “By creating a network of these elements and enabling flexibility (like riding a rented bike to the station, making a long-haul train trip, then changing to rental e-car for the last 15 kilometers into a rural area), people might start to prefer these alternatives than driving the whole way,” he adds.

Call for better cycling infrastructure

All said and done, nothing motivates people to ride bikes than better cycling infrastructure that is both safe and viable. “A lot of bike paths that were installed during the last 40 years are in fact dangerous, because they hide cyclists from motorists and increase the chance of accidents,” says Filippek. There have been 12 deaths resulting from bicycle accidents in Berlin alone, according to official statistics in the past year.

“It’s usually safer to ride on the same lane as motorists, but most people don’t like it, because it doesn’t feel safe. The Netherlands and Denmark are good examples on how to install safe cycling routes. Lowering traffic speed will do its part to increase safety, too. So it’s not only the lack of infrastructure; it’s the whole traffic system that is geared to motorised traffic that becomes dangerous for cyclists if nothing is changed,” adds Filippek.

“In my view, Berlin has become much more bicycle friendly than it used to be, especially since one can take bikes into the S-Bahn, U-Bahn and into trams for a little over 10 Euro per month,” says Katharina Ochse, an erstwhile journalist with Deutsche Welle.

Extra mile Germany may create bicycle highways to promote longdistance cycling

A signature campaign is underway in Berlin to collect 20,000 signatures to construct bicycle highways connecting Berlin and to improve cycling routes.

While the debate on safety on the city roads in Germany is on, fears of safety on cycle highways could be easily addressed. These highways are exclusively reserved for bicycle transport and provide long-distance routes with “zero car encounters and zero traffic lights.” Schwägerl thinks that by offering services like e-charging stations, for those who want to take an electric bike into work, and public showers along the highways for those who want to arrive in the office refreshed, the cycle highways can be made popular.

Cars sales in Germany booming

The car sales in Germany are, however, disproving the notion that Germans are well informed about the effects of climate change or are jumping on their saddles to get to work. 2015 saw an increase of 5.4 percent in new vehicle registrations, thereby indicating a surge in car sales, in the country. Last year was also the best in terms of car sales since 2009. “It is really bizarre because people do know about the dangers of climate change,” says Schwägerl adding that this upward trend proves that German transport policies haven’t been effective to bring about a change in car-centrism on its roads.

With a very strong car lobby and lack of federal government funding, financing for these highways could be very difficult to accomplish. Owing to these factors, the realisation of Radschnellwege projects, “depends on the collaboration between the state and the cities,” according to Filippek.

“But still it is important to showcase the benefits of increase in cycling activity to health and environment. For the individual, this saves a lot of money and makes the Radschnellwege very efficient projects,” she continues.

“If only 10 percent of transport investments went into creating modern inner- and inter-city cycling highways, I think that a lot of people will start thinking why they should burn money being stuck in traffic while they could burn calories while riding a bike,” says Schwägerl.

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