Germany has 83 million inhabitants and around 79 million bicycles. Half of all car journeys are less than five kilometers. A quarter of the journeys are also shorter than two kilometers. If you put this information together, one thing is actually obvious: if you want to protect the climate, you should pedal more.
In other countries, the bicycle was already used decades ago. Take the Netherlands for example: here the basic idea worked that if an attractive cycling infrastructure is offered, people are willing to get in the saddle. The Dutch have been pedaling fast, safe and comfortable for a long time on cycle freeways (sometimes even heated and covered). In Germany, politicians now also want to direct traffic more towards bicycles. Various express cycle paths have been planned for a long time, but construction is far from fast.
Since 2010 there has been the idea in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) to build a cycle expressway (RS1) of more than 115 kilometers through the Ruhr area from Duisburg to Hamm. Of these, only 15 kilometers have been completed to date, in small sections. A small but bitter consolation for NRW: things aren’t going any faster in the other federal states either. Six years ago, the people of Munich were promised a cycle freeway, of which nothing would be seen until the turn of the year.
Many more people could switch from cars to bicycles
The potential is great. In the Danish capital Copenhagen, cyclists account for half of all traffic. In the Netherlands, where there are more than 400km of high-speed cycle paths, a good quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with just ten per cent in Germany.
In 2014, the Regionalverband Ruhr, which will contribute to the implementation of the Radschnellweg in NRW, announced that the RS1 could save up to 400,000 kilometers by car and 16,600 tons of CO2 per year. Because in NRW, half of all commuters are less than ten kilometers long and are therefore potentially suitable for cycling.
In reality, the RS1 should have been completed by 2020. But it is still a long way from that. This is partly due to the fact that cycle freeways are special routes, in NRW they should be four meters wide and have a smooth asphalt surface that is cleared in winter. They should be illuminated and have rest and repair stations at regular intervals.
“This means that when building cycle highways, you have to put a lot of effort into technical planning,” explains Stefan Kuczera of the Ruhr Regional Association. Planning is complex, the path must be coordinated with a number of specialized authorities, environmental, monumental and water protection regulations must be taken into consideration, the public must be integrated into the process and sufficient specialized personnel are needed to address the cycling infrastructure.
In competition for space, the bicycle often gets the short end of the stick
Besides the lengthy bureaucratic processes, another big problem is that cycle highways are supposed to lead through densely built-up cities. “We do not design and build on a green field, but in the densely built-up area of the Ruhr. Sometimes creative solutions are needed when space is tight,” says Petra Beckefeld, director of the state office. Kuzera explains that such a cycle path cannot be easily implemented in existing road spaces if it is not to drastically take up space from car traffic.
The conversion of roads into cycle paths is met with opposition from many in the city. It takes political courage to stand up against motorists. In Copenhagen you have it. Every year since the 1970s, the city of Copenhagen has reduced the parking space for cars by 3%, thus making room for bicycle traffic.
Bicycles have right of way in Copenhagen
Pop-up cycle paths as the first step to get away from the car
The pandemic has shown that even in Germany a reallocation of roads to cycle paths is possible quickly and is also positively accepted by people. Pushed by Corona, many cities around the world have opened new horizons or created new cycle paths. First of all the Colombian capital Bogotá. To this end, provisional cycle paths, so-called pop-ups, have been set up on the streets. Other cities such as London, Paris, Vienna, Brussels, New York, Vancouver, Mexico City and Budapest have also followed this example.
In Germany, Berlin was the first city to convert car lanes into cycle lanes during the lockdown. Other German cities followed suit. Some of these pop-up bike lanes have now become permanent.
Compromise first, then a better permanent solution – given the many obstacles, this could also be the motto of the RS1, says Kuczera. “It might make sense not to start with the perfect bike path, but to build the bike infrastructure first using guerilla tactics,” he suggests. “This is what we have done with road traffic. And over time, roads will become large and efficient on their own, as the need for expansion increases as traffic volume increases. And why should it be any different with cycle paths? “
Luxury for cyclists in Holland: Hovenring, a kind of circular bridge for bicycles
At the moment, however, the route on some sections of the planned RS1 is still very rudimentary or not at all developed. Then gravel or wasteland partly follows an asphalted path. But at least – there are sections. The other six fast cycle routes that will someday be built in NRW haven’t gotten much past the planning stage for years.
“This is a mammoth project and has a model character throughout Germany: the Radschnellweg Ruhr (RS1),” says the website Strassen.NRW. If this model continues, the government will find it difficult to achieve its goal of making Germany a cycling country by 2030. “As of today, we are still light years away from Germany as a cycling country,” complains Rebecca Peters, national vice president of the General German Bicycle Club (ADFC). “The expansion of cycle paths and cycle freeways is making little progress. And the share of cycle traffic has increased only minimally in ten years.”