Bicycle traffic: What bicycle decisions bring – car & mobile

If you want to understand why the expansion of bicycle traffic in some German cities is progressing rather slowly, you should stand with bicycle activists on Jena’s market square. It takes less than ten minutes for a man to approach the initiators of the Radentscheid in the university town in Thuringia and let off steam: he doesn’t want more, but fewer cyclists on the streets.

“They don’t obey any traffic rules,” he complains. And it also shows that there is sometimes great resistance to the expansion of cycling – not only in Jena, but elsewhere too. In Munich, for example, the automobile club “Mobil in Deutschland” went to the administrative court last year to prevent newly built cycle paths on major arterial roads such as Rosenheimer Strasse, Elisenstrasse and Theresienstrasse. The bike lanes would “force thousands of drivers into traffic jams,” argued Michael Haberland, the club’s president. The city, as the client, is thus violating the road traffic regulations. In late October 2021, the court dismissed the lawsuit. The bike lanes can remain.

About 50 bicycle initiatives nationwide

In 2019, bicycle activists started two so-called cycling decisions in the Bavarian state capital. They collected signatures in squares, at events and in front of supermarkets to promote an expansion of the bicycle infrastructure and the construction of an inner-city cycle ring around the historic old town. Around 80,000 signatures were collected for each decision, and after a short debate, the Munich city council decided by a large majority to accept the demands mentioned in the two wheel decisions.

It was and is similar in many other cities. According to a census by the Berlin association Changing Cities, such initiatives were running or are running in around 50 municipalities nationwide. At the first Radentscheid in Berlin in 2016, more than 100,000 people signed within three weeks. In many places, the pressure of citizens’ petitions led to cities committing to more and safer cycle paths and better financing. Also in Jena, where the city council accepted the demands of the Radentscheid in autumn. But the big question is: what happens next?

The political goal is actually clear: “Bicycles need more space in the cities,” says Verena Göppert, the deputy general manager of the German Association of Cities. If more people got on their bikes, this would improve the air quality and thus the quality of life in the communities. And it helps to achieve the climate goals. “The desire to divide public space in our cities differently is getting louder,” says Göppert.

Reallocation at the expense of car traffic

However, in the vast majority of cases, a reallocation of road space means that space is taken away from car traffic in particular – especially since many municipalities often want to expand their local transport offering with buses and trains in parallel with the promotion of cycling in order to make progress in climate protection. New bus lanes, additional stops, additional tram routes – in most cases, all of this also comes at the expense of car lanes or parking spaces. Driver representatives, such as Mobil-in-Deutschland boss Haberland, regularly criticize this. He repeatedly speaks of “ideological measures” and solutions that are neither reasonable nor fact-based.

Mobility researcher Anne Klein-Hitpass from the German Institute for Urban Studies in Berlin counters this: “Drivers have so far been the most privileged road users in terms of space. In this comparison, all other groups are lagging behind.” If you want to expand cycling but also local public transport, if you also want to create more space for pedestrians, designate additional play areas for children and set up quiet zones with green areas and benches, you can’t avoid taking space away from car traffic. But the mountain potential for conflict.

In Munich, several initiatives protested in spring 2021 for a redistribution of street space.

(Photo: Stephan Rumpf)

“Everyone easily dares to say: ‘I want more cycling,'” says the mobility researcher. “But if parking spaces are really taken away, there is resistance and suddenly the courage of those responsible dwindles.” Long planning processes and a lack of staff in the municipalities could also lead to the planned expansion of some cycling projects being delayed.

In Erlangen, for example, a local initiative said it handed over 5,300 signatures to the city council in spring 2021 – there, too, after negotiations with the mayor, the local parliament finally presented a “bicycle city future plan”. “This has given the promotion of cycling and the traffic turnaround a noticeable boost,” says Chloé Heusel from the Erlangen initiative. According to the initiative, the first bicycle streets have already been redesigned, and the city council also decided to invest more money in expanding the cycling infrastructure. And he decided to create six additional jobs in the city government. “It is important that the promised staff is now hired,” says the initiative – quickly and with priority. Pressure from the citizenry, Heusel and her fellow campaigners want to reorganize if necessary.

Rebecca Peters, the new federal chairwoman of the General German Bicycle Club (ADFC), is also building on the initiatives in the cities, districts and communities. There are plenty of political commitments to cycling, “but too many town halls and transport authorities still lack the courage to act boldly,” she says. It is important that committed and competent people work for more sustainability and quality of life. Peters says: “The turnaround in traffic needs even more pressure from the road.” Associations such as the ADFC, the ecologically oriented Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) and the pedestrian association FUSS are also pursuing corresponding approaches at the level of the federal states: In Hesse, for example, a collection of signatures for a state-wide traffic reversal law has been underway since autumn. In the end, the initiators want to launch a referendum on their draft law.

“An offer to the municipalities”

Ragnhild Sørensen from the Changing Cities association, who organized the Berlin Radentscheid and now acts as a kind of network for Radentscheid initiatives, sees it similarly. Almost all cities and municipalities have problems with too much car traffic. “A Radentscheid is an offer to the municipalities to tackle the problem proactively,” she says. However, many municipalities did not approach the problem courageously enough and shied away from the expected resistance. “The problem is not solved with a few newly painted wheel lanes.”

In Berlin, for example, the claims were accepted. In 2018, a new mobility law was passed, giving priority to walking, cycling and public transport. “The actual conversion of the city is, however, hesitant.” If you take the pace of 2020 as a benchmark, it would take 200 years for the Mobility Act to be implemented. In Munich, too, there was a dispute about the implementation. The representatives of the Radentscheid accused Mayor Dieter Reiter (SPD) of wanting to distance himself from the goals of the city council decision.

Traffic policy: With small fabric banners on the luggage rack, activists in Jena advertised the local cycling decision.

With small fabric banners on the luggage rack, activists in Jena advertised the cycling decision there.

(Photo: Bodo Schackow/dpa)

City day representative Göppert doesn’t want to let that stand: “The cities are already working hard and promoting safe cycling,” she asserts. They expanded cycle paths, preferred stop lines at traffic lights or defused dangerous spots at intersections. The expectations of the cyclists are high – but the planning and construction processes take time. Especially since there is a glaring lack of specialist staff in many municipalities. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, an advertising campaign was launched last year to get more young people interested in such jobs.

Mobility researcher Klein-Hitpass, however, advises a willingness to compromise – meaning both the administration and the citizens’ initiatives. A certain pragmatism on both sides can help, she says. “I believe that in ten years we can have bike-friendly cities.” This requires political courage in the municipalities, one or the other cycling decision on site and faster planning – “then it might even be more likely to succeed”.

With material from dpa.

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