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Participants of the Critical Mass bicycle ride lift their bicycles above their heads following their ride across Budapest, Hungary
For cyclists, "critical mass" is importantImage: AP

Life in the Bike Lane

Trinity Hartman
May 30, 2008

Germany wants to double its bicycle traffic by 2012. While breaking Germany's car addiction has proved a major challenge, other European cities have shown it's possible to make the switch.


In most German city centers, biking beats out driving as the fastest way to get around. During the morning rush hour, it's not uncommon to see cars creeping forward while cyclists zip past.

The incentives for Germans to bike have never been better, with a medium-sized car sucking away at least 70 euros ($109) per tank of gasoline.

But as Germany's daily traffic jams show, biking has yet to reach the critical mass that it has in Amsterdam or Copenhagen where one out of every four trips (which includes not only cars, but also foot traffic and public transportation) is made by bike.

When compared with other European countries “Germany is really not that far along” in promoting cycling said Bettina Cibulski of the German Cycling Federation (ADFC).

Rubber meets the road

Cars wait in traffic in Dortmund
Rush hour in German cities requires patienceImage: AP

Germany's love affair with the automobile is usually blamed for its dearth of biking commuters. Yet there is a growing realization that Germany will need to promote biking, walking and public transportation if it hopes to meet its environmental goals of reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

A German Transport Ministry plan calls for bicycles to make up 20 percent of overall traffic by 2012, double the current rate.

While cycling advocates were skeptical that this goal will be met, the Federal Ministry of Transport is “quite confident that it will happen,” said spokeswoman Vera Moosmayer.

People bike through the snow in Freiburg
Freiburg ranks near the top for German biking citiesImage: AP

The Bike to Work campaign, which starts on Friday, May 30, is seen as crucial to reaching this goal. Last year, 20,000 companies took part, said Cibulski.

The three-year-old national campaign gives employees extra incentives to bike to work during Germany's nicest weather months, hoping to start a habit that will continue even when the rain hits, Cibulski said.

Say you want a revolution?

It's not only the climate change debate and rising gas prices that make Europe poised for a cycling revolution. Most European city dwellers already have lifestyles conducive to cycling, said Fabian Kuester of the Brussels-based European Cyclists' Federation (ECF), an advocacy group which promotes cycling across the continent.

Half of all trips Europeans make on a daily basis are under 5 kilometers (3 miles).

“That is the perfect cycling distance,” Kuester said.

Yet getting cities to change to accommodate bikes is often painfully slow.

People bike through vineyards
Biking for pleasure isn't the same as biking to workImage: Bilderbox

“It's difficult because you have to make choices,” Kuester said. “You have to reallocate space. You have to take space away from a car and give it to cyclists or pedestrians.”

And making a city bike-friendly goes far beyond adding bike lanes, said Ralph Herbertz, a biking enthusiast who pedals around the industrial German city of Cologne.

Bicyclists don't like to be constantly stopped by long red lights. They don't like to be shut out of one-way residential streets. They want parking that is both plentiful and secure. They need to be able to easily take a bike on a bus or a train.

Despite all these challenges, Herbertz -- a long-time ADFC member who works as a bike consultant for the city of Cologne -- said he's noticed many positive changes in recent years. The city, which is regarded as one of Germany's least bicycle-friendly, is riding a “new wave” of interest.

“That's what's really exciting,” Herbertz said.

European cities show off their bike sides

Women lock their bikes at the train station in Bruges
Finding a parking spot can be a challengeImage: Trinity Hartman

In Europe, Dutch and Danish cities are the gold standard for cycling. The first sight greeting visitors who step out of the main train station in Amsterdam is a multi-level parking garage exclusively for bicycles. And there are so many cyclists in Denmark that they have introduced bicycle "fast lanes" for two-wheeled speed demons.

Other European cities are beginning to follow the Dutch-Danish lead. Paris has impressed bicycle enthusiasts by offering bike sharing and making other improvements. London poured money into improving biking infrastructure and has seen a sharp increase in bike ridership. Belgium offers a small tax break for those who bike to work.

Sign with a car on top of a bike
What this sign means is anyone's guessImage: DW/M.Neliobin

There's even a glimmer of hope coming from Spain, which at 0.7 percent has the lowest percentage of trips by bicycle in Western Europe -- roughly on par with the United States. A recent program in the southern city of Seville has linked all parts of the city to the center and to train stations.

Yet for every success story, there are plenty of examples of business owners fighting to keep a street open to traffic or residents opposed to bike lanes that will take away street parking.

And the amount of money European governments invest in biking is very small. While no Europe-wide figures exist, bike investments are “peanuts” compared to what is invested in roads, ECF's Kuester said.

East Looks West

In recent years, bicycle advocates have turned their gaze eastward to the newer European Union countries. Countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are at a crossroads, said Raphael Calvelli, an Italian-based bike activist who helps coordinate MeetBike through the Technical University of Dresden. The meeting brings bicycling authorities together from across Europe to network and discuss the latest city planning ideas.

Berlin street at night
Berlin has gotten kudos for improving its bike routesImage: dpa Zentralbild

Some cities, such as Kielce in central Poland, have set up bike programs which look to Denmark as a role model. Warsaw, Budapest and Prague have hosted so-called critical mass events, where tens of thousands of bicycle enthusiasts have taken over the streets.

“It's good to feel that across Europe we can compare and we can see that we are facing the same problems," Calvelli said. "All cities have to work more together and to be more proactive,” he said.

According to Calvelli, biking has become an essential form of commuting that needs to be taken into account any time a new road is built, subdivision planned or bus line reconfigured. Making that happen will keep cycling advocates pedaling hard for the near future.

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