Whoever has been stuck in traffic knows that cars costs time, nerves and money. Politicians now want to set up a bicycle highway in Germany to encourage more commuters to choose their bike over their car.
Bettina Cibulski cycles to work. Every single day. "Five kilometers - it's a simple ride, but I'd still take the bike even if it was a longer," she says. Cibulski is spokeswoman for the German national cycling club ADFC – but she is in a minority. Only one in ten Germans actually take the bike to work rather than a car or public transport.
But the ADFC is determined to change that. A new study commissioned by the German Transport Ministry found that if half of commutes under five kilometers were completed by bicycle instead of car, almost six million tons of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved every year - four percent of all the emissions caused by everyday traffic.
Two-lane bike highway
The survey also found that cyclists are often faster to work than motorists. While cars get stuck in traffic, bicycles can wind their way between the cars. Some cyclists, like Cibulski, are lucky enough to have a proper bicycle path for their commute. "Here in my town of Bremen, we have many people who take the bike to work, so politicians have responded by creating a good network of cycle paths," she said.
The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) now wants to go one step further and create bicycle highways to take pressure off the roads. Germany's first bike highway is to stretch a total of 85 kilometers right through the centers of cities including Duisburg, Essen, Bochum and Dortmund. Authorities also want to improve the network of cycle paths in other large cities like Cologne and Düsseldorf.
The NRW government, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, are also keen to encourage people to use their bike for longer distances. Cyclists are to have a two-lane highway with lanes four to five meters wide and few traffic lights. And there are also plans to install street lights, traffic signs and even service stations.
Two million commuters
The stretch between Duisburg and Essen is to be made from the tracks of a former railway, where the work is already under way. "Basically this is really great, because we have two million people in this region who could use the bike to get to work. This is a huge potential," says Cibulski.
Many people who aren't too keen on exhausting uphill rides are turning to bicycles with an electric engine. These so-called e-bikes are getting more and more popular in Germany. According to the ADFC, there are already some one million such bicycles in the country. "In the coming years, this number will go up threefold," Cibulski says confidently. "E-bikes are a good alternative if you want to be fast without working up a sweat."
Are e-bikes the future?
Traffic expert Michael Schreckenberg of Duisburg University is less enthusiastic about e-biking. "Those bicycles can go as fast as 40 to 45 kilometers per hour, which can be very dangerous."
Schreckenberg also points out that there have to be crossings where bike paths meet regular traffic. He argues that cyclists are often reckless in those situations - they ignore red lights, use their mobile phones and are allowed to drink more. And because of a lack of personnel, police hardly ever check cyclists, and cycling traffic violations have much milder consequences.
All this makes him skeptical about plans to encourage more people to cycle to work. "Cycling is also very dependant on the weather - in winter I can't just cycle with a suit through rain, snow and ice," says Schreckenberg.
Yet another path
Though German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, of the conservative Christian Democrats, says he is also determined to get more people on the bike, he wants to cut the federal budget for bike paths along country roads by half. The money for the bicycle highway through NRW is to come from the regional administration, which is why some local mayors are worried they'll have to foot too much of the bill.
Although the planning for the highways is already under way, authorities are still looking at whether the project is feasible. So politicians could still decide against it. And Schreckenberg believes that demographic development will take away the need for the bike highway: "The population is going down. Society is getting older - traffic will be on the decline anyway."
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